Having the wrong map can kill you

Your personal conflict map might be full of sea monsters no one has ever seen (source: http://www.anamanong.com/post/3638643776/source)

Imagine driving through a hostile area in any conflict driven country, let’s say Afghanistan. You would definitely make sure that your physical maps are exact and up-to-date, indicating not just where mountains, rivers and villages are, but also where your friends and enemies are located (as far as you know). Would you get this map by climbing on a hill (or sitting in a ditch) and just looking all around you, drawing what you see and inventing what you don’t see? Not likely.

However, when we look at how we think about our conflict networks, that is exactly what we tend to do: Sit in our own ditch and asses who are friends and enemies, where they stand, how they work with each other and with or against us, where the safe roads are and where the landmines may be hidden. We even tend to draw in our mind’s eye what happens behind our backs or in people’s heads.

That’s bad enough if we do that in a simple office or family conflict. That’s like having a wrong physical map when I walk through Washington, DC. Annoying, but doesn’t kill me. But if you are in a conflict where the lifes of people are on the line, it’s scary. When I Net-Map with people on different sides of conflicts they can tell me vastly different stories, draw maps that don’t look like they are about the same issue. Now the immediate reaction to this is to ask: So what is the true story? Then you pick one side and run with it, thinking that the other side is either deluded or lying. But I have found that the question about the true story is besides the point.  The approach that leads to more progress and opens doors for new strategies is to say: Both maps are true. This is reality as it looks from the perspective of two different ditches when the smoke in the air clouds the view. Each map is real in that it will shape all the actions of the person who sees the world this way. If someone thinks you are their enemy, irrespective of whether you think you are, it is a reality that you need to know and deal with.

Whether we put them on paper or not, we all have more or less complex views of what the conflict network looks like. And we act based on these assumptions, gathered from the bottom of our own ditch (or maybe from the top of our own hill). One of the great theorists of social network analysis, David Krackhardt, talks about developing a common cognitive social structure out of all different network views. That makes a lot of sense if the difference in view is basically just a difference in knowledge and you can add all the different knowledge bits together to have a more informed common view. To navigate a conflict effectively, this “average” view, developed by stacking individual maps, is less useful, as none of the conflicting parties actually sees it this way and you get so much more guidance by being able to understand how the different sides see this differently.

If you want to bring the maps together, bring the people together, instead of just stacking interview results… If you are at a point in the conflict resolution where you can actually bring people together and they are ready to talk with each other, you might want to draw a common map together, where people can negotiate what is true and why they think it is and sometimes just agree to disagree. If you are not there yet, you could sit down with both groups separately and draw one map asking: What does it look like? and another map: What do you think the enemy thinks it looks like? You end up with four highly interesting maps that will tell you a lot about the pitfalls and opportunities for next steps…

Looking for interview partners on innovation in large corporations or government agencies

Innovation Any Which Way (copyright by Cea on Flickr)

How do mid- to higher level managers in large corporations or government agencies use their formal and informal influence networks to achieve innovation?

I am still looking for interview partners to answer this question, so this is your chance to get a free, first-hand Net-Mapping experience with me and solve some of your trickies innovation barriers, while contributing to cutting edge innovation research.

As a reward for your effort, you will get a summary of your personal innovation network assessment. That will help you understand why a certain innovation was successful or not, how you can improve your innovation networking strategy next time, what your major innovation killers or drivers of change are, who has most (formal or informal) power and what their goals are. Also, I will share the anonymized overview results of the study with you, so that you can see how your strategies, challenges and achievements compare to others and benefit from the collective lessons learnt.
I understand the term innovation rather broadly, everyone who has come up with a new product or process, an idea to change what is done or how it is done and has tried to implement it in a large corporate setting would be a great interview partner. It doesn’t matter so much, whether the innovation was actually implemented or not, as long as you put some real (!) effort into pushing for it. I am looking for success, failure and so-so stories. What I am not interested in, is to talk about just an idea that you had but never really fought to realize.
I need about 2 hours for the interview and am looking for mid- to higher level staff members of a large corporation or government agency who are ready to talk about a specific innovation case in their career. You need to be in or around DC. If you are interested, please contact me until the end of August at eva-schiffer@web.de.

Do your Masters Thesis using Net-Map and travel to India

One of the participants of our Net-Map Summer School in Vicenza, Martina Padmanabhan, offers the following position for a Master’s Thesis at the University of Hannover, Germany:

The Rice Seed-system in Wayanad, India – An empirical social-ecological study

The research group BioDIVA is offering a master-thesis to describe the current status of the rice-seed system in the district of Wayanad. Known as a rice cultivation area, paddy fields are currently replaced by banana plantations. With the declining number of paddy farmers, customary seed exchange systems among tribal communities are changing. The advertised master thesis seeks to document the change in the seed system, which encompasses the handling of the actual seed as well as the management of accompanying knowledge on the quality and requirements of different varieties. The student shall apply the innovative net-map method to research the existing informal and formal seed-systems and the linkages between them.


  • Literature review on seed-systems
  • Document the formal seed distribution system
  • Apply net-map methodology to rice farming households
  • Describe the organisation of seed and information management in three tribal communities in Wayanad, Kerala, India
  • Write thesis in English


  • 3 months empirical field research in India (October-December 2011)
  • Well-established Indo-German team
  • Travel and allowances included

Please contact Dr. habil Martina Padmanabhan padmanabhan@umwelt.uni-hannover.de or Anne Werpup werpup@umwelt.uni-hannover.de immediately!

Find the Atoms of your Happiness

Small islands of success in a vast sea of failure (copyright by hrvojeah on flickr)

I meet a lot of people who know exactly what will make them happy and fight with determination to get it: Be an entreprenneur, work for google, conceive a child, earn a million, whatever it is. And that’s good, have a goal and go for it! Unfortunately, what often happens is that we define this one goal as being success and everything else becomes failure by definition. If you define “being an entreprenneur” as your mark of success, then being an employee is a sign of failure. If your eyes are on google, working for anyone else reeks of failure. If your single mission is to conceive, then adoption or being a favorite aunt would be a failure. By these limiting definitions of success we divide the world in a very small island of success and a big sea of possible failures, making failure (as we define it) the much more likely outcome.

But once you are caught up in this most passionate belief that you have to work for google or have a biological child, how do you get yourself out of it? Because saying: “Stop being so single minded!” is about as successful as telling a shy person: “Stop being so shy!”

I recommend that you break down your goal into smaller and smaller pieces until you find your atoms of happiness, the building blocks that you need to build a happy life. Look at your goal and ask yourself: Why will this make you happy? You will have to ask this question a number of times. Let me show you how this works:

Goal: I have to be an entreprenneur!

Why will this make me happy?

Because then I can devote my whole time to doing, spreading, teaching Net-Map.

But why will this make me happy?

Because I love the way Net-Map lets me understand the complex issues people are dealing with and come up with good solutions with them.

But why will this make me happy?

Because I feed on the magic moments when the temperature in the room changes and you feel like a door opened the other person’s mind and all of a sudden they see a solution to a complex, messy problem they have been struggling with for a long time.

But why will this make me happy?

Because it gives me a feeling of connection and being meaningful in other people’s lifes and having an impact and empowering others to better cope with their problems.

O.k., let’s stop here. You see how I move from a rather specific goal to a much broader and also more emotional exploration of what makes me tick. Now take this last statement and forget for a moment how you have gotten it. Just read it as it is: It makes me happy to have a feeling of connection and being meaningful in other people’s lifes and having an impact and empowering others to better cope with their problems. This is one of my atoms of happiness. To have a complete periodic table of my happiness, I would have to take other concrete goals I have and break them down the same way. Now if I want to take this as a building block and develop concrete goals out of it, I have to ask myself: So what are all the things I could do which will give me these feelings? I see that being an entreprenneur is one of them, but all of a sudden I am surrounded by all kinds of options for success.

From seeing the world as a sea of potential failure with a small island of potential success I moved to seeing a whole diverse landscape of success with the occasional ponds and pitfalls of potential failure. I’m not planning to stop being an entreprenneur any time soon. But being aware of the many different ways I can lead a happy life gives me the feeling of doing this by choice and not because this is the only possible way.

Muslim Brotherhood: Internal and external networks

Muslim Brotherhood setting up stage (copyright Lilian Wagdy, flickr)

When mapping networks we often ask ourself: Is this one actor or more than one. Let’s say you map out the transition in Egypt: Is the Muslim Brotherhood one actor or many? I heard an interesting piece on NPR this morning which makes me say: That depends. If you looked at pre-Arab-Spring Egypt and wanted to map out the different political actors in the country, you would most likely be fine calling the Muslim Brotherhood one actor. Not because as a group they were always united and following the same strategies and goals. But the opposition to the regime and Mubarak was such a strongly uniting force that differences in the detail would be much less obvious. But what happens if you loose your biggest enemy? All of a sudden the uniting force of that enemy is removed from the system and the result tends to be the same whether we are talking about the end of the Cold War or the end of an oppressive regime: The people who were united in the fight AGAINST something now have to define what they stand FOR and what used to look like just one actor will struggle to maintain unity.
Where this transformation leads depends on the initial (hidden) disagreements, the development in the political environment and the way the group deals with the process. In general there are 4 possible futures:
1. A movement can completely fall apart after  the enemy is removed from the system.
2. It may break up into two or more separate movements, e.g. more and less radical arms.
3. It can shed some of the fringe and critical actors while maintaining a strong core. Or
4. it can engage in an internal process of redifining its mission, integrating most of their members while finding either a new common mission or (easier) a new common enemy.

So to understand the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the new nation building process in Egypt, I would not map it as just one actor: It would make a lot of sense to have a closer look at the internal factions and individual leaders of the organization, in Egypt and abroad and see how they interact with each other and with other actors in the system.

Two of the experts interviewed by NPR, Tarek Masoud (Middle East expert from Harvard University’s Kennedy School) and Nathan Brown (professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University), seem to predict future 3: The Brotherhood will loose some of it’s members and then regroup around a strong core. I will not predict anything and remain curious to see what will happen.

More interesting reading: CNN on the generational rift in the Brotherhood.
The New York Times on how the election in Egypt exposes divisions in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why Donor Coordination Fails

This giraffe doesn't care if it is safed with or without donor coordination (copyright, Hope Hill on flickr)

If you have worked in the field of international development, you will have come accross Donor / NGO Coordination Forums in nearly all developing countries you go to. You have heard their great promises of reducing redundancies and increasing impact and you have observed how difficult that is to achieve in practice. So, why, as all donors are interested in ending poverty, is co-ordination such a challenge?

I think it has something to do with the fact that there are two kinds of goals: One kind is out in the open while the other is treated like a dirty secret. Talk about healing the sick. But don’t talk about increasing the visibility of your organization. Talk about saving the rhinos. Don’t talk about your own salary increase or job security. Talk about feeding babies in Africa. But please, don’t talk about fighting for more funding for next year. Talk about improving agricultural productivity of poor farmers. But don’t dare to talk about competing with other organizations in the same field.

Sometimes it can be much easier to work in the corporate sector, where everyone is expected to have self-serving, profit-maximising goals and any greater good is just an added luxury.

In reality though, most people (both in the corporate and non-profit world) want to do good and do well at the same time. Their motivation is a mix of making the world a better place and being able to feed their families (and build a house, buy a porsche etc.).

So what happens when the non-profit world denies the existence of self-serving goals in their own ranks? Do they just go away, because you are not allowed to talk about them? No. What would have been a healthy combination of goals gets split up into official and underground goals. All official communication in the broadest sense, project planning and evaluation has to be performed as if the official goals where all there was. And because the underground goals are supressed there tends to be a build up of pressure, explosions at unexpected points, double-talk and commitments no-one intends to keep: they sabotage those projects that pretend they don’t exist.

And that’s where we get back to the donor coordination bodies: One of the underlying hopes of organizing these forums is to be able to join forces behind the common goal and make competition between organizations disappear. Let’s just ignore the selfish goals of “I want my signboard on this project!” and “We need to show our donors that we as organization made an impact!” and “I have to show my bosses I am worth my money!” and they will disappear. Or, will they?

A less romantic but more effective approach to coordination would be: Let’s put all the goals on the table. Behind closed doors and in a comfortable and trusted environment. Let’s talk about the balancing act all of us have to perform between doing good and doing well (as individuals and organizations). How it can be a challenge to remain somewhere in the middle between zynical and idealistic and actually get the job done. That’s ok. That doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a hero (at least in my books). And let’s see how we can share and divide responsibilities, blame and glory in a way that helps us realize synergies for our greater good and feed our own families as well. The commitments you would get out of a meeting like this would be less glorious. But so much more likely to be followed up on. And, honestly, the poor (and the rhinos, for that matter), don’t care about your beautiful official commitments but about what you actually deliver – with or without official donor coordination.

From training to practice

I am excited! The Net-Map Summer School in Vicenza, Italy, wasn’t just fun as it lasted. Our participants were also well prepared to use what they learned in their work. One participant who works in an institution for disabled young men explored the use of Net-Map to make hard but necessary decisions: How to deal with a highly disruptive patient, who is difficult to keep but also difficult to place in another institution? Other case studies we looked at included: How can development projects change the decision making of individual farmers to adapt to climate change? How do you best structure a mentoring network for women entreprenneurs? And: Using Net-Map to compare the network development between different donor-funded projects with similar goals. The first emails are coming in already from participants planning to present the Net-Maps they drew to their organizations or supervisors and they share their experience on their own blogs… As a 1 hour one-on-one consultation within 6 months of the training was part of the package, I am curious to hear where all of these projects and ideas are moving.

A month with the waste pickers in Chile

Waste picker in Chile (copyright Ben Garside)

Ben Garside of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) wanted to find out the benefits, costs and hurdles to self-organization of waste pickers in Chile, who make a living from selling valuable materials they find in what other people discard. He realized rather quickly that he was seen as one of these typical “tecnicos”, one of the many outsiders (NGOs, researchers) who come to do some work about the waste pickers, which would be abstract, extractive and of little use to them on the ground. To avoid this, he decided to involve the waste pickers themselves in using an adapted Net-Mapping approach to figure out benefits and pitfalls of different models of organization, understand the communication problems between different levels and added open ended questions to explore the benefits and struggles in depth. You can have a more detailed look at his case study on IEED’s sustainable markets blog.

What I really like is that his approach seems very un-ideological. He doesn’t go to the field with the belief: “Self-organization is good and we just have to convince these stubborn waste pickers that this is so!” but really wants to find out: “When and under which conditions does self-organization make sense and how can we improve it?”