Don’t Net-Map this!!!

If you know me, you know that I will soon start Net-Mapping what’s for dinner or whom to invite to my daughter’s third birthday (just kidding.. or am I?). So you’ll rarely hear me warn you not to use Net-Map in a certain situation. But recently someone asked me whether I ever had negative experiences or whether there were situations in which I would advise against Net-Mapping and, indeed, there are some:

1. In a hostile or conflict situation where you don’t want your opponents to get better at thinking strategically.

2. In situations with painful power differences if your group is not ready (yet) to talk about them.

3. If you don’t know what you want

4. If decision makers are not truly committed to participation and empowerment.

Let’s have a closer look at these:

1. Not teaching your opponent strategic network thinking

Let’s say you are lobbying for a good cause. At least that’s how you see it. But there are influencers who try to lobby against it (and probably believe that theirs is actually the good cause and yours is the evil one). Obviously it would be tremendously helpful for you to have a complete picture of the advocacy actor landscape and understand how the other side sees it. However, experience shows that you can hardly avoid that your interview partners and focus groups learn a great deal during the mapping session. And their ability to think strategically about their own network development will increase – whether you like it or not.

2. Painful power differences and a group that is not ready to face them

One of the strengths – and dangers – of Net-Map is that it makes differences in power/influence explicit and allows participants to talk about them. The bigger the power difference within your network, the more this will feel like putting a finger in an open wound – and adding some salt to taste. A good example would be a group of well intended people who are looking to create a power-free network of collaboration around a cause but each have a very different ability to influence because of where they are coming from (country, education, organization, position, wealth). I’d say: Eventually they’ll have to deal with it, because you ignore power at your own risk. But if the group is not ready yet, you might make the group explode before they have built a strong enough foundation to face these issues. One option here could be Net-Mapping without influence towers.

3. You don’t know what you want

The initial question we write on top of any Net-Map is something like: “Who influences XY?” If you don’t know what XY is, Net-Map is not going to tell you. If you rush into mapping without spending enough thought on XY you’ll end up like the people in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, who found out that the answer “to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”  is 42 but unfortunately no one knew what the question was (and a lot of my Net-Map clients start out with a question nearly as big as that…). You’ll get a map that somehow tells you something about some people in the general area of your interest – but your interview partners will be about as confused as you are and most of them will pick their specific pet question and answer that – without telling you what the question was. And what are you going to do with “42”?

4. Decision makers not committed to participation

Participation and empowerment are not things that you can switch on (to make your donors, stakeholders, staff members happy) and off (to avoid having to do things differently) as you please. This is not just about Net-Map but any participatory approach: Once you start using empowering and participatory approaches, two things happen: People’s expectations of being heard increase and their ability to make themselves heard does so as well. Imagine you start an organizational change process by involving people from all parts of your organization in participatory Net-Map sessions. And then nothing happens. Or let’s say: And then you don’t follow up. Because, most likely, two things will happen: People will get cynical and frustrated and less willing to contribute than before this session (because they were thinking: “For once they are asking us, the people who really know!”). And they might start initiating some grassroots change just building on their insights and networks developed during the sessions. Whether you like the direction this is going in or not.

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