My office in the New York Times

I think I told you that I work at one of the greatest, most happening offices you could imagine, we are the people who don’t hate Mondays. Because we all own ourselves. And most of us own our own companies. Here is how it looks and how it fits into the budding entreprenneurial scene of DC.

Make yes easy!

A colleague asked me: “If you were the corporate responsibility person in a large company, what would you do so that the CEO understands the complex issues around child labor, international trade, environmental responsiblity etc.?” He was looking for some great presentation tools… but I don’t think that’s the answer. Or, more correctly, I don’t think it’s the question. I think the question is: “How can you help the CEO decide that yes is the best answer?” The CEO does not have to understand the complexities of your job. He or she does not have to even share your values with regards to these issues. You have to understand the CEO (not the other way round): What are his/her values, priorities, work styles, what are the things that make it easy to say yes?

The issue is along the same lines of: Do I want that my husband does the dishes? Or do I want that he loves doing the dishes for me? You get more satisfaction (and more clean dishes) if your measure of success is clean dishes. Or a “yes” from your CEO. Instead of trying to change who they are and how they work.

A simmilar story was on my desk last week, when a collaborator in a developing country complained about the media. They did not take the really imporant issue we were working about seriously, because it was a long term, no drama issue, there was little media coverage because the media just didn’t live up to their moral responsiblity of doing something about it. They only wanted to run stories that sold them a lot of papers… So the recommendation was to convince them and try to make them commit to the important issue. How about undestanding how the media works and trying to develop strategies that play with it: Get a celebrity advocate, create drama and events, tell heartbreaking stories of individuals, make it easy for media to say: “Yes, this story could sell.”

Moving from frustration to empowerment

Colleagues of mine use Net-Map to interview unemployed men and better understand their (more or less successful) job hunting strategies. They told me about very mixed experiences with the pre-testing: Some interview partners found the interview helpful and said they learned a lot while others found it made them feel even more power-less and desparate as they layed out their whole sad situation and talked about it in depth with the interview partner.

This is an important observation and something that I have struggled with a number of times: Net-Map interviews can go pretty deep and depending on the situation, talking about who has how much influence can leave people feel disempowered. Especially if it is an interview about your own life (as opposed to “How does policy making work in this country”), it is tough if you end up drawing a picture that shows you feel like you are not in control of your own fate.

My recommendation to my colleagues: Don’t end the interview just there, after drawing the current situation. But add a next step (whether you will use this as data or not), where you ask: “What are things you could do in the future to improve this situation?” Draw links where appropriate and write next to each future link, what it stands for (e.g. “talk about job search” or “send Christmas card” or whatever else it is). If your interview partner comes up with things that they want to do which don’t translate into links (e.g. “Get outfit for interviews” or “look for jobs in other cities/fields”), make a list of these things in a corner of the Net-Map. Putting these next steps on paper makes them more tangible and it is empowering to have concrete things to do as an outcome – instead of just having a snap-shot of your dire situation.

If at all feasible, give the Net-Map back to your interview partner after entering the data, so that they can use it as a network to do list.

How can your business grow without loosing that great start-up energy?

That’s a question I Net-Mapped with a friend yesterday, whose consultancy business grew from 3 to 25 people in the last 5 years (congrats!). He still remembers how it felt in the beginning when there was that strong shared feeling of “We’re in this together!”, “We will succeed against all odds!” and “We will give our whole hearts to get there.” He was able to maintain a lot of this spirit over the years and keep this feeling of community or even family alive… But… what was a spontaneous feeling that just reproduced itself because of the situation they were in, more and more turns into a company spirit that needs to be nurtured and created and he spends a lot of time being the company gardener, interacting with everyone to get a feeling for what’s happening, if they are still on board, how he can help them maintain the spirit.

He feels that it is worth it because his staff are exceptionally motivated and loyal in a fast moving field and he enjoys knowing what’s going one and nurturing his staff not only in strictly work-task oriented ways (e.g. looking at long term development). But what’s going to happen if he keeps being successful? How is he going to expand this management style to a staff of 50, 100 or 200?

When we drew his Net-Map we saw that they had done a rather good job at distributing the authority over project reporting. So this formal management workload was shared by a number of people, a model that would grow (either add more levels or more sub-units on the same level) as the organization grows. But the gardening or mentoring links were mainly a hub and spokes network, my friend being the hub and everyone, down to the maintenance guy being directly linked to him, getting face-to-face interaction and encouragement every once in a while.

I have written about this before and I will write about it again, because it is one structural issue that I see in so many exciting young projects and companies: Hub and spoke networks are a great way to get things started, you are the mover and shaker and assemble everyone you around you, turn them from a crowd into an organization/movement. But if you don’t want that exhaustion heart-attack and burn-out or if you want that your idea/company/movement survives even after you leave, there is a time when you have to let go and foster that your spokes develop inter-connections, nurture some of your trusted colleagues to become sub-centers, develop what is called redundant links (so if one link fails another one can hold) and anchor your movement in a bigger community. If not, you are preparing your company to be one of these endeavors that as soon as the founder leaves crumble to dust or your development project will be one of the many that ceases to have any impact as soon as the funding runs out. The important thing to realize is: What worked for you in the past (start-up phase) will not work equally well in the future (consolidation).

One colleague of mine in Ghana was really passionate about starting things from scratch and getting them going. He worked for the government and, knowing what made him tick, he once said to me: “When this multi-stakeholder board is up and running I will help them find a good manager, train him or her and leave for the next new project. Managing existing structures is too boring for me.” That really impressed me, to have such an understanding of who you are and what you are good at that you shape your work life in a way that you can do exactly that without risking long term sustainability. It helped that his underlying motivation was leaving a legacy / changing the world to become a better place irrespective of whether his name (or bank account) was connected to his achievements.

But if you are that manager of a former start-up and you don’t want to sell it and start another one, how do you move forward? I think one important thing is to realize that most people can only strongly relate to a rather small group of people. So as soon as you grow beyond a certain number, it will cost you a lot of extra energy to maintain a personal feeling in everyone in your organization towards everybody else of “We are in this boat together.” And the question is: “Is this personal connection to everyone really necessary for people to be extremely hard working and loyal and happy at their work place?” I would say that maybe it’s enough to have this strong emotional bond to a smaller group of co-workers in the same division or field. That feeling of “I don’t want to let my guys down” can develop out of the work process without a lot of extra energy poured in from a gardener/mentor/leader. What he could focus on more is developing and maintaining the bigger ideas, visions and codes of conduct that his staff can relate to and feel proud of. So in a way my recommendation would be to think bigger and smaller at the same time: Think bigger: Instead of relating to a group of individuals try uniting everyone under a common vision. And think smaller: Foster the development of local villages within your organization in which people relate to and feel loyalty for their neighbors.

And then, as a cherry on the top, continue going to your maintenance guy or junior programmer every once in a while to connect and see how the company is doing from the inside. But don’t feel pressured to continue with full energy using a strategy that was great for 12 staff members once you hit 100. And yes, some of the start-up energy will go. It’s because you are not a start-up any more, there is a reason why we called this energy “start-up energy”. But even at a bigger size you can have a company with a great spirit and loyal, hard working staff.

Can I present an experience instead of a power point?

Net-Map is in great parts an experience-based innovation. The easiest way to get someone excited about it, is to do it and let them see for themselves what an eye-opening experience it can be. That is so much stronger than giving a presentation in which you tell them the different steps one-two-three… or even presenting the most striking results of past projects. So my favorite Net-Map introduction is to split the participants in small groups and facilitate an ad-hoc mapping session of something they care about. The only problem with this is that it takes quite some time, not just because the mapping process as such takes time but because the groups have to self-facilitate and some do that faster than others.

When I was asked to do a 45 minute introduction of Net-Map to a group of public health advocates, I thought: “In such a short time, I will only be able to do a power point presentation, talking about the experience instead of going through it.” But thinking about it again, maybe we have come up with a great hybrid experience-presentation that will give us the best of both worlds: How about having 3 volunteers on stage, drawing a Net-Map about an issue that is burning hot for everyone in the room and projecting the map in progress for everyone to see on the wall? As I would facilitate the mapping, I would be able to move us forward as needed. And because everyone in the room can relate to the volunteers up front they get pretty close to actually experiencing the mapping themselves.

Have you tried similar approaches? What worked or didn’t work?

Can Net-Map help local police curb neighborhood crime?

This is not a project (yet) but something I thought about while walking through my neighborhood (Capitol Hill in Washington DC), which I love-fear in similar parts, because it is beautiful, walkable, friendly and inviting… if only they’d stop shooting out behind our house every half year and breaking into houses, snatching purses from pregnant women, or treating our car as a neighborhood car share (we had it stolen and returned twice).

We have hard working, dedicated beat cops who are out there walking the neighborhood rain (snow) or shine and I know that each and everyone of them has a wealth of knowledge about the good, the bad and the ugly around here. One problem though is that everyone only has a part of the puzzle and this kind of knowledge is difficult to share in it’s whole complexity.

So, what I was thinking: Imagine we sat down for a Net-Mapping session with everyone responsible for the area or issue when there is the next string of car thefts or burglaries. We would write down the names of everyone we could think of having even the remotest connection to the issue, victims, potential perpetrators and anyone who might be helping in the background. We could color code the actors, having one color for victims and on the side of potential criminals one color for those who have been convicted of crime before and those who have not. Or, if it is a case of, e.g. gang related violence, we could have different colors for the members of different gangs.

To get the general structure of this network, we would start with one general link of “social or family connection”. Then the more interesting part would be the links for known and suspected criminal dealings between the actors. I think for getting the whole picture and digging as deep as possible into the areas where there is suspicion but no proof yet, it is important to have different kinds of links for “criminal interaction that has been proven and prosecuted”, “criminal interaction that we are sure of but couldn’t prosecute yet” and “suspected criminal interaction”. It would make sense to have them in the same color, a strong line for the prosecuted interactions, broken line for the ones we are sure of and dotted for suspected ones.

If the Net-Map is about some specific crime or string of crimes, the influence towers could be used to indicate how likely the police officers think that each actor is involved in this crime. If it is more about a general longer term situation (e.g. gang violence), we could have two colors of towers, one for influencing that the bad situation continues/escalates and one for influencing that it gets better.

The biggest benefit of doing this, would be that it allows the officers to share their in-depth system knowledge of the community with each other in a structured way and that they would together draw the bigger picture that would allow them to focus on the core actors.

I know there has been quite a bit of social network analysis applied to tracking international terrorists. But to my knowledge most of that has been done with quantitative analysis and by tracking directly traceable interactions such as money flows or emails. Now imagine you could sit down with some of the top anti terrorism experts and make them discuss the links as they draw them… But for now I’d be absolutely fine if we could do something about the car share situation in our own back yard. If someone were willing to try this out in our own neighborhood, I would even be willing to facilitate it for free…

Who will help you get to where you want this year?

Welcome in a new year, a whole beautiful new year that you can use to get closer to your dreams. The first week of the year is a great time to sit down and think strategically about how to get where you want to get. And to figure out, where that is in the first place.

I was a bit early so I drew my strategic career Net-Map at the end of last year. It was really powerful, helped me reconnect with my goals, get a greater perspective on my support network and figure out a lot of concrete steps that I want to take to connect or reconnect with specific individuals. Here is what I did:

My overall Net-Map question: Who helps my business to succeed (present, past, future)?
I wrote all their names on post-its that were color coded according to whether it was a present, past or future collaboration. If it was more than one I overlapped two different colors. This was especially interesting when it helped me figure out which of my past contacts I strongly hoped to work with again, which ones (few but also important) I would definitely avoid and which ones were so-so…

I put myself at the center of the map and roughly sorted the actors (all names of individuals) so that those who are connected with each other were close to each other. I drew circles around the actors to indicate organizational affiliation.

Then I drew links in different colors for “project collaboration” and “inspiration, exchange of ideas”, to give the whole thing a general structure. Because this was all about planning for the future, I added one more specific link: “Planned future interaction”: Next to these lines I drew I wrote a note what exactly the next step would be, e.g. “ask if she wants to write XY paper with me” or “tell him of new use of Net-Map in the corporate world” or even just “send Christmas email”…

The last step is still outstanding, add red and white influence towers to indicate how strongly these actors influence my business success positively or negatively. I could even imagine that it makes sense to set these towers up three times to figure out how important these actors were in the past, are at present and might be in the future.

The process was intense and exhausting. I just recently talked with a friend looking for a job who told me: “No, I don’t think such an exercise would help me, I know my network pretty well.” And I thought to myself how amazing it is that even though I eat and drink and breathe networks every day and think about my own network connections a lot, seeing them all in front of me at the same time was an incredible eye opener to me.

I think one general lesson that I learned is that our present networks are strongly determined by our past connections (unless you are really burning bridges). They provide security and support but can also hold you back in your future development. If you want to change what you are doing or how you are doing it, you might need to take active and even radical steps to develop your networks towards where you want to go. That doesn’t mean cutting off the good connections of the past. But being aware of the need for new links, conciously going to where these people are and saying: “I am here! Do you want to play?”

One last observation: This process would have been even more powerful, if I hadn’d done it just mumbling to myself but actually being interviewed by someone who would have asked me all the tough questions…