How to be a Network Gardener

Turn your network into a community garden (like Potrero Hill Community Garden, photographed by Rick Bradley - flickr)

They are called “Network Facilitators”, “Network Organizers” or even “Network Managers”. But I think the term “Network Gardener” describes much more tanglibly, what those people do who help large and dispersed networks of people grow toward common goals. These days networks seem to be the solution for every problem that is too big and complex to be tackled by one individual or organization, from eradicating HIV/Aids to promoting peace. But all too often what sounds great in theory (connect all the people who care about this to form a vibrant and open community) ends up as an email-address- mass-grave where the organizers claim to have created a huge network, while in reality they have collected a huge number of email adresses and broadcast information on a mailing list to silent recipients.

But what makes some networks actually flourish and grow, adapt and produce surprising results? Those networks I know that function amazingly well, tend to have committed, passionate and humble network gardeners. Some of them volunteers, others employed to coordinate a network. Those are the people who know that bringing the network to bear fruit requires a lot of digging and watering and fertilizing. But they also accept that all their well meant efforts won’t turn a tomato plant into an apple tree and that, after all the gardening is said and done, your job is to watch stuff grow and be amazed. As any real world gardener knows, even the hardest effort will never have as much impact as the amount of sun and rain you get and the quality of the ground that you start with.

So what can a network gardener do? And what should he/she avoid?

1. Imagine the landscape: Especially at the beginning but also in the middle of growth processes or major network changes, the network gardener should develop a vision of the network, a major idea that can bring people together, a general statement of goals and objectives. This helps potential network members decide whether this is the network they want to belong to. And if this process is done in a participatory manner, it helps existing network members develop greater ownership and reconnect to the common cause.

2. Prepare the ground, fertilize, water, weed: A lot of the work of a network gardener is rather mundane and ongoing maintenance. You help setting a tone and, if need be, enforcing it, maintain a comfortable environment which is inviting for newcomers, doesn’t tolerate abuse and keeps long time members engaged.

3. Plant: Plant ideas, ask questions, invite new members, initiate discussions. And know when to stop. Your garden will not become more beautiful or reap more fruit if you just plant more and more. Give things space to grow and develop on their own. Only add new seeds if you feel there is an empty space that needs filling. No, if you feel there is an empty space that needs filling, first sit back and relax. Wait a while. See what happens. Something might grow. Take another walk around. Reconsider. And maybe plant something…

4. Harvest: Your network can bear amazing fruit. But if there is no one to harvest it, it will be there just for a moment and then be gone. Summarize discussions and make them available to the network and beyond (or develop a culture in which network members do this), document achievements, help network members channel collaboration and  provide platforms for sharing lessons learnt.

5. Allow for some wild butterfly corners: Don’t actively manage, work on, control all parts of the network. Allow the fringes to grow wild like the back corner of your garden, where the butterflies, hedgehogs and wildflowers (others call them weeds) feel at home. Remember: Most innovation happens at the fringes of the network, where the boundary spanners sit, who have their fingers in more than one pot and where the crazy ideas fall on fertile ground. Don’t mess with that by trying to draw very strict lines around who is allowed to be a member or what is an appropriate subject for discussion.

6. Share: Turn your network into a community garden. While many networks first develop around one or few very committed initial gardeners, the only way to grow, be sustainable and not break your back is to slowly turn the gardening over to the community. There will always be more and less active members and that is no problem. But make sure you involve and encourage those who want to take on a more active role and let go of control. In the end you want this network to continue being amazing after you have long moved on.

(P.s.: Thanks to the KM4Dev – Knowledge Management for Development – network, which inspired a lot of my thinking about and knowledge of a well functionning community garden style network. And thanks to Amit Nag founder of Frametrics for first introducing me to the idea of a company gardener.)

Net-Map introduction workshop in Lueneburg, Germany (29th October)

Learn mapping - like the participants at our Net-Map Summer School in Italy

My readers often ask me: When do you give the next Net-Map training in my part of the world. As most of my trainings are organized by organizations with rather specific purpose, they tend to be open only to this organization’s internal audience. My next introduction workshop in Germany is different: It is part of a conference on sustainable development which is organized by the alumni of my old university in Lueneburg and it is open to the interested public.

Esther Kreuz, one of the newly certified Net-Map facilitators, who attended the certification course in Italy, will help me with this workshop: She will be the Net-Mapper in the room while I will do most of the teaching online, from my office in Washington. I’d love to welcome some of my German readers there.

If you want to change the world, teach!

Teaching future Net-Mappers at the International Food Policy Research Institute was a pleasure: Highly motivated participants, who bombarded my co-trainer Noora-Lisa Aberman an me with questions, from the very concrete (How to deal with an arrogant interview partner who thinks board game pieces are below him?) to the philosophical (How are truth and perception related?). Some of them had very concrete projects in mind when they signed up for the training, one even brought the draft of a paper where he wanted to use a Net-Map to visualize the complex results. Now today I am back in my office and receive the first preliminary results from participants of this year’s Summer School in Italy and all of this made me take one step back and think about the impact of teaching as compared to other things I spend my time with (e.g. implementing projects for people and organizations). I looked at it from a network perspective: If you are just one individual with a good idea but no large organization or funds but the desire to have an impact, what should you do? Implement projects for clients? Teach implementers? Or train trainers? I intuitively knew the answer, but still, drawing the three networks that would develop through these different strategies, I was overwhelmed when I understood the scale in which these approaches differ… If you implement 6 projects you implement 6 projects. By training 6 students who each implement 3 projects, you achieve 18 projects. If you focus on training 6 trainers, who each train 3 students, who each implement 3 projects, you move up to 54 projects…

If you implement 6 projects you implement 6 projects

Now I know from experience that training, learning and spreading new ideas is much more complex than an easy multiplication. I have trained some trainers who have by now turned into co-owners of the method, putting about as much passion into it as I do, talking, breathing, eating and dreaming Net-Map and teaching it whereever they go… While others of my students were happy to attend a training in good company but have never had the actual opportunity to use Net-Map in their work. So if I mapped out the actual map, with myself in the middle and all the people I have worked with and trained around me, it would be a less symetric map. Which also reminds me that it is not just the fact that you conduct trainings: Train good people and train them well!

If you teach 6 who each implement 3 project, your efforts lead to 18 projects

But still, the general truth remains: If you are a little person who thinks she/he has a great idea, go teach. And don’t be afraid of “giving your knowledge away”. It’s not like money, which, once you have given it away, alas, is not in your pocket any more. If you share your ideas freely and teach people to the point where they can become teachers, you will see your ideas grow, morph, develop and something overwhelming might come out of it, which you never would have achieved on your own.

If you teach 6 trainers who teach 3 students each who implement 3 projects each, your effort leads to 54 projects

Net-Map Level 1 Certification Class at the International Food Policy Research Institute

That’s how I will spend this week: Preparing and conducting a Net-Map Level 1 Certification class at IFPRI, the organization where I worked when I initially developed Net-Map. It still feels a bit like coming home and I must admit, it makes me happy to see that all 4 research divisions of the organization have started using the method in their projects. This training, unfortunately, is only open to IFPRI staff. One reason why I am telling you about it, even if you don’t work for IFPRI: It is really easy to organize a training in your organization too. Find people enthusiastic about figuring out their networks and using them more strategically, contact me and we will be able to develop a training that caters exactly to your needs AND earn all participants a certification.

What is the best network structure?

It's easy: The one with the biggest trophy has to be the best - but how do you judge what's the best network structure? (Beauty contest winners, copyright by "What makes the Pie Shops Tick?" on Flickr)

That is THE question that my clients normally want me to answer. Tell us the best network structure and help us get there.

Today I exchanged emails with a colleague with whom I am involved in an evaluation project about knowledge flows and we found that in the same country and among very similar actors the information in one domain flows very much in a hierarchical, hub-and-spoke kind of fashion, the responsible Ministry sits in the middle and informs everyone else, mainly in one way communication. In the next domain the network is much more interconnected, while there are some more and some less connected actors, basically everyone has more than one source of information and there is much more exchange between actors on similar hierarchy levels.

Our intuitive initial reaction was: One structure has to be bad, the other one has to be good. And because of where we are comming from (our views of the world), we know that the hierarchical information distribution structure is bad and the interconnected web of information exchange is good. Now if we look beyond what we like or prefer for the sake of empowerment and just ask: How well suited are these structures to get the information where it should go, the picture is more mixed and I have to give an answer that you will hear from me whenever you ask me about what the best network structure is: That depends. Both structures have pros and cons.

The hierarchical structure where one central node controls all the information flow are great for distributing clear and undisputed information in an efficient and effective manner, everybody knows: I have to go to the Ministry to get the right information and the Ministry has total control over the content of the message. On the flip side however, this puts a large burden on the Ministry (or whoever the hub is), because if they don’t perform, no one can take their role and the system will collapse. And there are many ways in which they might fail: their capacity might be overwhelmed with the sheer number of requests, they might have outdated information, they might focus on another issue, etc. Also, innovative ideas, learning from field experience, experimentation and alternative solutions are not encouraged in a system that has pre-defined who owns and controls all relevant information.

A less centralized structure with stronger inter-connectivity and lateral flows is much less vulnerable to one actor’s lack of performance, allows for more cross-pollination and the integration of alternative approaches. On the other hand, a lot of the actors on the ground, who just want to quickly get the relevant information and then get the job done, are easily confused by multiple, contradictory messages and might not always be experts enough to judge which one is the most valid one for their work. Also, less centralized networks tend to take much more time to mobilize, there is no one actor who can take on the responsibility for training everyone. Also it is more difficult to monitor, evaluate and compare the effects of the different interventions that abound. So while there might be a lot of experimentation, that doesn’t automatically lead to learning and innovation – it might just be a lot of reinventions of the wheel. Often low centralization networks do not survive and thrive for a long time, as there is no central driving force (though, sometimes they do…).

So, as far as ideal network and recommendations go, I’d say, neither is ideal. They both have strengths and weaknesses. If you work in a highly centralized network you have the benefit of knowing who to interact with to get your message out. And your role as NGO could be to make sure they have cutting-edge information to start with, to encourage this central actor to allow for more two-way information flow and to expand the core of the network, inviting more actors to share their burden. However, this has to be done delicately, as the hub might fear loosing control and power. On the other hand, if working in a dispersed, low centralization network, you want to see if this is really better for the front line implementers in terms of enabeling them to get their job done. Especially if there is a lot of confusion around contradicting messages, your role as an NGO coming in might be to help the different actors coordinate and consolidate and develop more predictable ways of defining messages, delivering information and facilitating comparable monitoring and evaluation.

Creativity: Look at something, see something else

A cloud that looks like... (copyright by Naomi Ibuki on Flickr)

The other day I walked past a flip-chart paper box and the way it was standing there, with the flaps half open, it seems to tell me: “In my next life, I want to be the stage of a puppet theatre.” So this weekend my toddler daughter learned how to perform Elmo’s song for an audience of one, in her newly constructed, made out of leftover stuff, puppet theatre.

And that made me think of this brief moment, when you look at something and see something else. You might look at something from work and see a game. Or turn some toys into a tool for change management (see Net-Map), something you are about to throw away looks like an object of pure beauty waiting for a frame, a sentence you have said a million times takes on a different meaning. It’s this beautiful sacred split-second, when a door opens in your mind and you see the unexpected opportunities in something familiar, that’s when creativity happens.

I once read of an Austrian poet who said that she developed the practice of conciously mishearing and misreading words and that this often led to her best poems. I like the idea for two reasons. One: It shows that mistakes are not just something negative to be avoided at all cost but can actually be the step into something new and amazing and open the doors to new possibilities that your concious mind would have never come up with. Two: It speaks to the belief that you can counsciously train yourself to become more creative by allowing your mind to stray and challenging it to find different interpretations beyond the obvious.

I believe that you can develop your mental capacity like you would train a muscle and if you develop the ability to look at something and see something else in one aspect of your life, it will seep into the rest as well. So if I entertain my 2 1/2 year old with a pen and an empty note book for most of an 8 hour flight, I am sure that kind of hard core training will also help me become more creative in my professional life. It’s nearly as if I could feel a physical shift in my brain…

And there is something else to misappropriating words and things, using them for something that is not their intended purpose: It gives you a great sense of freedom. If you use Legos to build a representation of your professional self (as I saw at the Agile Coach Camp), you don’t quite know what the rules are (are there rules for this???) so you make them up as you go along. You can become more playful, you can express the true meaning of what you want to say instead of following convention and you might realize things you never thought were there.

So, look around in your office, on your desk, outside your window or in your dustbin and take in what is there and try to see something else. Silly as it may be, even  a cloud that looks like an elephant counts – then you can feel proud of yourself because you visited your mental gym.

Net-Map at the ShareFair in Rome

Dear Net-Mappers, current and future, it’s a pleasure and honour to write my first post on this blog.
I went to the ShareFair in Rome last week and I spread the word about Net-Map like not even compulsive gossipers could do 😉
Together with Natalie Campbell of we ran a workshop on the first day and then I gave 2 introductory talks about it.
Here you are a detailed report and for those who wish to hear my take on Net-Map “wonders”, you can watch this:

Is “development 2.0” the same as “agile international development”?

Learn from others how to be more agile (picture copyright Luca5 on flickr)

I’m not sure. But it does sound very similar. As a response to my earlier post about agile international development, Mitchell Toomey of UNDP invited me to join their discussion forum around “development 2.0” which basically looks at what development projects can learn from the way that successful web 2.0 start-ups work. Mitchell wrote a more elaborate post about how human development projects can become more agile, which shows that he is much more familiar with the technical side of agile and programming in general than I am. Other interesting stuff I read in the same direction is the development 2.0 manifesto by Giulio Quaggiotto and a response by Ian Thorpe who points out (and rightly so) that development 2.0 is more than tech, it’s remaking an industry. His view is closest to what I was thinking of, because when I apply agile concepts to international development, I am also thinking of projects that have no cell phones or computers or internet involved, or that, at least, don’t have those tools at the core of their mission. You could have an agile basked weaving project or an agile breastfeeding support project, where the core of what you do is: People interacting with people and natural things. But still you do this in an iterative, participatory, learning oriented manner. You might use cell phones to support the project. But you don’t start out with a cool app that you have to somehow build a project around…

One issue where I am sure the development 2.0 people could learn a lot from agile coaches (and not just from web 2.0 start-ups) is how to institute these radical changes in large hierarchical organizations. As I hear, even the US Department of Defense is flirting with becoming agile. I am sure that people who help a large command and control organization like this become more flexible would have some experience to share that would be useful for people who are interested in changing the way they work with or in the UN, USAID or gtz.