Why We Work in Networks

Sunday, April 1, 2012 (All day)

How often do we consciously register that the rules for working in concert with our colleagues in other organizations differ drastically from the rules for working on our own?

For example, any manager at Community Partners expects to take direction from me and give direction to others so that things get done. After all, we've got program priorities to address, budgets to manage, a mission to advance. Without a clear chain of leadership authority, managerial responsibility, and good execution, things can go haywire quick.

But what about when I'm working with execs of other organizations on a joint venture, even at the relatively uncomplicated level of mutual cooperation? If I try telling them what to do, they'll ignore me, push back hard, or toss me out of the room altogether. And who would blame them? They're not the boss of me! I'd do the same to them if they started ordering me around. 

So, instead, I put on my persuasive hat, use my intellectual and speaking skills to make my points, and hope that the combination of earned professional respect and the strength of my relationships with others in the room will carry the day.

This behavior shift is critical.What I can attain from positional authority (however I choose to assert it) in my organization, I must achieve through political negotiation when working with others beyond our organizational walls.

I’ve just described lesson number one in the important skill set of Managing in Networks 101.There’s a “single-authority” setting: my organization.And there are many “divided-authority” settings: the numerous and varied multi-organizational networks in which we who work in civil society constantly and invariably find ourselves compelled to work.

Here’s the truth.Navigating in single-authority settings is so much easier.No muss, no fuss; say it and it shall be done (more or less).So why do we find ourselves compelled to constantly convene in common cause with other groups?Try these three cultural features just for starters:

  • the disparate, diffuse, and disintegrated nature of civil society’s cast of organizational actors, with more than 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the United States alone
  • the relative scarcity of resources available in the nonprofit sector, where we command barely 8-10 percent of GDP and 6-7 percent of the work force
  • the inherent limitations to the scale of our individual organizational efforts brought on by the existence of the two factors above.

Trying to operate by the principle of fierce independence presses us to achieve dominant scale fast and push out or crush competitors.That’s a commercial sector notion – “first to market, first to win” – that doesn’t work well where civil society principles (caring, cooperation, negotiation, trust, reciprocity, and love) come into play.Yet the lifeblood of many of our organizations – funding – creates competitive imperatives that contradict these principles.

Still, there’s much we can accomplish together that we can’t do alone. Network settings, while tough at times to navigate, call on us to muster all we can of our political skills and place them in practical service to a greater good than that we can ever hope to achieve acting solely within the confines of a single organization.And, truth be told, most of us work in the civic sector to effect change at a far greater scale than our individual organizations can do on their own. Putting it plain and simple: we need the folks in that outfit across the street if we're going to have any chance of success.

Besides helping us overcome the inherent limitations of civil society, working in networks keeps us connected to the wide, diverse, and important work our colleagues – even if they view society’s problems differently than we do – have committed to achieving.