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.)

2 Responses

  1. Eva, I do like your analogy. Like other people have already said, it is inspiring and illuminating of the most fruitful part of a network facilitator’s job.
    In preparing the ground, I would add a bit of disturbance to expand the frontiers of possibilities. My experience is that, when people explore beyond their traditional beliefs, they become extraordinary creative.

    • Hi Sebastiao,
      That makes a lot of sense. Sometime I joke that I “confuse people and they pay me for it”. I absolutely get that disturbing the status quo can help a lot in bringing new things to the surface and breaking up tightly held beliefs.

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