The risks of making it look too easy

Is it as easy as child’s play? (image by

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.

8 Responses

  1. Your question intrigues me because it may not be a case of making it too easy, but rather giving too much information at one time for folks to fully absorb.

    Maybe you could have a follow-up session some time later of “I tried this in the real world and what am I doing wrong?”, working with students and their real data, walking each scenario through the process and what should have happened (with input and suggestions from others in the group – making sure it’s a safe space). This would reinforce the lessons learned for everyone and create a stronger network of peers of whom they can ask questions.

    Or with each training, create a community of practice with the group attendees, and as they start working on their own Net Maps, they can check with each other – “am I framing this guiding question right?” “This happened, how should I handle it?” – or it can be a place to access other resources, such as “how to create action plans” or “steps in creating good notes from Net Map meetings.” Since there seem to be similar stumbling blocks, additional support materials may be necessary to insure post training success.

    It’s hard to tell since I haven’t been able to take the training yet, but it sounds like structured, post training supports of some type may be a way to go.

    • Hi Kathy,
      These are great ideas. Thanks for taking the time to think this through and articulate it so well. And you are right, staying in touch and continuing to work with people after the training is crucial, because a lot of the learning can really only happen once you go through the experience. We are trying to strengthen this kind of peer support in our LinkedIn community of practice ( I will think and inquire more about the kind of post-training support material which would be useful.

  2. Hi Eva. I heard an old master once saying “the way I explain it is complex, because I don’t want my students to believe that we are addressing a simple problem”. Cheers, Alain

    • Hi Alain,
      Thanks a lot for this thought. As you can see in the discussion this is an issue which you can see from both sides and somehow I feel like both are correct in their own way. Something that happens when I explain things straightforward is that people are encouraged to practice and experience (Nancy’s point). However, what I also see is that they often keep this experience at a rather shallow immediate level and don’t even know that they could go deeper…

  3. To me this is totally resonant with learning –> mastering any practice. The same could be said for any type of facilitation. I’m currently finding this when I introduce into a new ecosystem. At one level, it is very straightforward. At the practice level, nuance is always involved.

    The question to me is how can one’s FIRST experience be encouraging enough to keep practicing. Then the real treasures start to emerge. Mastery does not mean being the master, but having enough experience to be able to improvise, to adjust, to pay attention to those very things you noted were missing. But as Kathy said, there is no way you can a) say this all at once or b) learn it all at once.

    So I’d say STICK with your simple, plain invitation, but acknowledge the nuance that comes with experience. Encourage practice!

    • Hi Nancy,
      Yes, I remember that feeling (that’s simple!) when starting to read up on liberating structures and being amazed how they had boiled down all instructions to the min specs and made it look so easy. In some recent trainings I tried to share my “accumulated experience”, hoping that it would help participants somehow short-cut the way to getting there. But I guess there is always a big difference whether it is MY experience or YOURS. And, as I see some of my colleagues develop Net-Map mastery I can see how they contribute very different things and learn and grow differently… For the next training I want to rather add a session where participants can plan their Net-Map intervention (which is more than just what happens in the room, but the planning before and what happens afterward) because we have found that being confused in the planning really frustrates you in the intervention. And not knowing what you want to do with it afterward increases the likeliness that your excitement falls flat on it’s face instead of moving you to the next level… And then I will leave the experiences for them to make…

  4. To the question – No, don’t set the Net-Mapping bar any higher. I don’t think that Net-Mapping should be made any more ‘elite’. The purpose is to have more and more people use the technique so, frankly, I think simpler is better. The approachable way it is taught, I think, is right on. People are probably frustrated not because they don’t have more information but because they don’t have enough practice. Practice is always a challenge in applied learning. Practice is ‘performing an activity or exercising a skill repeatedly and regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency’. The refining of guiding questions comes with practice; knowing who the ‘right’ people are takes practice; knowing how long to plan takes practice; even ‘common sense’ takes practice.
    So how do we encourage and offer learnings that come from practice and actual practice opportunities? Learnings could come in a number of different ways. Kathy, in a previous comment,suggests ‘communities of practice’ – and in part, that’s what this group is designed to be. But as she notes, many of the questions come after-the-fact and so learning can only be applied during the next opportunity, not in an on-going one. Still, we could post our process lessons as well as our outcome lessons, our negative/ineffective approaches as well as our positive/working ones. While this is not yet full practice, we at least see how people refine their work – and we can double our learning by examining others’ mistakes.
    For true practice opportunities, perhaps the ‘certificate’ should be offered only when 3 or 4 different types of sessions have conducted. For example, one with family or friends (I might do one about saving money in the household), one with the facilitator’s question of interest (I’m particularly interested right now in storytelling as a tool for leadership; I might do a session with people in a class I’m teaching on who influences what stories people tell or hear), one with a single individual (I might do one with a coaching client to explore who influences her calendar and scheduling so she can get more control over her time), etc.
    Also, what if we shared our upcoming net-mapping appointments with others in the group and invited them to come be both observers and advisors during the process? Working together takes work (and practice!) yet it offers on-the-spot guidance for real-time net-mapping work. When I do my next one – at whatever level! – I’ll let folks here know. Unfortunately, I don’t have any net-mapping appointments scheduled in the next few months, but watch this space!

    • Hi Ruth,
      I love the idea of inviting each other along when we go to map. And the insight that even common sense takes practice. Maybe we are also over-estimating what we can and cannot do if we think that our training can be a replacement for the learning which only comes from practice.

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