Network Thinking Partner: In Interview by Beth Tener

This is cross-posted from Beth Tener’s blog.

Since 2014, Beth and I have had the pleasure of working together. She’s my coach/thinking partner supporting me in my role as a Network Weaver for a new national network, called Network for Water, Energy and Health in Affordable Buildings (NEWHAB.) Her consulting practice is New Directions Collaborative. She recently interviewed me as an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned and the value that the thinking partner role has for network leaders. Our work together is done through a video Skype every couple of weeks, plus she reviews documents, and connects me to resources, ideas, or people who could be helpful.

For background, what is the network you are working with and your role?

A lot of work is being done across the country to improve energy and water efficiency and health in existing apartment buildings. Partners involved saw the need for the energy and housing sectors to learn from one another and share learning across geographies to avoid working at cross purposes and to advocate at a larger scale. I was retained early on as a consultant facilitating development of a new national network focused on “collaboration between energy efficiency and affordable housing professionals in existing, multifamily housing occupied by low-income households…” That network has evolved into the Network for Energy, Water, and Health in Affordable Buildings (NEWHAB) and I now serve in the role of Network Weaver, with one other staff person who is a Network Administrator.

We started from a few people who were aware of others who were working in the space in April of 2014, and now have 100 committed members, most of whom are active in the network. We also have almost 100 allies who are tracking the work and engaging at a lower level. For infrastructure, we’ve developed a members/allies-only website for knowledge sharing and communication and created a network directory in the form of a map. We host an annual in-person meeting, and coordinate two annual cycles of working groups that we call “Chew Up a Challenge.”

What have you learned in this experience about creating networks? How does the coaching role play into that? 

What I found most challenging in this work (and where I have learned the most), is how to communicate about networks in a way that people can understand how network work is similar and different than other ways of working. That has been central with network members, as well as partners and allies, and funders. It is challenging and critical to talk about this so people can find the right mindset and the network can find its valuable role in the larger ecosystem of actors working on this.

In our work together, you offer suggestions about what might work – you have years of testing and practicing the language and ways of explaining things. I am not a visual thinker, but I know that is important. You have visualizations that can help me translate this into things people can see.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to structure meeting time and facilitate the process so people can learn about the network as they go. It is a real shift in thinking for most people. You have helped me plan ways to do that with various audiences, such as my colleagues, network members, and network guardians. I have a lot of facilitation experience; however this is a slightly different content and access to your experience and thinking has helped me be more successful in those sessions.

What are things you have developed that have worked well?

  • Network Guardians – It has been very fulfilling to recruit and work with a team of ‘network guardians,’ a term I borrowed from June Holley. They are experts and member representatives of the network who serve sort of like a board. They take the time to work with me to think about the network’s development.
  • Iterative work group process – We have learned a lot in the process of developing and running work groups, using an iterative design process to keep improving on it with each cycle. Based on member input, we set up virtual work groups on topics of interest. These are moderately structured, with co-leaders from the network, on a specific topic, and run for five months. We take one month off to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, make some changes, and then kick off a new cycle of groups. The cyclical structure allows for regular mixing of people and knowledge and it allows the relationships to strengthen across the network and sectors. Every time we switch, it builds connections in new places without the network staff at the hub. Individuals work on issues valuable to them and choose when they go in and out; it is permeable by design, and generates lots of learning.
Lessons Learned

Credit: Kathy Choh

  • Learning from experience – We are on our fourth set of work groups now. In each cycle, some challenge or tension arises. The first round of them disintegrated and petered out. In the second round, the co-leaders got bogged down in administration, scheduling meetings, etc. This feedback led us to restructure our network support to provide dedicated staff to handle scheduling and notes, which made it easier for work group leaders in the next round. After the third round, network staff interviewed the leaders and we synthesized answers from 5-6 groups to get overall lessons (see graphic.) We integrated that learning into the design of the next set of groups, as this blog by Janne describes: I Asked a Few Questions; Wisdom Appeared.)

A great side benefit of this process I did not see coming was that taking time to have conversations to reflect on what worked and didn’t, people who felt like failures realized they had something to teach us. They didn’t feel guilty when they contributed to making it easier for the people who would follow them. (See Janne’s blog called Surprise! I Love Failure for more details.)

  • Building engagement with a virtual national network – In our network, almost all the engagement is virtual, with only one in-person annual gathering per year. A few key tools we found useful are video conferencing, Google forms, a shared on-line platform (using KARL) and network mapping. We invest time teaching people why video calls are important and get them comfortable with the technology. The members-only web site is a critical knowledge management tool. Each group has its own list serv, which archives everything, making it searchable. This blog, Virtual Tips for Relationship Building, describes a process we use to gather input at various stages, by getting pairs of people to interview each other and type results into an on-line form. We look to how to design each process to serve multiple purposes.

Any final thoughts on what you have learned?

Building networks is hard. We are making it up as we go. There is a lot of learning in hard ways. I love learning, and I see struggles and failures as interesting, which makes me a good fit for this role. Having a thought partner/objective person or a colleague who can listen and help you think about what you learned and help you be comfortable with the difficulty is very important. We’re playing the long game, and there is always something new and difficult emerging to figure out.