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

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