Networks: your organisation as an unending conversation

What would happen to your organisation or movement if you dropped out?

If the answer is “It would probably die,” then you probably* need to think about building something bigger and longer lasting than yourself.

One lens for understanding how to do this is to think of your organisation as ‘conversation’, drawing on Kenneth Burke’s metaphor for history and culture as ‘unending conversation’:

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.

You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Kenneth Burke – The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action

Who’s carrying the can?

Of course, we want the ‘conversation’ around what we do to be as big as possible, but at the core of your organisation there will be a few people with the vision, commitment and skills necessary to keep the show on the road.

One person can be enough to enable things to happen – the host of Burke’s ‘parlour’ – but if that person has to leave, the conversation stops.

I suggest that you should aim to have at least three of these people in your organisational ecosystem at any time.

Network theory and the crucial three

Three is the crucial number, and network theory (or at least, this video by Clay Shirky where he explains this idea) offers an explanation why: networks of three or more people gain the quality of persistence.

Two people can have a conversation (and shape an organisation), but if one leaves, the conversation dies, and with it, the shared understanding and culture that they’d developed.

But if there are three people in the network and one leaves, the conversation continues… and a new person can join, and it is still the same conversation. In fact, people can come and go until the original participants have all been replaced, but the conversation continues.

What this means for you

This means that if you have fewer than three of these crucial people in your organisation – they could be on staff, on the board, or an informal champion – your organisation (and by extension, the change you seek to make) is far more vulnerable than if you have more than three.

Attrition from three to two is worrying; from two to one might not seem immediately life threatening to your organisation, but it’s critical.

Nuances of vision and values, ways of thinking and doing – transmission of all the unwritten cultural DNA of your organisation – depend on this conversation continuing.

The moral of the story? Build the network. Find friends.

*Probably – unless it doesn’t matter to you or the people you’re serving if the whole thing falls apart in your absence

Conference: small stages

Good conferences create a range of stages for members of the cohort to try things out on. Workshops, seminars and meetings happening alongside the keynote and plenary sessions create value for presenters (a chance to meet interested people and try out material) and for the cohort (a testbed for discovering new ideas, finding new contributors and new speakers and leaders).

If you’re organising a conference, it’s worth being deliberate about making an on-ramp of smaller opportunities and chances for attendees to contribute.*

*The focus needs to be on contribution – opportunities for members of the cohort to share something valuable with peers, rather than to get on their own private soapbox or achieve five minutes of fame.


What does a conference do?

Conferences are a way of aggregating – of bringing together – several different valuable things.

Conferences aggregate people…

A conference brings together a group of people who are focused on a shared interest. If the people at your conference are similar to each other but not interested in similar things, you’re wasting your time. The more their interests align with the focus of the conference and the greater their interest, the greater the value of the conference.

… which enables the organisers to aggregate better speakers and content…

An audience with a high level of shared interest is a more attractive audience, which attracts better presenters and content.

… which creates a better cohort…

The more interesting the speakers, the more people will attend, creating a larger and better cohort.

… which creates a network with more possibilities…

With more attendees, the number of possible connections and partnerships multiplies rapidly (see Network Opportunities), so a larger cohort creates increasing (possible) returns in terms of connections and partnerships between people.

… which is more attractive to more people…

And so the virtuous cycle continues.

Some questions for making change happen

  • What’s the problem?
  • What networks of people and things underlie the problem, and what context or environment are they embedded in?
  • Who wins if you solve the problem?
  • Who stands to lose?
  • What’s in it for you? What else is in it for you?
  • What or who is keeping you honest?
  • Who else cares about this? Can you join them? Will they join you?
  • What (potential) points of leverage can you identify?
  • Is there a technical or technological fix?
  • What are the key relationships, processes, and resources necessary to make the fix work?
  • What are the key relationships, processes and resources for doing it again… And again? (What’s the wrapper?)
  • What story do you need to tell, where and to whom, to make this thing happen?
  • When will you stop?

Work through these questions, act on your guesses, then work through them again.

Typo (4): (no) Standard English

[The task of documenting all the words in the English lanuguage] no longer seems finite. Lexicographers are accepting the languages boundlessness. They know by heart Murray’s famous remark: “The circle of the English language had a well defined centre but no discernable circumference.” In the centre are the words everyone knows. At the edges, where Murray placed slang and cant and scientific jargon and foreign border crossers, everyone’s sense of the language differed and no one’s can be called “standard.”

James Gleick – The Information

Sketchpad studio springboard

Fit for Purpose or Good Enough mean different things depending on what we’re talking about, who it’s for and where and how it’s going to be seen – which is to say that they exist in a network, and that Good Enough can change even for a single piece of work.

This often happens as a function of time:

  • Dirt roads might work for a village, but they’re not really Good Enough for a town.
  • 30 kids copying off a blackboard for an hour or two was a perfectly adequate model of education a few generations ago;
  • What passed as a good website or presentation fifteen years ago rarely stands up today (unless you’re Tom Peters);
  • The writing of Charles Dickens has shifted from being Popular Entertainment to Literature (I doubt much of his work would be serialised in magazines today).

And of place:

  • The famous Fountain was changed simply by being placed in a gallery;
  • Cold beer tastes better on a beautiful beach;
  • We become different people at concerts, in museums, on holiday;
  • A shippable blog post is rarely Good Enough for a book.

And of who we are:

  • Children’s TV is a lot less interesting when you’re no longer a child, and teenage angst gets old as we do;
  • Fox News and The Guardian are indispensable – or not – depending on where you’re coming from;
  • Bat is a delicacy if you’re from Manado.

And – and all of the above are really all examples of this – what it’s connected to:

  • Dickens’ books gain interest and value in relationship to each other, and to Das Kapital, and to TV adaptations;
  • The Beatles’ studio outtakes and rehearsals were by definition not good enough – but became collectible in relationship to all those A-sides, and with time;
  • The contents of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks weren’t Good Enough for a gallery when he was filling them.

Which brings me to the variable quality of posts here, and who and what they’re for. Some are ready to share. Some are sketches. All gain value (for me at least) in relationship to the rest as hummus, hinterland and springboard to something new, and to a better Good Enough.

Velcro, geckos, and making friends

Some ideas for strengthening your connections within a group of people or scene:

  • Have good, generous intentions. Show up to serve or share where it’s needed and wanted and because being part of this network is its own reward (you like the people, you like what they do), rather than for what you might get out of it.
  • Start small – person by person. It’s helpful to think of the group as a network of people rather than as a a monolithic whole.
  • Relationships and trust take time – but the right group settings or events can speed this up.
  • First impressions always count – but not nearly as much as what you do and say consistently over time. People who know and trust you will interpret you generously and shrug off the clumsy mistakes that we all inevitably make as just that – understandable, human clumsiness. People who love you will stick with you through your real mistakes – the ones where you should have known better.
  • Build on connections – friendships, relationships – that you already have.
  • Lots of loose connections are helpful – relationships where you know them a bit, they know you a bit, and you share a general positive regard for each other. Each loose connection is like a single hook-and-loop in a piece of velcro – weak on its own, but strong when combined with many others. (see also: gecko feet)
  • … but the 80/20 rule will be at work here – a few people will be very interested in your contribution, and a few of those will be people you have a good rapport with… and a few of those will be key for helping you to connect with others.
  • Don’t worry too much about people who aren’t that interested in you or what you have to offer: they’re either genuinely not interested, or have something else on their minds, neither of which you can do very much about. Assume that you can’t do too much to influence them (apart, perhaps, if you can help them with their thing, the thing that’s on their minds) – but they might be influenced by the right sort of champion from within the network.

The Onion (3): exemplar interesting problem – learning to read

Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.

Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:

  • A supportive family
  • A strong reading culture at home
  • A steady supply of good books
  • A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
  • An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
  • A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
  • An absence of specific learning difficulties

These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.

But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.

To be continued…

The Onion (2): a model for solving interesting problems

My first post about The Onion looked at interesting problems as systems of networked sub-problems, and suggested that our solutions will mirror this structure.

The Onion is also a good metaphor for the process of finding practical solutions: we work from solving the smallest problems in theory, outwards to technical solutions, before we finally build a (networked system of) practical solution that works consistently and at the scale we need.

1) Theoretical problem – theoretical solution

First we work out how – in theory – the problem might be solved. This might be a simple case of gathering information, because the theoretical problem has already been solved – as in the case for all the three problems above.

If the problem doesn’t yet have a theoretical solution, we’ll need to break the problem into smaller pieces, work out what’s missing, and treat the smallest unsolved piece as a new interesting problem. (see the example above: family health)

2) Technical problem – technical solution

Once we have a theoretical solution, the problem becomes a technical one: how do we apply the theoretical solution in the world, in this context, to make the solution actually work? The old saying about the difference between theory and practice holds true here. When we attempt to put our theory to work in practice we uncover buried assumptions and dependencies that make our theory impractical without major revision or lots of additional work to create the conditions in which it will work. So we have a choice: modify the context enough to make the theory work, or modify the theory to better suit the context. Often we do both.

Example technical problems:
Yikes, how to do I reduce the number of horrifically-bad-for-you things that my family eats on a regular basis?
In our context, what does a healthy diet look like?
Given that I can’t source organic kale in my neighbourhood, what are the alternatives?
How do I make kale-alternatives delicious?
Which components of a healthy diet are easiest to add to what we already do?
What habits can I encourage that will make it easier for my family to eat healthily?

3) Practical or scaleable solution

This is often the most overlooked part in solving an interesting problem: what is the ‘wrapper‘ of infrastructure and activity necessary to make the technical solution workable on an ongoing basis.

This is usually about the collection and coordination of scarce resources (time, money, people, other inputs) that are needed to solve the problem reliably.