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It takes a campaign to change a policy. 
It takes a network to change a system. 

June Holley

There is a not-so-quiet revolution taking place in the way we work. We can see it everywhere in nature, but in our communities and organizations, we are just now beginning to see its power and impact-relationships change everything.

While this might seem blindingly obvious, I’m not talking about relationships in any one workplace or community, critical as these connections are. We are beginning to see the advent of the real power of networks — groups of organizations or communities working together — to affect lasting change.

I define a network not simply as a group coming together across organizational or community boundaries to share ideas and learn together, but to take action in creating transformative change.

When I started doing work supporting organizations committed to sustainability and social change, I always said that “we need less stuff and more glue” to emphasize the importance of connecting individuals, institutions, and ideas. We all operate within systems and in order to shift those systems, we need to not only understand them but to act as they do.

Too many organizations and communities still attempt to make change acting alone. Even groups of organizations acting together talk about transformative change but wind up with only incremental victories.

Networks are about relationships between individuals, organizations and ideas that create a new systems-oriented way of working where our allegiance is not so much to the institution which employs us, but to the larger mission and ecosystem of relationships that can support large-scale transformation.

We are seeing this in the increasing popularity of the collective impact model, and in the number of organizations and efforts-on a local, regional, state, national and even global-level-pursuing collaborative strategies. We are realizing that we have tremendous power, but that we can’t act alone-the power we have comes from working together. If done well, consistently and with great patience, this leads to broader movement-building and social transformation.

Einstein famously shared that “The problems that we face can’t be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.” Working through a network or collaborative approach creates a different consciousness and new possibilities for affecting change.

When I work with networks, I use a series of “I’s” as important steps themselves, but also as “essential puns” for successful network development including:

  • “I”: What are you bringing-in terms of self-interest, resources, and attitude-to any collaborative effort?
  • “Aye”: To what extent are you affirming your participation-are you “all in” or waiting on the periphery to see how things develop?
  • “Eye”: How are you paying attention and staying aware of dynamics unfolding as a collaboration gets underway, moves through challenges, and evolves?    

With those first three “I questions” as a foundation, here are seven “I” steps to consider when assessing or building any network activity:

  • Intention: Clarify why the group is coming together and the vision for the network;
  • Invitation: Define and welcome key participants and who will reach out to engage them;
  • Inclusion: It’s especially important to identify and connect with a diversity of stakeholders early on, as they will set the tone for the network;
  • Involvement: Provide opportunities for all members of the network to contribute meaningfully-it’s very easy for a core set of people or organizations to do the work, and this leads to power imbalances and lack of engagement. Everyone should have a role, no matter how small;
  • Integration: To be effective, the ideas and institutions in a network are woven together through a compelling vision (see intention), clear strategies and activities, and shared governance-how decisions are made, relationships cultivated, and resources shared;
  • Iteration: Networks need to encourage experimentation, new ideas and new membership-while remaining faithful to their core purpose;
  • Impact: Effective collaboration creates results that can be measured, celebrated and learned from — near-term victories are critical to maintaining momentum for larger change.
September 2013