How handy is a tool box for network strategy processes?

DSC_0707The answer is: it depends a) on the tools and, most importantly, b) on the way you use them.

When network organisations (i.e. ad hoc or temporary structures with little or no hierarchical/ disciplinary muscle or decision-making power) want to map out a future goal and strategy, they need to apply different tools to much what you’ll find in management literature. In fact, you’ll be dealing with participatory and consensus oriented processes that will need to evolve with the people involved.

Let’s think a bit about the challenges

You want a roadmap, mapping out where you want to go in the most efficient way possible. Understandable. It’s nice to have a roadmap. And it’s also helpful to think about one here, but it needs to be a flexible one – time-wise, efficiency-wise and resource-wise. In other words, if you check the history of your navigation system after a while, you’ll probably find you’ve gone all over the place before getting to where you wanted to go. You will also have to be humble when it comes to changing and adapt your goals and targets, as these may shift as new people get on board and/ or priorities change. You may be advised to be happy about reaching inferior goals. Transparency is an issue: network members are affiliated to other networks and organisations and it’s more than likely that their first affiliation is NOT to your network. In many cases there’ll be competitors in your network working together to get to a specific goal (e.g. to increase efficiency, to lobby together or to create new (international) markets). So why, participants think, should they uncover their jealously kept secrets and reveal all – or even any part of all?

So how do we deal with this complexity?

It’s at this point that the value of a well designed and facilitated process becomes clear:

  • We need to build trust to get people to open up as much as is necessary to save (i.e. not waste too much) time and put their interests, numbers and ideas on the table.
  • We need to set up the navigation system and provide transparency as to where we want to go, how fast and using which roads? And we need to help participants redesign their route if things turn out differently (and they will).
  • We need to develop a joint sense of responsibility in the group for their discipline and self-leadership. This means that group dynamics can replace top-down pressure and increase reliability. This means that participants develop an automatism of informing each other of relevant changes in plan or new openings. And this means that new participants are quickly aware of the unwritten and written rules of how the network wants their strategy to be developed.
  • We need to facilitate the transition from network to other systems, making it easier for people to create acceptance for what they’re doing in your network in the other organisations they’re affiliated to.
  • We need to develop a sense of pride within the network in the process and in the products.

So why did this question on the tool box crop up? I’ve been asked to develop one based on a successful and long-term strategy development and implementation process in a network of strong individuals and competing organisations with very little (sometimes zero) networking experience and initial motivation to collaborate. What I’m promising to do is not to lull anyone into a false sense of security. Network strategy processes are complicated and multilayered. They demand a strong process and strong nerves and cannot be accomplished by following a cookery recipe or the quickest route shown on the navigation system. But they can become so much more than the sum of their individual parts and can create something much bigger than what they set out to do: become a movement, develop spin-off joint-ventures, change the world! However, they are not simply mirrors of corporate strategy processes, but demand their own, highly participatory logic.

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