The Basics of a Network Approach

This post shares 

  1. my own definition of a network approach,
  2. the organizational and cultural shifts that make it successful and more accessible today than it was a generation ago, and
  3. bonus benefits of using a network approach.

I want to thank the many people who have informed my thinking and offered different ways to convey this. First, Beth Tener (whose images I’ve borrowed from this great webinar), and this excellent presentation from the Children and Nature Network, many of my colleagues in the Twin Cities, and June Holley.


Defining a network approach

A network approach intentionally builds effective relationships around a shared vision to accomplish goals or build a movement. It’s a way of working, a set tools that help people work together as peers, to go further faster. It’s decentralized, and people work together as peers. Relationships,  understanding one another’s interests, and shared goals motivate action and accountability.

Respectful relationships are a must. Conflict is a reality in all realationships, and respect plus open communiation can leverage healthy conflict for good in networks.

Transparency rules. People must have access to information about activities, participants, and learning. 


Today’s societal shifts make it easier

Media, meetings, and work can be distributed or centrally controlled, AND it can be directed by one or many people. Adapted from Liberating Structures

Media, meetings, and work can be distributed or centrally controlled, AND it can be directed by one or many people. Adapted from Liberating Structures

Our world is changing. For more than 100 years, our work world has been a directive world, where authorities prescribed what to do and how to do it. That approach is in the bottow left corner of the chart, with “centralized control” by “one person” (or very few).

Technological shifts, especially broad access to internet-based cloud computing, make it easier to engage more people in conversations and decision-making. These tools allow work to shift to the upper right corner of the chart, and a more emergent world. Here we can see patterns growing out of many small individual actions, with trending topics on social media as one example.

Here are a few concrete examples of these shifts.

  • News used to be top down. We got our news broadcast from newspapers and TV, experts and producers decided what we got to learn about. Today’s world is more peer-to-peer. Twitter users break news, bloggers frame it, and we all promote it through social media.
  • Movements and organizations have traditionally been led by a few leaders in positions of authority – CEOs, directors, charismatic individuals. Today the Tea Party, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter are led by large numbers of people who step up and make things happen, by those who contribute. In many cases, they intentionally avoid centralized leadership or individuals identified as the leader – instead, everyone is mentored to be leaderful.
  • Information used to be documented by an individual on a typewriter or working on their own (not-networked) computer. Today, we have near-constant internet connectivity, and people easily collaborate with shared documents stored in the cloud.
  • Research and breakthroughs used to be financed by big, centralized research institutions. While that hasn’t stopped, design thinking’s iterative approach has shown how speedy, iterative innovation and experimentation can lead to quick advances.

Network approaches live in that upper right corner. Uncover shared goals and add individuals who choose to act together, you see the cooperative activities network weavers call self-organization. This sort of work demands a different approach to leadership.


Some ways our world is changing, with old-school and recent mindsets.

Some ways our world and leadership is changing

When many people share leadership for the work, and these mindsets areapplied intentionally and consistently to the work we do, we make much faster progress on the complex challenges we are working on. When you have open and transparent information and healthy relationships, the network organizes the work itself. Helping people find one another and partner on their own ideas spurs innovation and success.

Centralized control is no longer needed; it is instead counterproductive.


Bonus benefits of the network approach

If faster progress on bigger goals with less effort is not enough, networked approaches offer other important benefits to both the whole network and to each individual.

Image highlighting additional benefits of working in a network.

Don’t forget to take home your bonus!

The process parts of distributed control, many-to-many approaches pay out bonuses beyond that progress. The mindsets and habits offer:

  • Stronger relationships and trust
  • Greater influence of the network as a whole thanks to the collective voice and aligned messages
  • Improved access to the talent and skills of the community
  • Faster learning and information exchange
  • Better alignment of work across diverse people and organizations
  • Frequent emergence of new ideas
  • More micro-collaborations, experimenting with new ideas

And, while the big goals or movement moves forward as a result, each individual and organization participating in the network also benefits.


There is a constant stream of new stories about using a network approach, and places to ask specific questions. Keep exploring!