Optimizing Network Design



Bicycles are the most efficient transportation ever invented. Image source: http://kaboompics.com/one_foto/498/bicycle-handlebar

This is part of an occasional series on network design

A network leader challenge is remembering the network isn’t most people’s first priority, and it shouldn’t be. I use these two principles to help me remember, members’ needs come first. Participating should be fun and easy, like riding a bike.

But members’ needs aren’t the only needs — the network has needs, too. Optimizing the design of network activities is the only way to meet the needs of members AND the network. Riding a bike isn’t only fun, it’s the most efficient way to get around, looking at energy calories per mile traveled. Optimizing your network activity design does the same thing: each activity takes you further on less energy.


Design activities to accomplish multiple goals. It takes a lot of work to get people organized, or to execute a project. If you think ahead about your (and your members’) goals, you can design each activity or project carefully to leverage each thing you do to achieve several goals. 


In some of my recent work, we used a kumu network map (thanks to support from Greater Than the Sum). The map offered many benefits to both individual members and the network. 

  • The map is a directory for members.
  • It helps members “see” the network.
  • The mapping survey gathers information to identify interest in activity focus areas, guiding the network’s activities.
  • It simplifies personalized activity outreach, showing support staff who is interested in which topics.
  • It gathers data to evaluate network development, strengths and where more work is needed.

We also designed cutely-named work groups achieve multiple goals.

  • Groups work on topics useful to the overarching purpose of the network.
  • Because members suggest topics, and self-select which to participate in, groups work on topics useful to members.
  • The groups are small to make it easy for participants to build relationships with one another. This also ensures members feel accountable for doing what they promise to do; they can see there’s no one else to do it.
  • They provide bite-sized ways for members to engage in the network, requiring only a five-month, 1-2 hours/month commitment. This short, iterative cycle allows us to reset groups, building on what works and setting aside things that don’t work. (More details on this reflective, iterative process here.) It also allows for more mixing of members as new groups form twice a year.
  • They create a place to teach co-conveners and participants about network thinking and practice those approaches.
  • They offer opportunities to identify emerging leadership in the network, through seeing who steps up to take on leadership and through a co-convener design that often pairs elders and emerging leaders.
  • It is a place to build leadership capacity within the network, as the co-conveners are mentored.
  • They are designed to spur interest and engagement in the innovation fund.

How do you accomplish multiple goals through one activity?

2 replies
    • Janne Flisrand
      Janne Flisrand says:

      Thanks for reading and for pointing me to the article, Curtis! I’m an urbanist by identity, and as I read about the patterns on the farm in Berry’s article, I saw parallels to Christopher Alexander et al’s “A Pattern Language,” where again the patterns build on and reinforce one another at varying scales. I also really value what emerges from accepting and working within limits. There’s a future post coming on that!

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