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.

Being a leader without being the boss

... and what lights your fire? (copyright by Neils Photography on flickr)

… or: responsibility without authority.

We’ve all been there and maybe you are there today: You feel responsible for the success of an initiative, change process or project but have little or no formal authority to tell people what to do. Or maybe you just have a passion for making something happen (in your organization, neighborhood, family) but you are not the boss who can order people to do it. Well, whether ordering people to do stuff actually leads to sustainable change is a different question. But today I want to talk about affecting change if you don’t have formal authority.

Some of the most amazing organizational changes and innovations come from the belly and not the head of organizations. And some of the most amazing potential changes just live a sad life in the heads of people who never manage to infect their surroundings with them. So, what do you need to do to lead without being the boss?

I think the first thing to do is to give yourself permission. A lot of people censor what they even try, because they think it is not in their job description to rock the boat. It might not be in your formal job description for this specific position in this organization, but it’s in your job description as a human being to try and make your little corner of the world as better place. Or, to look at it more pragmatically: If you ever want to get into a position of authority, you want to be noticed as someone who goes beyond the narrow letters of the job description and achieves amazing things, no matter what your position in the organization.

Discover what you burn for. The most powerful force in leading without formal authority is your own passion. It will guide you, sustain you when it looks like nothing is working out and draw people to you and your goals. Remember, people can freely choose to support your initiative (as you have no formal authority), so being engaging is one of your strongest assets. Achieving things that go beyond your formal authority can take a lot of energy and be exhausting. So focus on one or two things you really burn for.

Understand how influence works in this system. Every system (organization, neighborhood, family) has different ways how members can gain influence. Some typical ones would be: formal authority, seniority, being an expert, having new ideas, being likeable and engaging, bringing in money, being grumpy, being manipulative, being connected to influential people (inside or outside the system), being of the preferred gender, age group, race etc. Study your system, think about the people who seem to be influential, how are they doing it? What makes them powerful? Don’t narrow your mind when your think about this: In each system different people succeed to gain influence with different strategies.

Understand your own influencer profile. Look at your personality, background and position in the system: Which ones of the above  attributes of an influencer do you have already? Which ones can you realistically develop (changing your race or gender are obviously less likely than changing your level of expertise or grumpieness)? What influencer personalities do you admire and connect to? Don’t try to become someone else, rather become your best and most influential self by developing those parts of your personality and position which will allow you to lead.

Understand and develop your influence network. If you haven’t drawn a Net-Map around this issue yet, now is the time. Ask yourself: “Who are all the people, groups and organizations that can influence whether I achieve the goal I am passionate about?” And map all actors, formal and informal links, their goals with regards to your goal and their level of influence. Reflect on what you see: Where do the movers and shakers in this map get their influence from (see above)? Who are you linked to already? What links are missing? What actors or links hold you back?

If you are like most people, you will be connected to a lot of others who are similar to you and few who are different. Let’s say you are a young white male and your  influence comes from being an expert on the issue. I would take a bet that most of the people you go for lunch with are equally young white males and experts, while you have fever connections to people whose influence comes from seniority, bringing in money or making the rules. It’s nice and comfortable to have a peer group of friends of the same kind who share the same ideas. But to become a leader even though you don’t have authority, it is crucial to connect with those who don’t just share your influencer strategy but can bring the missing pieces to the table. Look at your map again: Who has the most different influencer assets from yours? Don’t pick someone whose values you don’t share (like the greatest back-stabber) but just someone who has a different role and personality. Could this person develop a passion for your goals? Or do your goals have a side effect that would be great for this person? Explore. Form coalitions accross organizational or social boundaries.

Connect and share. Now you better understand who you want to join forces with, connect and share with them. Sharing is crucial if you want to have a long term impact: Share responsibility and ownership, access to other network partners and maybe most importantly, generously and publicly share praise once you achieve something amazing.

And finally: Wherever you go, don’t leave your passion at home. Leading without being a boss is a much messier and less predictable process than giving orders. Serendipity is your best friend. Don’t lecture everyone you meet about your goals till they are bored to tears. But be ready to talk about your passion outside of formal work meetings, connect it to other people’s interest in the coffee break, with a stranger on the plane, with a fellow parent at the playground (that’s how I ended up giving a brown bag seminar at Deloitte Consulting, but that is a different story alltogether…) and be in it for the long haul. This leads me back to “discovering what you burn for”. Because that is the only way you will really want to carry it with you all the time.

If you want to change the world, teach!

Teaching future Net-Mappers at the International Food Policy Research Institute was a pleasure: Highly motivated participants, who bombarded my co-trainer Noora-Lisa Aberman an me with questions, from the very concrete (How to deal with an arrogant interview partner who thinks board game pieces are below him?) to the philosophical (How are truth and perception related?). Some of them had very concrete projects in mind when they signed up for the training, one even brought the draft of a paper where he wanted to use a Net-Map to visualize the complex results. Now today I am back in my office and receive the first preliminary results from participants of this year’s Summer School in Italy and all of this made me take one step back and think about the impact of teaching as compared to other things I spend my time with (e.g. implementing projects for people and organizations). I looked at it from a network perspective: If you are just one individual with a good idea but no large organization or funds but the desire to have an impact, what should you do? Implement projects for clients? Teach implementers? Or train trainers? I intuitively knew the answer, but still, drawing the three networks that would develop through these different strategies, I was overwhelmed when I understood the scale in which these approaches differ… If you implement 6 projects you implement 6 projects. By training 6 students who each implement 3 projects, you achieve 18 projects. If you focus on training 6 trainers, who each train 3 students, who each implement 3 projects, you move up to 54 projects…

If you implement 6 projects you implement 6 projects

Now I know from experience that training, learning and spreading new ideas is much more complex than an easy multiplication. I have trained some trainers who have by now turned into co-owners of the method, putting about as much passion into it as I do, talking, breathing, eating and dreaming Net-Map and teaching it whereever they go… While others of my students were happy to attend a training in good company but have never had the actual opportunity to use Net-Map in their work. So if I mapped out the actual map, with myself in the middle and all the people I have worked with and trained around me, it would be a less symetric map. Which also reminds me that it is not just the fact that you conduct trainings: Train good people and train them well!

If you teach 6 who each implement 3 project, your efforts lead to 18 projects

But still, the general truth remains: If you are a little person who thinks she/he has a great idea, go teach. And don’t be afraid of “giving your knowledge away”. It’s not like money, which, once you have given it away, alas, is not in your pocket any more. If you share your ideas freely and teach people to the point where they can become teachers, you will see your ideas grow, morph, develop and something overwhelming might come out of it, which you never would have achieved on your own.

If you teach 6 trainers who teach 3 students each who implement 3 projects each, your effort leads to 54 projects

Is “development 2.0” the same as “agile international development”?

Learn from others how to be more agile (picture copyright Luca5 on flickr)

I’m not sure. But it does sound very similar. As a response to my earlier post about agile international development, Mitchell Toomey of UNDP invited me to join their discussion forum around “development 2.0” which basically looks at what development projects can learn from the way that successful web 2.0 start-ups work. Mitchell wrote a more elaborate post about how human development projects can become more agile, which shows that he is much more familiar with the technical side of agile and programming in general than I am. Other interesting stuff I read in the same direction is the development 2.0 manifesto by Giulio Quaggiotto and a response by Ian Thorpe who points out (and rightly so) that development 2.0 is more than tech, it’s remaking an industry. His view is closest to what I was thinking of, because when I apply agile concepts to international development, I am also thinking of projects that have no cell phones or computers or internet involved, or that, at least, don’t have those tools at the core of their mission. You could have an agile basked weaving project or an agile breastfeeding support project, where the core of what you do is: People interacting with people and natural things. But still you do this in an iterative, participatory, learning oriented manner. You might use cell phones to support the project. But you don’t start out with a cool app that you have to somehow build a project around…

One issue where I am sure the development 2.0 people could learn a lot from agile coaches (and not just from web 2.0 start-ups) is how to institute these radical changes in large hierarchical organizations. As I hear, even the US Department of Defense is flirting with becoming agile. I am sure that people who help a large command and control organization like this become more flexible would have some experience to share that would be useful for people who are interested in changing the way they work with or in the UN, USAID or gtz.

Using Net-Map to become more agile

Ok, I wrote about how a different sector (e.g. international development) could use agile philosophies to improve their work and become more relevant and adaptive. But we also looked at it from the opposite direction: Is there something I could offer the coaches to improve their work. At the Agile Coach Camp I did two Net-Map sessions (and then some impromptu lunch break ones for those who couldn’t attend the “real” ones), and there we talked a lot about what Net-Map could do for Agile.

If you come to an organization (as internal or external Agile coach) and you want to implement Agile, this is not like saying: “We are going to use this new product now… but we will keep on working the way we did before”. It’s a radical change in what the organization does and how it does it. And as we know, the core reason for forming an organization is to organize chaos, provide stability and predictability. So typically organizations have a strong inherent force toward doing things “how we always did them” and are allergic against change. A lot of organizations are sort of ok with changing what they do (e.g. producing new products to follow market development) but changing how things are done is the scariest thing, because that attacks the glue that holds an organization together.

And that is the main reason why introducing Agile is not a technical as much as an organizational change task and why the Agile coaches got so excited when trying out Net-Map. Typically they are brought into the organization by someone who thinks Agile is a great idea and is looking for a partner in implementing it in the organization. The coaches should, however, not fall for the illusion that “the organization” wants to become agile. It’s always more complex than that. You will have people who fear loosing their power as experts or clearing houses as the new way of doing things is introduced, you will have others who don’t agree that you can trust people to deliver instead of micromanaging and controling every breath they take, some (maybe in the leadership) will wake up one day and realize that they underestimated the depth of change that they invited into their organization and get very nervous about it, because they actually just wanted an increase in productivity without a revolution in work flow organization or organizational culture.

As a coach you come into this situation and see all these people just as “the organization”, a mass of faces, having no idea where the secret and open supporters and saboteurs sit and how this specific change process fits into the history of this organization. In our Net-Mapping session, participants mapped out their own perception of specific organizational constellations they have to deal with and developed a deeper understanding of the core stumbling blocks and coalitions. That is a great first step. But imagine how powerful it would become if you started to use it with the people driving and impacted by the change. Interviewing your first point of contact / the person who initiated the Agile implementation would be a first step to understand the lay of the land. Then, in individual or group interviews you would talk with people who have very different perspectives on this, making sure that you are respectful to everyone, no matter what their stand is. So instead of saying: “These people are for or against Agile (the good and the bad people)” you would have to frame both perspectives positively, for example by saying that they are for stability or for change… Apart from getting a very fast in-depth understanding of the positive and negative, formal and informal power networks, you would also have a great way of understanding the root causes for people’s hesitations and allowing all of them to feel like they are part of this development within their organization, instead of feeling like this is something leadership is doing to them.

Some of the coaches were really excited about the idea of including initial Net-Map sessions into their approaches, so maybe I can soon write about how this actually worked.