Had an interesting exchange with a friend active in UK grassroots politics this week, who asked ‘What’s the best reading around how to build effective networks? I’m basically a little suspicious atm as it all seems a bit stakeholder mappy / retrospective analysis of change, rather than practical, pro-active strategy. It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of systems, it just feels like sometimes they’re used as an excuse not to really drive at achieving change.’
These kinds of questions are both fun and a bit alarming, as I usually realize that I can’t answer them directly, only by comparing to ‘adjacent issues’ that have some overlap, in this case with intentionally setting up a network, but aren’t quite the same. Here’s what I replied:
‘Interesting question. Some thoughts.
1. Work on an overarching narrative that boosts identity and binds people together.
2. Look for shared rituals and language (ditto).
3. Regular contact between network members around shared tasks with some easy wins (which you celebrate) to build trust.
4. Maybe find/invent a common enemy?
5. Establish a smaller core group of more intentional convenors to get the network up and running.
I may be diverging a bit too far from networks towards more tightly bound things like multi stakeholder initiatives. What do you think?’
My friend replied: ‘The name does matter. Calling it a ‘network’ lends itself to a lot of systems analysis, mapping etc. This can be unhelpful in providing clear next steps. Whereas your 5 points above give a very clear set of tactics for how to strengthen relationships.
One big question is how centralised vs. consensus-based to be. My ‘go to’ is to try and build a democratic mandate for the former as a way to ensure effective delivery and collective buy-in!’
At which point a lightbulb went off and I pointed him to just such a network – Crisis Action, which has a really interesting model: sign up lots of NGOs and other campaigners working in a similar field, and then when a crisis erupts, put out a call to see who wants to sign up to an ‘opt-in coalition’. This means you can react quickly, rather than spend weeks negotiating and watering down the asks etc to find a consensus. Here’s their handbook, which we recommend in our LSE module on activism.
Me: ‘Another way of looking at it is that people respond to networks by either thinking ‘wow, I can geek out on this – social network analysis etc, see Eric Berlow taking apart my favourite stakeholder map (of Afghanistan). Or you can say, networks are complex and largely unknowable, so best to think about the enabling environment – like fertilizing a garden, but not worrying too much about what grows in it. So learn to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, dance with the system, have fast feedback etc. Again, not quite networks, more systems thinking, but adjacent.’
One other point I forgot to mention to him – breadth of network v breadth of topic. I have a rule of thumb that if the topic is narrow, the network should be broad (e.g. the Ethical Trading Initiative, which focuses on labour rights in supply chains, and pulls together corporates, NGOs and trade unions), but if the topic is broad, you probably need a narrower network, or else it risks becoming a v unfocussed talking shop.
So over to you. Someone wants to set up a network, which is both accountable to its members (formal or informal) and effective in its advocacy. What are your top tips? What are the models? What should be on the reading list?
Here’s the Crisis Action intro video