Guiding your network weaving: Net-Map training in DC (June 27-28)

ImageAt our trainings you dive into using Net-Map in your own context pretty quickly. Last fall one of our participants actually took a break from the map he was drawing because it made him realize that he had to make a few phone calls to some key influencers that he had not been quite aware of. And he had to do that RIGHT NOW. So while he continued learning more about Net-Map through the training he had already kicked off powerful network weaving in his home county to save jobs and keep major local employers from moving out of the county. Experiences like this give me goosebumps. How mapping out formal and informal networks, seeing them in front of you, can give you new insights about problems that you have obsessed about for ages…

If you want to spend two days with us in DC, learning how to map actors, connections, goals and influence levels and how Net-Map can inspire transformational changes in a question you are passionate about, secure one of the remaining spots in our June training.



Teams: Together we do 139 % of the work

We know the sound of two hands clapping - what is the sound that one hand contributes... (picture by rs snaps on flickr)

We know the sound of two hands clapping – what is the sound that one hand contributes… (picture by rs snaps on flickr)

I don’t remember where I read it but there was this study where they interviewed team members to find out what percentage of work they thought they had contributed to the team effort. When they took all the numbers and added them up, they ended up with 139 %. If you have ever worked in a team, shared your household with someone or raised a family, I am sure you can relate. For me this was a real eye opener. So from now on, whenever I feel like I am pulling more than my own weight, I want to stop and remember:  The others probably feel the same. I’m not contributing more than they are, this whole beast is just heavier to pull than we all realize. The great thing is that his moves my mind from being resentful (Why I am working so much more than everyone else?) to being appreciative (Wow, everyone is working so hard, and they are not even complaining!).

What’s more important? People or structures?

If you look at any great change, in your organization, in history, and you ask people to describe who this happened, most likely you will get one of these two stories:

Story 1.

It’s all about the people: There was this inspired leader, or evil man, or group of passionate individuals, or conspirators, or clever people, who came up with this grand idea who made all of this happen. If you wanted it to happen again, you would have to find the right people again and that’s the only way it would work. This would be an inspirational story (or a gruesome one, if the leader was an evil one) about the power of one but it would also leave you a bit at a loss in the question of how you learn from this for another similar situation.

Story 2.

It’s all about the structure: The time was right, there was a new law, technical invention, financial incentive, change in weather pattern, means of transportation, political system and all of a sudden, people (like sheep) had no choice but to change how they were doing things, it only made sense. The story sounds logical and convincing, enchantingly simple. It holds the promise that, if you want to replicate it, you just have to change the structure in the same way and everything will fall into place.

But have you ever wondered: Which one, now, is the true story? How come the same event can be told in these very different ways? Or do you hear the stories and it’s very easy for you to decide which one is a true account of what happened? If you know exactly which one is the true story, that might make you feel very clever. But beware, being very sure of something is often not a sign of high intelligence but rather of strong bias. You will get much closer to the truth if you don’t just enjoy this feeling of “I’m so clever” but rather explore your bias a bit further and see what other people (with other biases) have to say. The fact that both, the people and the structure story sound so convincing to so many people, can either mean: Half of the people are clever (obviously, the ones who share my view), the other half is stupid. Or it means: Both stories are true. If you combine thinking about people and structures you will gain a far deeper insight into what actually happened. And you double your options for changing the world. Because depending on what your levers are, you can work on both, putting the right people in place, connecting and enthusing them AND changing the structures in which they operate.

When we draw Net-Maps and discuss them, we often jump between talking about individual agency and talking about structure. The network connections (e.g. flows of money, hierarchy, friendships, conflict) tell you a lot about the structure and by mapping out the whole system you can get some insights about incentives and patterns that you would’t see by just talking about inspirational leadership. But when we discuss how influential individual actors are (influence towers) and explore what their goals and specific connections in the network are, and how they use them, we often talk very concretely about the way that individuals lead, disturb, interact, build trust, follow a vision etc. Bringing groups who work together around the table to discuss people and structures can have amazing effects. Because typically group members would either lean toward story 1  or story 2. Opening up to the idea that both stories are true and valuable can bring teams closer together and help them develop far more powerful strategies.

Leadership is an activity, not a position

Writing it on the wall will not make you a leader, sorry 
(picture by Ziggy_Mo on Flickr)


We often talk about leaders and what we actually mean is “people who sit in a high position in a formal hierarchy”, people in so called leadership positions. But there are many who hold these positions and achieve very little. Others, from the middle of the organization, or even the outside, may start a movement, develop a followership or coalition, change the way things are done and achieve excellent results. As long as we think that leadership is a position (with a title, a corner-office and a heavy leather chair) we can’t understand this. The person in the higher position should have more followers and be able to lead them to greater results. But once you understand that leadership is an activity (or rather a combination of many activities) the picture becomes more clear.

Leadership is not sitting in a corner office (though flauting your status may be a successful leadership strategy in some situations). And leadership is not something you are assigned and get to keep until you retire. What I find most exciting about the idea of leadership as an activity though is that it is open to everyone. You don’t have to wait to become the boss to start leading. Choose a specific issue you care about, a setting in which you feel comfortable trying it out and start training your leadership muscles. If you work in a very hierarchical organization and doubt anyone would change company strategies just because the cleaning lady (you) said so, start your training elsewhere: In a civic movement, your church, your neighborhood or your dog-training-club. Or, instead of tackling the core strategy in your organization, focus on a neglected side issue, start a “greening group” or a professional development initiative. The most important thing is to start exercising, start leading something, somewhere, some time. And observe what happens: What works, what doesn’t, what feels comfortable? Observe others: How do they do it? Would you feel authentic trying out these strategies? And, give yourself a break. No one needs to lead all the time in all areas of life.

Over to you: Where have you exercised your leadership muscles lately? What are some strategies that you find helpful when leading from below? I’m curious to hear from you.

Can you change organizational culture?

What organizational culture might these ladies be brewing? (copyright by PumpkinWayne on Flickr)

More and more leaders understand that the “organizational culture” of their organization can have a major impact on how people work and collaborate, what they aspire to and achieve, whether they stay or leave and finally, on the bottom line (whether you are in the business of saving newborn lives or producing computers).

The automatic reaction to this insight seems to be: Let’s figure out what culture we have, what culture we want and then let’s go fix it. Just like you would fix an inefficiency in the production line. If we don’t know how to do it, we’ll hire an expert and they’ll fix it for us. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) it just doesn’t work that way. The first challenge is finding out what culture you have. Culture in and of itself is not something you can see, touch or even measure. If you don’t want to remain in fluffy-buzzword-land, you have to be more concrete than that and start talking about the expressions of culture, the behaviors, perceptions and emotions of people with regards to specific issues.
 So if you want to change organizational culture, the first task is to clarify with the person who came up with this, what exactly they are talking about, what are concrete examples of “when this happens we tend to do that” that they are not happy with. What would be some concrete storylines they’d be happier with? And once you are at it, in this same clarifying conversation you can explore the concrete actions and interventions they have tried out in the past to get there, what worked, what didn’t, how they assess the reasons for how it went. And when you are done clarifying your mandate with the responsible person, you can check if these observations, frustrations, aspirations and attributions defined by the leadership resonate at all with people on different levels of the organization.
This leads to an important point and that is history. The organizational culture is not just something that happens today but something that is like the famous Chinese hundred year old soup (or was it 1000 years?) where you have a pot on the fire in the middle of the village and people add ingredients every day as they have them available. They also eat every day from it, but never empty the pot completely, so some of this soup may well be 100 or 1000 years old. While you will never be able to extract a single ingredient added 70 years ago, each action taken by/in the organization in the past adds to the organizational culture as you find it today. And you will never get the same rich flavor by pouring out the whole content of the pot, scrubbing it down and preparing an instant soup from a packet.
A lot of people who want to change organizational culture only look at: What are the negative things about the culture we have at the moment, where does it hold us back, what are cultures of other organizations which we would prefer? Looking at your organizational culture with a historical perspective can allow you to understand that each cultural practice was once started with a good reason and if they persist, there has to be a strong reason in the organizational logic why it is still there. Take highly bureaucratic cultures. Often we see them as a pain and an impediment to getting stuff done. But they also provide stability even in situations with high staff turnover, relying on standard procedures frees time and resources to solve non-standard issues and bureaucracy comes with the promise that everyone will be treated following the same rules, no matter their informal networks or personal cunning (now, whether the promise is always fulfilled is a different question).
So to do something about persistent cultural practices which you do want to change, start by asking people with different perspectives about what the drivers behind it’s persistence are: “What are positive effects for the organization, individuals or departments within it or outside actors which come from doing things the way we do them now (give concrete example here)?” “What would who lose and gain if we started doing it this way instead of that?” Digging into this will allow you two things: Reformulate your mission as you understand what should be preserved and what should be changed. And get an idea of who you have to interact with how to get this preservation and change started.
One last thing: Culture is not something you can “make” but rather something that develops and grows. Just as it doesn’t help to pull at a flower to try to make it grow faster. So what I see as most promising is to plant a few seeds, pilot a few changed procedures or behaviors in different corners of the organization, nurture them and see what the effect is. By all means, try to get support from leadership and work on changing incentives and other big picture issues to make change easier for the people who live and create organizational culture every day. But at the same time, experiment very concretely on the ground. Often showing that “it” (whatever it is) can be done in one corner of the organization and supporting “field visits” (any kinds of interactions between those who doubt and those who have achieved it) is the strongest organic approach to culture change.
Interesting further reading:
Steve Denning writes in Forbes Magazine about using leadership, management and power tools to engineer culture change and uses the history of the World Bank as example.
In a much more organic approach, Peter Bregman describes on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network how to use stories to change the culture, even before you change incentives, structures etc.: Do story-worthy things that illustrate your envisioned new culture and let others talk about them. Find others who do story-worthy things and tell those.

The politics of implementation

Tetanus vaccination - cost effective... but still, who's gonna pay for it? (copyright hdptcar on flickr)

Last week I went to an interesting event by the Society of International Development (SID) about innovative approaches in health system financing in developing countries. The speakers told us about new and more market oriented approaches, local experiences and international trends etc. But what I found most interesting happened in the discussion, when one of the audience members got up and said: “In the end, it’s all about the politics of implementation”. The whole room full of international health and finance expert nodded so vigorously that I felt like the ground was shaking. Yes, everyone who has been in the field and tried to reform pretty much anything, knows that it is great to have sexy innovations or reliable tried and tested approaches to offer. And it is important to push the envelope in trying out new things and also continuing to do (and fund) the approaches that have worked in the past. But that is not at all enough to achieve project success and change the world for better. If you get stuck in the politics of implementation, your best concept will just remain that, a concept. Or, a “plan” as a Ghanaian colleague once defined it for me: “It doesn’t have to be realistic, it’s just a plan.”

Now after I left this room where everyone seemed to agree that you won’t get anywhere without taking politics (in the broadest sense) into account, the question I had was: Why then is it always treated as an afterthought, a surprise, something you have to muddle through once you (Surprise! Surprise!) encounter it? Why is: “How we’re gonna deal with the inevitable politics of implementation” rarely a chapter in project proposals? And why are there few better, more formal or teachable methods than  “muddle through” and “use your intuition/experience/inherent status”? I find this especially surprising as this insight is not limited to public health financing: You could say “In the end it’s all about the politics of implementation” in just about any room of development practitioners and people would agree.

It’s say: If that is one of the main things holding you back, look it in the face, anticipate it, make a plan (I’m being German here, as always, I mean a plan with concrete actions, money and deadlines attached to it), learn and teach methods that help you deal with politics and go ahead, deal with them.

Net-Map – Agile – Organizational Change

This is not the kind of Agile I'm talking about (picture by Double--M on flickr)

Last week I worked with an Agile coach who helps large organizations to move their software development from traditional waterfall programming to adopting agile approaches. What does that mean? Well, waterfall programming means you start out by telling the programmers what you need, then they go and program for a few (or more than a few) months and finally come back with a program for you to use. Now you can see whether you actually knew what you wanted in the beginning and whether the finished product fits. In an agile approach the programming cycles are shortened to weeks and at the end of each iteration stands a good enough product that you can start using and trying out, giving feedback to the programmers so that they can go back to tweak, adjust and make it fit.

One of the great and scary things about becoming agile is that it doesn’t just mean using a different kind of product in the end. But that it means significantly changing processes, power and incentives within the organization. So introducing agile is not just a technical switch but actually an organizational change effort. And this is why my colleague proposed that we Net-Map it.

So at the beginning of a 1 1/2 year project he has just started we met with the three leading managers who oversee the agile implementation for this international corporation. And asked them the simple and difficult question: Who are all the actors who will influence the success of the project (positively or negatively)?

What did we find out? Well, my colleague now has a list of people he wants to invite to the first planning round. And within this list, he knows of a few people who need special attention, e.g.:

  • The social integrator, that everyone feels comfortable going to with new ideas or the need for feedback.
  • Some actors from neighboring domains who fear that their influence might be diminished by the implementation of agile.
  • The strongest driver of the process in the leadership team.

He has more clarity about the drivers that motivate the different people involved and their priorities, especially when it comes to the question: “Is it more important to get stuff done and show results fast or to implement and document processes that others can follow in the future?”

Also, mapping out the whole situation provided a great opportunity to dig deeper into the history of this project, the divisions and people involved and how their past experience with each other might influence their ability and willingness to work together on this project. This specifically is an area where external consultants can easily step on landmines from conflicts they didn’t even know existed…

And finally, working with the project leaders on this and giving them the space to draw a map of their views and experiences, allowing for disagreement and exploration as well as finding a shared core, was a great way of laying the ground work for a longer process of collaboration, getting to know each other better, seeing what their priorities and worries are and reassuring them that we have heard.

Discovering hidden influencers that make or break project success

Beyond the org. chart: Conflict and personal friendships influencing innovation

“It’s time to re-invent management. You can help!”

That’s how the Management Innovation Challenge is introduced on their website, and I though: “Well, if you think so, I’ll help…” So together with my colleague Michael Lennon I contributed a Hack that describes how you can use Net-Map as an easy and approachable tool to discover hidden influencers.  How do you teach people on all levels of an organization how to effectively navigate the “people aspect” of achieving your goals?

If you are a regular reader (or even fan???) of this blog, you know what I’m talking about. If not, it’s a rather brief read. But whether new to Net-Map or experienced Net-Mapper yourself, head over to

Look at what we have to say and give us some love by rating our hack and commenting on it.

Oh, and beyond this shameless self-promotion I’d also recommend you go there and read what everybody has to say. Some amazing contributions, all bundled under such inspiring moon shots as:

  • Humanize the language of business
  • Capture the advantage of diversity
  • Make direction setting bottom-up and outside-in
  • Build natural, flexible hierarchies.

Thinking alone – crowd sourcing – tapping into the group brain?

The body is more than a pile of sticks - group brain is more than a pile of brains (picture copyright by perpetualplum on flickr)

I love reading books by great thinkers, who (that’s how I imagine it) sit in their cabin in the forest, have amazing ideas that they slowly work through (or that hit them like lightening) and that they put on paper in solitary contemplation. And while most of us might not be at that level of genius, there is something to be said for solitary, in-depth thinking within the confines of your own brain. No matter how difficult that is getting with the increasing disturbance through social media (and social friends…).

Now crowd sourcing seems to be at the other end of the spectrum, solving problems by tapping into the minds of millions, letting everyone who wants contribute and improve the outcome. That makes it possible to integrate more diverging views, knowledge from more different domains and something we vaguely call collective wisdom.

But then, a lot of crowd sourcing is actually facilitated by mechanisms that help us pile our individual thoughts on top of each other, compiling contributions of single minds in front of computers (or cell phones or whatever). That is great for developing and maintaining something like Wikipedia, where we need a compilation of the true and tested knowledge of all known phenomena of the world, based on some kind of majority agreement.

But I wonder: Is it also the best approach to solving messy unclear problems, finding amazing innovations and unusual leaps forward? Or: How can you help a group of people not just pile their thoughts on top of each other but actually multiply what one person can come up with by helping them truely think together and (at least for a few hours) tap into their combined group brain?

I have found that a lot of group facilitation techniques are exactly about this, getting groups to the point where their sum is more than just a collection of the individual parts. And if you have ever suffered through a boring meeting of intelligent people, you know that just putting all the experts in a room and hoping they will come up with something amazing, will not lead you far. So what are the things that help you tap into the group brain?

1. Combine structure and freedom. In Net-Map we have a very simple structure of 4 steps (write actors on cards, draw links, write goals next to actors, set up influence towers) that moves the discussion forward and helps participants focus on the issues of interest. But beyond these steps there are very few limitations with regards to what people can discuss and it is this discussion around the map drawing in which the most interesting discoveries are made.

2. Don’t stay on the surface – explore your assumptions. The most frustrating group discussions are those where every participant assumes that the others share their assumptions while that is not the case. Talking about influence for example, let’s say I assume influence comes from being rich and you assume influence comes from having the best ideas. If we try to develop a strategy for becoming more influential together without ever looking at these assumptions, I will find your approaches unbearably naive and you will find me terribly cynical and all we get out of this is increased frustration and disrespect for each other. When we set up influence towers while doing a Net-Map, group members often have the most heated debate around the question of “What makes someone influential”. But these debates are heated in a good way, they are engaged because they point to the heart of the matter. And as participants unearth their assumptions, they show “where they are coming from” and start connecting to each others way of thinking in a more constructive way.

3. The fact that I am right doesn’t mean that you are wrong. Now this is the most difficult and the most rewarding challenge of developing a group brain. It means achieving true inspiration by breaking down the boundaries between my way and your way of thinking. We are trained in the kind of debate where we want to win, where, while I listen to you I make a list of counter arguments in my head to see how I can beat you. Try holding this thought in your brain instead: “We can disagree and both be right.” Feels a bit painful? Especially if this is about an issue you deeply care about… Sure, because what you feel is the crumbling of walls between you and the person you disagree with, and walls give you such a great sense of security.You know who you are and what you stand for. But they are also really in the way if you want to see what the world looks like.

In the groups I work with people tend to have very strong assumptions about what makes someone influential over a certain issue. Alone each of them will focus on one strategy and gather more money, learning, connections, black-mail material or whatever they think makes them influential. And they will tend to form coalitions with people who follow the same strategies, built on the same assumptions because this is just so comfortable (Isn’t it funny how we think a person is so clever when what we actually observe is just that they share our assumptions about the world?). If a group can learn to entertain the thought that I can be right and you can be right even though we disagree, they can start seeing that different people in their system gained their power through different means. And that an influencer coalition that combines these different influence sources can be so much more powerful than one that only includes one and fights with everyone else. Sure, you have to see where your boundaries are and maybe you don’t want to start collecting black-mail material… not because it doesn’t make you influential but because you don’t agree with it on ethical grounds.

4. Don’t force agreement, encourage respectful exploration. In the end, a group of diverse inspired thinkers will not (and should not) agree on everything. If you want to use the group brain to the fullest, don’t restrict it by the pre-condition that afterward everyone has to hold hands around the camp-fire and sing Kumbaja, don’t force people to end up with one common story if that is not where they are. Your goal (as a facilitator or participant) is rather to be connected with respect, trust and insight while staying diverse. You want the individuals to continue doing in their own brains what is best done in solitary thinking while trusting that they can share even their craziest ideas with the group and they will together cook a great meal out of this. Some things sweet, others bitter. Some pure, others mixed and spicy.

O.k., this is it for today. A friend of mine once said that reading my posts is like hearing me think, and this post is truely one of those, my attempt of making sense of what I see by writing it down and sharing it with you. It would be great to hear what you think, does this relate to your experience? Are there other things that are crucial when trying to activate the group brain? What are the things you should by all means avoid?

If you want more participants, invite less people!

Sometimes a one-man-show is all you want (copyright by Eu-Motion on flickr) - just don't call it participatory

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Well, that might be because the word “participants” has been overstretched and overused to mean everyone who sits in a room where something is happening. So if you do a participatory activity (e.g. draw a Net-Map with a group) and there are 30 people in the room, they are all participants, right?

Well, not really. In my experience, if you try to squeeze 30 people around one table you end up with at least two rows of chairs and with a few very active participants in the front row and a large audience of people who just watch and listen to what is happening.

My numbers are based on experience and it can vary according to activity, culture (national and group culture) and facilitator skills, but as a general rule of tumb I would say: If 4-8 people sit around the table, an organic discussion can develop in which people choose their level of involvement according to what they have to say and with just a little guidance of the facilitator to encourage quiet ones and dampen the domineering ones. Let 9-12 people draw a Net-Map together and you will have to facilitate more assertively and be one of these people who can listen to two different things with your two ears, see two different things with your two eyes to make sure that everyone and every view has the chance to be heard. Above that number, you are likely to loose the ability to see and feel the whole group all the time, there will be more and more side conversations or just a quiet group of people who feel disempowered to speak because they don’t feel they have enough status, knowledge or their opinion doesn’t reflect the perceived mainstream of the group.

And the interesting thing is: The bigger the group, the smaller the number of active participants becomes. Not just in relative but in absolute terms. So, in a group of 7 you might have 7 active contributors. In a group of 20, most likely there will be 1-3 really active contributors and then some who say something every once in a while but most will not say a thing (unless they wisper it in their neighbors ear). One of the reasons is that saying something in a small group feels like engaging with your peers. Saying something in a large group feels like being on stage.

So, if you are looking for active participants and not just a quiet audience to a 2-man-Net-Map show, invite less people. And make sure they represent all the different views you want to learn about. Or invite more people but split them up into smaller groups.