Over the past several years, it’s become en vogue to talk about networks. For the most part, I think it’s healthy and important, I’m glad that it’s happening, and I’m glad to be contributing to it.

However, I’m often troubled by the direction I hear these conversations taking. In the nonprofit sector and especially in philanthropy, I often hear people use the term as a new way to describe the same old rigid command-and-control worldview they’ve always had. The easy way to test for this is to substitute “organization” for “network” when people are talking to see if the meaning changes. In the for-profit sector and especially in tech, I often hear networks framed as an extreme reaction against the status quo. “Hierarchy is wrong,” people say. “Teams are dead.”

Why does so much of the conversation about networks fall under one of these two troubling and incorrect extremes? Why do people struggle so much to define them, much less talk about them?

What’s so special about networks?

Networks are special because they are a lens that help us better understand power.

Why should we care about power?

Because our ultimate goal with groups is to maximize power. The basic premise underlying collective intelligence and effective collaboration is that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. In other words:

1 + 1 > 2

You can frame this equation around power, where the goal is to maximize the power of every individual in such a way that the collective power is greater than the sum of its parts.

For example, imagine you are teamed up with two other people — Alice and Bob — and are asked to grow and cook your own food. Only Alice knows anything about farming. Only Bob has ever cooked anything before. You know nothing about either.

You would probably want Alice to be responsible for farming, and Bob to be responsible for the cooking. Being responsible means making sure it gets done right, not necessarily that the person responsible is the only person doing it. For example, once you all decided what you wanted to grow, Alice would be responsible for figuring out what needs to happen and for assigning the roles.

In this case, the assumption is that the people with the right knowledge should have the power. But how should the three of you decide what to grow and cook in the first place? Alice and Bob have relevant knowledge, but it’s not the only knowledge that should count in making this decision.

There’s no universally correct answer for how that decision should be made. However, we can explore some scenarios for how that decision might be made:

  • You are the designated, formal leader of the team, and hence, Alice and Bob defer to you.
  • You are bankrolling the assignment, and hence, Alice and Bob defer to you.
  • You and Alice are both 14 years old, and Bob is 32, so you and Alice defer to Bob.
  • Alice and Bob went to college together, so they naturally gravitate toward each other.
  • You and Bob are both men, and so the two of you naturally gravitate toward each other.
  • Alice is significantly taller than you and Bob, so the two of you naturally defer to Alice.

Let’s complicate the scenario further. What if you were an incredibly fast learner, and in the course of working together, you rapidly became a better cook than Bob? It might follow that, at some point, you should be responsible for the cooking, not Bob, or at least you should be co-responsible. How would the group get to that conclusion?

Power can come from many different places, some more explicit than others. Organizations are simply a form of formalized power. It’s easy to talk about and work with formal power, because we can see it, and because there’s some agreement behind it. But to assume that formal power is the only form of power that matters is faulty. This is typically the flaw with an organizational lens. It’s not that the lens is wrong; it’s that people fail to use other lenses to examine their groups.

Networks are the ultimate meta-lens. Networks consist of people and their relationships to each other. You get to decide how you want to define those relationships. An organizational lens is a network lens where the relationships are defined by the org chart. You could also define relationships by who talks to whom, or by who share certain characteristics (e.g. race, age, gender, etc.), or by how physically close people’s offices are.

All of these are valid, potentially important ways of looking at power within a group, because the “right” structure — the structure that maximizes the power of the group — may have nothing to do with the formal org chart.

Networks are not a rejection of hierarchy. Networks are a rejection of rigidity. A hierarchy is an efficient form of decision-making, as long as it’s the “right” hierarchy. Powerful networks allow the right hierarchies to emerge at the right time.

If you’re trying to figure out how to get the best out of your network (and remember, an organization is a type of network), don’t start by looking for recipes. Start by asking the following questions:

  • Where is the power in my network?
  • Where should the power be in different situations?
  • What kind of structures can we put into place to support this?

Starting with these questions will help you better understand the true meaning behind the many ingredients of successful networks — the importance of relationship-building, of sharing, of diversity, of distributing control, of openness, and so forth. It will give you a broader perspective on the structures — both implicit and explicit — that make your network perform.

Networks are a powerful lens for helping you understand and maximize power.

About 

Eugene helps groups learn how to come alive and collaborate more skillfully together. He spent ten years consulting with companies across different sectors, from Fortune 500 companies to grassroots movements. He’s now focusing his efforts on helping others develop the same skills that he uses to help groups.

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Comments

  1. Eugene, I like the article and think it has merit. It helped me recalibrate some thoughts about networks.

    One minor word you use bugs me. It’s maximize in the sentence “You can frame this equation around power, where the goal is to maximize the power of every individual in such a way that the collective power is greater than the sum of its parts.”
    The goal is actually to optimize, not maximize, every individual’s power. Maybe Bob and Alice create more power by eliminating the third player entirely. 1 + 1 > 1 + 1 + 1

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Jay! I appreciate your careful wording. While I’m not sure I like “optimize” better, I agree with the nuance that you’re emphasizing, and I agree that it’s super important. I tried to capture that same nuance by stating, “in such a way that the collective power is greater than the sum of its parts,” but I could have been clearer.

  2. Very nicely articulated, Eugene. The notion of power in organizational (and societal) terms is in play these days. Networks are here to stay, it seems. Your concluding questions put to organizations and their networks is an interesting focus of mine.

    1. Thank you, Jon! I’m glad you found this piece, as I knew this piece would resonate with you in particular. Your term, “wirearchy,” captures these notions so beautifully!

  3. Hi Eugene- nice post. Are you familiar with Contingency Theory? It’s from the field of behavioral science and was developed back in the 50s and 60s. Very consistent with some of the thoughts you propose above. Regarding your three questions, the third one, “what kind of structures can we put in place to support this?”, Is the most intriguing to me. This gets right at the heart of E 2.0 social platforms, and the potential for disruption they hold regarding the traditional organizational culture and hierarchy.

    1. Tom, I’m not familiar with Contingency Theory, but I’ve been flipping through some articles thanks to your comment. Fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing!

      I agree with your point about E2.0 platforms’s potential for disruptions. I also hope that, by starting with a general question about structures, people experiment with structures beyond online platforms. I think there’s huge potential for major shifts if people focus on the right question.

  4. E – Must strongly reinforce Jay’s important suggestion to use optimize versus maximize. Maximal systems, whether empires, organizations, or wetlands, are unsustainable. They always eventually consume themselves and collapse, often dramatically.

    On the contrary, optimal networks inhabit open systems. They draw energy from their surrounding environment. This dynamic network property allows favorable network patterns to achieve the desired outcome using optimal energy and structures. In optimal networks 1+1=11.

    Experts like Jay see ‘maximal’ as a red flag, a code-word for dysfunctional network patterns… me too.

    Concerning the last point, Eigenvector centrality is the measure of power (influence) in a network.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrality#Eigenvector_centrality

    Tools like graph theory and predictive network analysis bear this out.

    For example, CEO’s in US corporations have done a nifty job at forcing power maximization. They’ve achieved a 1,795-to-1 pay ratio for the CEO to front-line employee. That is patently dysfunctional and unsustainable. Maximal network patterns cause all sorts of ills. They are eventually and dependably crushed by their own hubris. Beware.

    For another example consider HFNs. Optimal, open network patterns are essential to HFNs and achieving favorable outcomes. See:

    http://colabria.com/hastily-formed-networks/

    Maximal network structures preclude HFNs. It is seen over and over again. It is particularly harmful in centralized govt agencies and bureaucracy. These network patterns specialize in collecting and maximizing rigid power structures by definition. The recent PPACA Website fiasco is a sterling example..

    So forth and so on.

    Just a little semantic adjustment to an excellent post! Thanks for raising such interesting and compelling themes.

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