The Power of Marrying Facilitation and Sector Expertise

Last week I talked with my colleagues from the IFCSumit Manchanda and Anja Robakowski-Van Stralen, and Amit Nag (Net-Map facilitator) who have used Net-Map to facilitate their political economy analysis in setting up Public Private Dialogues in developing countries. These are high level platforms, facilitating regular meetings and results oriented dialogues between public and private sectors actors. They help countries improve their business climate and government-private sector relations.

In our conversation we tried to distill the lessons learned from this experience and one thing really stood out: The power of bringing together technical expertise and good Net-Map facilitation skills. This doesn’t mean that a Net-Mapper has to be expert in each field they work in. Or that a technical expert is necessarily best placed to be the Net-Map facilitator. But if neither is the case, then bringing your technical colleague (ideally steeped in local knowledge too) into the room as co-facilitator or observer lifts your work to the next level. Because you, the Net-Mapper can bring out structural issues that have never been talked about before. You allow the group to look at complex pictures, seeing the trees and the forest at the same time.

The technical sector expert can then ask the questions they were never able to pinpoint, dig deeper, call out half-truths or omissions that the group might want to slip by you, remind the group of the history of the issue, nudge them to open up about conflicts and, most importantly, help you and the group figure out the meaning of what you see and what to do next.

Also, if the technical expert also happens to be your client, they will learn so much more and get so much more excited, when sitting at the table as the Net-Map is happening than by reading your report, which you had to condense, streamline and probably sanitize to fit public scrutiny and protect individuals. And they can take the insights from the mapping session right into the decisions they have to take about moving forward.

I am sure that even without ever being in a Net-Map session, you can share some experience about the tension or marriage (or marriage with tension?) between sector expertise and facilitation skills… What has been your experience with:

  • Facilitating processes without being a sector expert?
  • “Being facilitated” by a person who wasn’t an expert in your field?
  • Working in a Facilitator – Sector Expert team to facilitate difficult conversations?


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We have no conflict

Two weeks ago I was in a Net-Map session where one group insisted that they had no conflict likes to draw. The question they were working on revolved around the implementation of a complex government reform program, so my co-facilitator and I stepped back and started judging and strategizing: “Impossible that there are no conflicts. What do you think, is it maybe culturally difficult to admit? How can we call it instead? Disagreement? What can we do to make them more open or comfortable?” And we pushed some more and pulled some more.

Finally one of them broke it down to us: Look, we are working in silos, we never really interact, how could there be conflicts? Plus, the work hasn’t really left the ground yet…

For me that was a great lesson in listening instead of following our own frameworks. It’s so easy, especially when working under high pressure to see participants as “resisting” instead of questioning your own assumptions and framework…

Identifying international knowledge partnerships

With my colleagues Kerstin Tebbe and Bruno Laporte I just had an interesting design conversation for a session in which they want to help the members of a water basin commission better understand with whom they have knowledge exchange partnerships. We realized soon that this is not going to be a Net-Map session or a session of some squeezed out, shrunk down little cousin of Net-Map. So the proposed steps are the following:

  1. All 20 participants (individually) write the names of the commission’s most important and reliable knowledge partners on index cards (with thick marker and great handwriting). The cards are color-coded by categories, e.g. government on green cards, civil society on red.
  2. They put all cards on a large table and start looking for duplicates – if both of us wrote University of XYZ, we stack these cards to reduce the number of cards we are dealing with.
  3. Depending on the number of remaining cards (judgment call in the situation), they instruct the group to get up and take all cards (or only those of actors that have been mentioned at least twice), and walk to a large, sketched  map on the floor of the 5 countries involved. They distribute the actor cards on the map, according to the country the actor is located in.
  4. As this very rough geographical actor map emerges, the participants consider a number of questions: Do we have stronger networks in some countries than others? Are some colors (i.e. actor categories) overrepresented on the map – or in some countries? Who is missing? What is the difference between the stack of cards I produced on my own and the map that emerged as we started putting it all together? How can we, as a group, access this whole richness, instead of just our own little corners?

This activity is located at the start of a longer engagement to improve the knowledge exchange and management of this organization, so they don’t have to answer all the questions in the world, the goal is rather to get the conversation started, to invite the complexity into the room without being overwhelmed.

I am curious to hear what you think about this? Would it work in your context? Can you think of something which would even sharpen or further enrich the activity? Have we overlooked a critical risk? And, don’t you love the artwork above, which Tara Donovan (picture credit) created out of thousands and thousands of index cards?

Net-Map facilitation pointers: Links

After a recent Net-Map practice sessions a colleague asked a number of very pointed questions which inspired me to start a series of Net-Map facilitation pointers which help Net-Mappers improve what they do, by focusing on specific aspects of the method, building on my 8 years of experience since I developed Net-Map. Let me start sharing them with you too – starting with everything I know about links:

Net-Map Facilitation Pointers: Links

This series of facilitation pointers is aimed at practitioners of Net-Map who want to improve their implementation and are looking for specific guidance on aspects of implementation.


Deciding on the most informative links is a challenge. It can either be done with the participants, asking them: “In which ways are actors on the map connected which has an impact on the result?” or by pre-defining a list, which is then given to the participants to adjust. In general it is recommended to pre-define more in situations where time is limited and you have a good understanding of the situation (or the possibility to pre-test) and to pre-define less where you have the time to discuss with participants, you are working in a situation you are less familiar with and working in a cultural context sharply different from yours.

Pre-testing (even if it is just a simulation without actual participants, the Net-Mappers map what they think it might look like) is very powerful in helping you understand what different links can do.

The general instruction is to look for links which are very different from each other, to allow you to learn about as many different dynamics of the system as possible. When choosing links, reassess your personal and professional biases and stretch beyond them (e.g. some researchers want to only map knowledge flows, without looking at funding or hierarchy; if you personally are uncomfortable with tension in the room you may want to avoid mapping negative links; if you are cynical you may want to only map formal and negative links, but don’t believe in the power of informal positive links etc.).

Picking diverse links can often mean including some formal links and some informal links. Also, it can be very powerful to include at least one negative link (i.e. a link which has a negative emotion attached to it – it might or might not be negative for the functioning of the system). In some cases you want to include a material flow as well, because it is crucial to the system. See below for examples for these link categories. Please don’t use “informal link” as the name of a link on your map. As you can see below, there are many kinds of informal links, and if you don’t specify it is not clear whether this link means for example friendship or conflict. Also, you will never be able to map all links in a system, so be comfortable with mapping just enough. The rule of thumb is that 4 different links is a healthy medium (not too many or too few). In practical experience we sometimes allowed for a 5th link which was a subcategory of one of the initial 4 links, most commonly “informal money flow” or “bribes” in a network which had formal money flow already.

Typical Links in the different categories

Formal links:

  • Formal hierarchy
  • Formal reporting
  • Formal flow of funds
  • Contract relationships

Informal links

  • Being friends
  • Giving Advice
  • Loving
  • Having conflict
  • Being in competition
  • Executing pressure
  • Giving information
  • Trusting
  • Lying to
  • Giving bribes
  • Respecting

Negative links (links with negative emotional content)

  • Having conflict
  • Being in competition
  • Lying to
  • Torturing
  • Fearing (Who fears whom?)

Material flows

  • Giving funds
  • Giving money
  • Flow of contraceptives/improved seeds/shea nuts etc. (a thing which is crucial in the project)
  • Flow of infections (e.g. Who transmits HIV to whom?)

On terminology and misunderstandings

Defining links (and defining the overall Net-Map question) is where we observe the biggest risk for misunderstandings which are not clarified and either lead to a lot of conflict during drawing the map or a lot of misinterpretation of results afterwards. As an example, in Ethiopia, while working with a local implementer we intended to ask for lines of formal authority. In the maps we received nearly no one had drawn any formal authority links, stating: “We don’t do this kind of thing anymore, we are a democracy now.” Somewhere in the process of translation the meaning had shifted towards “authoritarian links”. But even while staying within the same language, one word can have many meanings, e.g. in Ghana the term “motivation” is a material link, as it describes the money you receive before you start your work, to motivate you. To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, it is useful to ask participants for examples: “If you and I have a link of “support”, what does that mean, what do we do?”

When working through interpreters, this becomes even more difficult as they are an additional bottleneck for misunderstandings. Ideally you draw a Net-Map with your interpreter (where they are the case giver) before going to the field, so that they understand what to expect and you can go over the terminology and expectations as well. The best interpreters in Net-Map are those that have developed the ability of being co-facilitators.

What is a link, what is not a link?

A link is a connection or flow between two actors. You can imagine a connection like a pipe and a flow like the water flowing through the pipe. Both can be drawn as links, e.g. “friendship” is a connection (pipe) and “giving advice” is a flow (water). As a rule of thumb, often the links that are connections go both ways, while in the links that are flows, the direction of the link (arrowhead) matters. It makes a difference whether I give you money or you give me money…

However, while it is important to understand what a link is, it is nearly as important to understand what is not a link, to avoid confusion.

Actor attributes are not links!

An actor attribute is everything that merely describes one actor (e.g. being rich, making legislation, being against the proposal, being male or being French) but not the relationship to other actors. It is easy to confuse attributes and links, especially with regards to the membership to groups.

Group membership is not a link!

Being a member of a party, a tribe or a religious group does not, as such, mean that you are connected to everyone else who belongs to this group. It might make your connection to other group members easier and to non-group members more difficult. But it is not a connection as such. If it is important to indicate group membership on a Net-Map, either use the color of post-it (actor category) or write abbreviations next to each actor card.

A link that connects one actor to everyone else (or everyone to everyone) is not a useful link to map!

On some maps there are actors such as “The Media” and participants wish to draw an information link from the media to each and every other actor on the map. Doing this will take up 15 minutes of the group’s time and create additional mess on the map, without giving you any additional information (beyond: “Everyone listens to the radio.”).

Rather note this information in one sentence in your qualitative notes, and limit the links on the map to those which can tell you something distinctive about the structure of connections, which you wouldn’t know without mapping it.

How my bad French made me a better facilitator

Let Your Magic Happen

I recently went on a mission to Cameroon, where one of my tasks was to facilitate a workshop with about 100 participants. Cameroon is a bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean all Cameroonians are bilingual. It rather means, there are some regions that are predominately francophone (the majority) and some that are anglophone (the rest). And, in my experience, in a room full of 100 people from all over the country, you have maybe 5-10 who prefer speaking English… and who are very used to working in French. Then you have about 90-95 who prefer speaking French… and who understand English better than if you were in a purely francophone country – but who have a strong preference for working in French.

My French on the other hand… well… I understand most of what people say. And I can survive very well. What I cannot do in French is sound clever. Or express delicate matters delicately. Or explain complex processes clearly, so that everyone can easily follow. You’ve guessed it: What I cannot do in French is facilitate a participatory workshop with 100 participants.

How on earth did that make me a better facilitator, you wonder?

Well, a facilitator is someone who provides structure and processes and then gets out of the way to let the magic happen. In the case of Cameroon, like in a lot of my work, we are working with local facilitators who are there not just for the workshops during out field visits but to support the project throughout implementation.

My typical approach to a workshop like this would be to be the lead facilitator and have the local facilitators facilitate small group work and other less challenging, less complex and less visible work. During this workshop however I did not hold a microphone or say a public word even once. I had prepared very well with our local facilitators, we knew what the process was, then I handed over to them and spent the day listening, observing, preparing flip charts, handing out post-its, checking in with the facilitators, feeling the room, keeping eye contact and trying to get out of the way to let the magic happen.

All the while the local facilitators had space to show their value, get visibility, develop contacts and prepare for the implementation work which started once we left.

From this experience I gained two insights:

  • Running the show and dancing on stage might not be the best idea for a visiting mission – even if we know the language well. Because it can easily send the message: The international team consists of superheroes, flown in to save the day. The local team is just second-best – you have to bear with them until the superheroes come back.
  • You are more likely to learn, adapt and innovate in a situation of scarcity and constraints than in a situation of abundance: If everything I wanted had been there (e.g. my perfect command of French) I would have done things like I always do them, without a second thought.

How about you, how have your limitations led you to do your work better?

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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.



Become an expert Net-Map facilitator: Next training in DC June 27-28

influence towers from sideWe are are planning 2 Net-Map workshops in Washington DC this year. There are some more workshops planned in other parts of the world (e.g. Kenya in May)– so stay tuned. And, if you are interested in a workshop catered to your organization and at your location, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

The next workshop in DC is scheduled for June 27-28. So please mark the dates. This is a two day workshop in which you learn the basics of how to use Net-Map to improve your ability to understand and navigate personal and professional networks. The workshop will have a strong focus on learning-by-doing and you will be able to bring your own questions and map them out.

The location is George Washington University. Please sign up here