The risks of making it look too easy

Is it as easy as child’s play? (image by http://www.shirleyreade.com/)

I  always try to speak about my work in a way that everyone can understand me – whether they are experts in my field or not. Because I want to make sure that what I do matters to others – and if it does, I should be able to explain it in a way that they will understand. But recently I am wondering if this approach has backfired in unexpected ways.

When I developed Net-Map more than eight years ago, my driving force was this: The basic concepts behind network analysis are all common sense (“It’s not just what you know but who you know”) – yet the language with which they are often explained is so abstract that it is hard to even take the first step in understanding them. Why can’t I develop a way of speaking about and using network analysis which is immediately useful for lay-people, without translation by an expert. So, I developed Net-Map and have gone on using it in African villages, with children (as young as 3), in fortune 500 companies and community groups. And all along I have tried so speak plain English (or German or French) – so plain, in fact, that one early advisor said: “You have to use more difficult terms, if you want to be taken seriously.” I didn’t. But the comment was still very valuable, because it made me understand that I fit much better in the world of practical application than that of abstract research, so I started my long and winding road away from research.

Yesterday though,  I had a conversation with my fellow Net-Mapper Amit Nag and we started wondering: Are we making it look too easy? Are we inviting people with a smile, telling them that this will be all smooth sailing and then they are not prepared for the hurricane ahead? And, by doing that, are we preventing them from really benefiting from the method in full?

A pattern that we have observed in our recent work is this: We present, in simple language, with colorful examples and five easy steps, how to do a Net-Map. Then we guide a group through the experience of drawing it around one of their issues. Then they are excited and run off to start using it in their own work.

A few weeks later we might see the results and… well. They did follow the five easy steps. But still, the mapping has not been as powerful and useful as it could have been, because of one or more of the following:

  • They didn’t ask a good guiding Net-Map question – to the map doesn’t focus on the core question.
  • They didn’t invite the right people in the room.
  • When there were disagreements, the group forced itself to agree instead of digging deeper and understanding more.
  • There was too little time to have a conversation, so the group just rushed to get the mapping done. Or, they got so lost in conversation, that they never finished the map.
  • No one took useful notes, so it is impossible to understand the map if you were not at the table.
  • They intended to use the map for action planning but didn’t know how to develop actions out of the map.
  • They asked about links that are not clearly defined, or not relevant for the issue.
  • They failed to connect the Net-Mapping to the bigger context of what they are doing.
  • Once the map was drawn, all they saw was a bowl of spaghetti diagram and no one helped them untangle it.

All of the above are my observations and maybe also just best guesses, because I was not in the room. In summary I could say: They didn’t get the full value out of Net-Mapping, because they were led to believe that knowing the five steps (categories of actors, actors, links, goals, influence towers)  is enough to know how to Net-Map.

So my question is: How can I invite people to confidently learn, play with and use Net-Map while at the same time clearly communicating that, in the end, it is not as easy as it looks? How can I help them learn the less straightforward and more tacit – or more academic – aspects of Net-Mapping? How can they understand that being a participant in a well facilitated Net-Map session is very different from being able to facilitate a Net-Map session well. I would love to hear from you, because it seems like this problem cannot be solved in the same mindset which has produced it. Any advice is welcome.