Network in a Box
Why network in a box?
Companies are transforming into more agile and adaptive organisations whose members share a purpose and are driven by values. In these organisations people enjoy high levels of autonomy and can deploy their creativity and potential. This new type of organisation is a living organism that is well integrated in its ecosystem and can evolve with it. It provides value and it does well. Frederic Laloux calls them Teal Organisations, and Ouishare and Enspiral are two good examples of these new organisations: networked, evolutive and distributed.
There is a growing number of companies, institutions and communities that are embracing network dynamics to learn faster and to become more agile and adaptive, and thankfully so. We are dire need to reinvent the way we work and to transform our economy from within. “Network in a Box” is a collection of clues that help us in this journey. We will be peppering this article with useful links that will help you explore the different areas of building and growing networks.
The Connected Paradigm
From the second half of the 19th century, humanity has been facing a production challenge, which we overcame mightily. Thanks to capitalism, competition and management, the production of wealth in the last 150 years has been astonishing and, by all means, in excess of our needs. We now face an entirely different set of problems, a distribution challenge, one that cares for all humans and the planet we live in. The old industrial paradigm is proving not only ineffective, but rather outright counter-productive. We are more likely to find the answers to our shared and complex problems with an operating system that favours collaboration over competition, flexibility over efficiency, learning over process, and purpose over growth. The new paradigm is open, collaborative and connected.
“The problem is how to combine the energy, innovation and resilience of decentralisation with the ability to provide some direction and to accumulate and share knowledge, ideas and best practice that comes from centralisation. That is where network design comes in — or, more broadly, strategies of connection.”
There are a number of organisations out there that work without bosses, nor salaries. The are extremely fluid and adaptable. They are networks of communities who function under distributed governance and are driven by their purpose. We have seen them being born from movements such as the sharing economy, ecological activism, circular economy, social entrepreneurship, open source movements and freelancer collectives. While they can be a phenomenal mess, they are also extremely resilient and innovative. We are learning a great deal from these networked organisations.
“Connected companies are not hierarchies, fractured into unthinking, functional parts, but holarchies: complex systems in which each part is also a fully-functional whole in its own right”.
Even some smart dinosaurs like Deloitte are taking note of the paradigm shift: “The rise of the social enterprise requires a determined focus on building social capital by engaging with diverse stakeholders, accounting for external trends, creating a sense of mission and purpose throughout the organization, and devising strategies that manage new societal expectations. At stake is nothing less than an organization’s reputation, relationships, and, ultimately, success or failure.”
Put a network in your life
As an individual or as an organisation, there is no better way to learn than building meaningful connections with peers and folks who share similar interests. Technology allows us to share and co-create with unprecedented ease, which is resulting in a myriad of communities and networks, from service design to medieval fencing, from extinction rebellion to professional associations. Whether you are a freelance or an employee, you are your professional networks. “Professional learning networks differ from the more common social networks like Facebook, which contains mostly family and friends. Professional learning networks contain highly knowledgeable individuals who can be approached to get answers, solutions rapidly, and to provide honest feedback”.
Operating in a network requires a lot of unlearning for many of us. Already in school and probably more so when we enter working age, we navigate through a series of institutions and organisations that rely strongly on hierarchical power structures. Because of that, we have acquired certain habits that allow us to function well in those top-down environments but are ill-suited to operate within a network. Up until three years ago I had not even heard of terms such as “servant leadership” or “working out loud”, let alone more obscure concepts such as “collaborative resource allocation” or “stigmergy”.
In this chapter we are providing a non-comprehensive lists of the skills we had to develop (and still struggling to) to work in a networked organisation.
In a traditional, pyramidal organisational structure, it’s clear who’s in charge and where the power is. But what about in a decentralised network or community? How can you grow distributed leadership? We’ve been stuck in an industrial-age paradigm of “leadership as parenthood” for generations, where managers have related to employees like parents to children. But in searching for the alternative, sometimes we can swing too far in the opposite direction, shunning power and anything resembling hierarchy. This is also unhelpful. Let's cut the bullshit, organisations with no hierarchy do not exist. Instead, it’s productive to be explicit about what power – influence, experience, expertise – people have and to develop dynamic, chosen hierarchies, as opposed to coercive or fiat hierarchies.
Leadership in the connected paradigm requires us to train and develop a different mindset and range of abilities, as well as unlearning old habits that no longer serve us. We can cultivate this new kind of leadership on three levels: by developing self-awareness and taking responsibility for our responses; by exploring the interpersonal dynamics and how we relate to each other in our networks or communities; and by looking at leadership at an ecosystem level (i.e. how do we interact with and support other networks and communities?).
Navigating change in a system requires us juggling more variable than we usually do. If we think in organisational transformation, we are used to designing the destination: the new culture, the new process, the new structure, the new strategy, the new … whatever. While the destination of our transformation is important, we need to be aware of the two dimensions of this journey: operational and emotional.
“Culture is both a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times, being constantly enacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by leadership behavior, and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behavior. When one brings culture to the level of the organization and even down to groups within the organization, one can see clearly how culture is created, embedded, evolved, and ultimately manipulated, and, at the same time, how culture constrains, stabilizes, and provides structure and meaning to the group members. These dynamic processes of culture creation and management are the essence of leadership and make one realize that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin.”
For collaborative culture to flourish it’s necessary to create safe spaces in which participants can express themselves freely. It’s necessary to connect with the purpose of the organisation and understand what it means in the everyday life of the organisation. These are three of the steps: Build safety, Share Vulnerability and Establish Purpose.
“For goal-directed organizational networks with a distinct identity, some form of governance is necessary to ensure that participants engage in collective and mutually supportive action, that conflict is addressed, and that network resources are acquired and utilized efficiently and effectively. The three basic elements of governance design are: who decides, what is decided and how”.
“New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it. Traditional organizations that want to develop new power capacity must engage in three essential tasks: (1) assess their place in a shifting power environment, (2) channel their harshest critic, and (3) develop a mobilization capacity.”
Learning Out Loud
Networked organisations are, above all, learning networks where individuals discover, connect and exchange knowledge with their peers. These exchanges lead to improved practices, cross-pollination and accumulation of reputation between individuals and the network as a whole. Making sense of our work and openly sharing the knowledge we develop as a result (working out loud) are key dynamics in any network, but especially so in emergent and distributed groups.
Agile is more than just a methodology for software development. It’s a mindset applicable to any organisation with some cultural principles as early value creation, learning by doing, people & interactions are more important than processes & tools, flexibility & quick response, collaboration with any stakeholder, etc.
“Facilitation is the art to open the space where people can work, share, learn, change, dream … in a way that they live as the best experience in their lives. It’s a process for getting groups of people together to solve any problem. Good facilitators know how to jump right in, establish an objective, create a format packed with interactive opportunities for discussion, and lead groups of all sizes toward constructive solutions. And you don’t need a specific job title or a certain amount of experience to become an effective facilitator–you just have to develop a set of skills that gives structure and purpose to the otherwise unruly art of collaboration.”
Open Source Business Models
People have always yearned to get their ideas spread far and wide. To change the status quo. But funding the development and spreading of these ideas has historically been the bottleneck to create this change. So patents and copyright came along and get inventors and creators fairly paid for their contributions. But once the Internet arrived, this has become the bottleneck for the free blooming and remixing of new ideas.
Yet a few pioneers have created ways to make money while giving up the ownership of their idea. Organisations like Linux, TED Talks, Adafruit, Cards against Humanity or Wikipedia, among many others, have set the foundations and blueprints to create businesses and non-profits that are cheap to set up, and that can generate solid revenues. This has allowed them to get their knowledge to flow freely and gather communities of like-minded people and support each other to lead the world to change at a global scale.
Dealing with Conflict
The human brain is wired to avoid conflict because we are a social species and it perceives conflict as a threat to our safety. However, if we can reframe our thinking about conflict, there is so much richness to be gained. As Diane Musho Hamilton says in her book “Everything is Workable”, the aim is not to eliminate conflict but to transform it. So perhaps we should call it conflict transformation, rather than conflict resolution.
Teams researcher Amy Edmondson tells us that it’s helpful for us to: identify the nature of the conflict, model good communication, identify shared goals, and encourage difficult conversations. If we can do all of that, our networks and communities will benefit from deepened relationships, new ideas, and valuable learning.
Beyond Shareholder Ownership
“Scaling up alternative models of ownership – new ways of owning and governing enterprise to give workers and communities a stake and a say – is critical. This is because ownership is the key to unlocking systems change. Indeed, we cannot achieve the paradigm shift we need in how we run the economy and for whom without changing how our economic assets and institutions are owned”
Here we are making a non-comprehensive list of the tools we use and have used to build our networks.
“For us, a community is a type of organization that brings people together and makes them feel like they belong. It ideally gives them an identity that they proudly share and it provides a framework to trust each other more, support each other more, collaborate more and build more meaningful relationships. The Community Canvas is a framework that will help you build a community, analyze a community or improve an existing community.”
Platform Design Toolkit
To understand the powerful forces that are being unleashed by the explosion of platform businesses, it helps to think about how value has long been created and transferred in most markets. The traditional system employed by most businesses is one we describe as a pipeline. Platforms beat pipelines because platforms scale more efficiently by eliminating gatekeepers.
Understanding how to define a platform is certainly key but, on the other hand, is not enough to completely grasp the current state of post-industrial, digitally enabled economy. In particular, despite knowing the attributes and dynamics of platforms inner workings is crucial, certainly key to understand also how platforms fit in the overall digitally transformed market and societal frame. What are the types of players? What are the market drivers? What are the evolutionary forces that operate in the context? What comes after platforms as we know them today? How are platforms evolving eventually? These are all key questions.
Platforms help companies and organizations leverage the power of ecosystems to grow and reach outstanding results that cannot be reached independently. Platform Design is a key capability for your organization: it helps you deliver more innovation with smaller investments respect to building traditional services. If you enjoyed the business models canvas, you must check out the Platform Design Toolkit to make sense of your ecosystem and how you interact in it.
Making Decisions Collaboratively
Loomio is a simple, user-friendly online tool for collaborative decision-making. Loomio lets you host discussions online, invite the right people to participate, come to timely decisions and transform deliberation into real-world action.
Allocating Resources Collaboratively
To cope and thrive in today's rapidly changing environment, many organizations want to become more collaborative and human-centered. Our years of experience working in distributed networks has shown us that one of the hardest aspects of collaboration relates to money and resource management. It is also a powerful starting point for creating engagement and participation. We believe that opening up decisions around resource allocation and money help make collaboration real and driven towards tangible actions. Our experience of implementing collaborative funding practices in networks such as Ouishare and Enspiral have shown that it can be a powerful tool to increase engagement, transparency and agility in organisations, networks, communities and groups.
For decades companies have been trying to manage knowledge, with varying success. They often tried to perfect the machine, improve efficiency and make teams repeat best practices. Now more than ever it is obvious that knowledge cannot be managed, but just shared. We learn as we do our work and the collective value of all that knowledge lies in our capacity of making sense of that knowledge within our shared context (shared with colleagues, partners and the wider ecosystem). Strengthening networks through knowledge sharing can only come from the individual, not from some external (hierarchical) process imposed on us.
Transitioning from traditional organisations to networked organisations brings about its own set of problems. One great perk of an old-school company is that most of their employees show up to work from Monday to Friday at a given time and at a given place. These employees get to know each other well and learn how to work together efficiently. In a networked organisation this is not a given, as we are all very mobile, super flexible and work in a wide range of projects. It is quite normal not to see many of my colleagues for months at a time. For this reason, meeting in real life as often as possible is key. Events is a very important manifestation of networked organisations, so the ecosystem can gather to build connections, share knowledge and build trust. Events can be of all sorts: summits, team sprints, summer offices or conferences, to name some. It’s in these gatherings that most new projects are born.
To be continued
During 2020 we will keep on capturing the key resources and guidance as we evolve our networks and our way of working together, and will publish an update in a year from now. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute to this work.
This article is co-authored by Alicia Trepat, Miriam Moreno, Jaime Arredondo, Lisa Gill, Francesca Pick and Manel Heredero.