How to get strategic insights from Net-Map

Just a bowl of spaghetti with toys on top?

So, you have done the mapping, in front of you a messy bowl-of-spaghetti-with-toys-on-top-diagram and your participants or clients ask you:

 

So what do we do now? What does this mean?

While the content of the answer will be different in every case, here are some guiding principle to direct your eyes and your thought when looking for strategic insights from a Net-Map: In general three issues are considered: Actor Influence, Goals and Connections, with the following lines of thought:

Influence

  • Influential actors who can harm / support
  • Increasing or decreasing actor influence
  • Diverse sources of influence

Goals

  •  Understanding reasons / motivations / fears / aspirations behind goals
  • Working with, connecting, strengthening positive actors
  • Dealing with, mitigating risk concerning negative actors
  • Changing actor goals toward more positive

Connections

  • Network patterns and their effects (e.g. centralization vs. decentralization, boundary spanners, disconnected silos)
  • Tension or reinforcement of formal vs. informal links
  • Connections which create destructive forces in the system
  • Missing links
  • Connecting positive actors (coalition), understanding negative coalitions, engaging mixed actors
  • Dividing negative actors

Net-Map facilitation pointers: Links

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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.

Links

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.

Rare opportunity: Learn Net-Map in the UK!

How about hanging out at the beach, learning Net-Map and meeting about 1000 highly intelligent social network analysis experts of every discipline, who do everything from crazy complex quantitative stuff to anthropologically observing network development on the ground? The Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is an inspiring event, whether you are a beginner or a full-blown SNA genius and one of the great things about it is that it always starts with two days of training workshops, before the three days of 700 talks in parallel start. A great way of learning for example some of the complex software, which is painful to learn alone at home. Ah, and another great thing is that they insist on always finding a location close to the sea. They alternate between the US and the rest of the world and this year the conference will be in Brighton, UK.

This year Net-Map will be present there in a three hour hands on training in the first part of the conference and we will have two sessions for applied network knowledge which will be heavily leaning toward Net-Map. Though my talk will not be about Net-Map but about the new network pattern cards which I am developing. I would love to see you there. The last time I have taught Net-Map in Europe was the Summer School in Italy, and that was in 2011. A few spots are still available for the Net-Map training workshop, so if you are interested just go ahead and sign up and I will see you there. Together with a whole bunch of other Net-Mappers.

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

Net-Map training: Learn to map your career or torture networks…

drawing informal linksThe most interesting aspect of teaching Net-Map is that our participants bring their own cases to map, so that they can learn how to apply the method to their own problems. And I have had participants mapping torture networks in a South East Asian country (to improve the effectiveness of an anti-torture campaign) and I have seen many different versions of: “Who will influence that I achieve my career goals?” or, even more personal: “Who will influence that I am happy more often and unhappy less often?”. If you join us for our November 15th-16th training, it’s up to you: What are the burning, confusing, exciting and/or painful issues that you want to clarify, where you want to become more strategic and understand the major bottlenecks and opportunities? And yes, in the process you will learn all the nuts and bolts of the method and become a member of our growing community of practice. A few spots are still available. The training will be held at a beautiful event space in the Eastern Market area of Washington, DC. All the details are here and you can sign up here.

Facilitate! Don’t be a Clever-Bully

Clever-Bully (picture by Diamond Select Toys)

I’ve been teaching Net-Map a lot, lately. And while my participants probably think it is most difficult to find the right Net-Map question or define good links (and yes, those are challenges), what is most difficult to do and most difficult (impossible?) to teach, is to facilitate a Net-Map session well.

So many things can happen in the group that maps, they can misunderstand instructions, get stuck in analysis paralysis, launch into conflict and, oh yes, they can get it all wrong! Or can they? Well, maybe… or maybe you are just being a clever-bully instead of being a facilitator.

What is a clever-bully? Someone who does not help the group to develop their own insights, think things through in their own minds, walk their own winding path to deeper insights but is so impressed by his or her own quick and impressive assessment of the situation that they have to tell the group the “solution” before the group even had the time to think. To be a really good (i.e. obnoxious) clever-bully you have to be so stubbornly sure of your storyline that you try to convince your group of your logic, even if they disagree. Remember, they don’t disagree with you because they maybe know their own story better than you do or they have a different perspective than you. They disagree either to be difficult or because they just don’t get it. So you have to push harder against the difficult ones and explain in more detail for the slow ones. Because what is the value of groups doing their own thinking if the solution you can present is so much better than what they ever could come up with?

How come I know so well what the clever-bully thinks? Maybe because I have one sitting in my head too. And I have to sometimes hold him back, take a deep breath, keep my mouth shut and remind myself that I know nothing about other people’s problems and that watching someone swim has never saved anyone from drowning…