Understanding network strategy

Understanding network strategy

Every organization needs an effective strategy. Strategy can refer to an overarching strategic plan at the organizational level or a strategy towards achieving specific organizational needs and goals. A strategy will set the way forward for an organization in alignment with its overarching vision and mission. It will articulate the priorities and directions the organization should take as well as convey the “what”, “why”, and “how” to accomplish its goals, often within a given period, by clearly defining the pathways towards achieving them.

At Collective Mind, we’ve learned a number of lessons through our work with networks developing strategies and strategic plans.

Context matters

Strategy for networks is different than strategy for more traditional organizational models. Networks are a unique type of organization with a complex operating model. They are different in how they’re organized, who’s involved, and how they get things done.

First, networks are horizontal, flat structures: they are not top-down, hierarchical, or directive. They are loosely controlled, with multiple mechanisms for collaboration and without any mechanisms for command and control.

Second, networks are comprised of members — without members, you don’t have a network — and the complexity of that membership typically matches the complexity of the network’s issue area. As such, the network must meaningfully integrate a wide diversity of people and/or organizations in an equitable fashion. It must be flexible and agile enough to capture the emergence that arises from such diversity and the interconnections across it.

Finally, because of these characteristics, networks operate differently. They seek to harness the collective intelligence within them, dispersing leadership and sharing decision-making. They typically don’t procure deliverables but focus on stimulating activities by their members, who are responsible for creating the outputs of the network. This relationship between members and the network is typically voluntary and about creating shared value, not premised on a contractual relationship. Consequently, the network’s staff (if there is a staff) aims to support its members by helping facilitate the production of outputs, rather than directly implementing and delivering those themselves.

How networks are different influences strategy

Within this unique and complex operating environment of networks, we can consider strategy differently in at least three ways: process, content, and implementation.

Process: we must ensure that the process to develop the strategy or strategic plan empowers members and any other stakeholders and establishes their ownership of it. This requires a participatory, inclusive process with mixed methods for inclusive, meaningful participation. An iterative and adaptive process should build from one step to the next toward the final strategy. The steps of the process should ensure ongoing triangulation and validation of key ideas, needs, priorities, and pathways with stakeholders as they are developed.

Content: we must ensure that the strategy or strategic plan represents a collective effort. It should set collective priorities and determine the collaborative paths to achieve them by facilitating consensus-building throughout the process. The plan’s priorities and goals should be grounded in the needs, interests, and capacities of the membership. The substance of the plan must reflect the goals, expectations, and motivations of the members.

Implementation: we must clarify and define who will implement the strategy. As explained above, in the context of a network, it must be its members that produce the outputs with support from the network staff. We must clarify how this can be done realistically and right-size the strategy to ensure the feasibility of that implementation (for example, recognizing the limitations on members’ capacity, time, etc.). We must ensure that the plan supports the network to align energy, resources, and stakeholders for collective impact.

A clear and effective strategy will define in what direction the network and its membership will move forward. It will reflect and align with the needs and interests of its members, defining initiatives and activities through which members can participate and collaborate. Consequently, it will clearly articulate the unique added value that the network as a collective can create that is greater than the sum of those parts.

Interested to hear more about how we approach strategy development with networks and how we can support you? Contact Kerstin Tebbe at kerstin@collectivemindglobal.org.

Kerstin Tebbe has almost 20 years of experience supporting networks and multi-stakeholder collaboration. Her passion for networks was ignited by 6.5 years (2008-2014) spent on the Secretariat for the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) where she coordinated an international technical working group, established a pan-African knowledge hub, and served as Deputy/Acting Director of the network. As a consultant from 2014 to 2019, Kerstin supported networks and multi-stakeholder initiatives around the world with strategy design, program review, knowledge management, capacity building, and facilitation. Kerstin founded Collective Mind in late 2019 after many years of independent study and research on networks. With Collective Mind, she has supported networks from local to global on a wide range of challenges. Kerstin has lived and worked in New York, Buenos Aires, Paris, Nairobi, Geneva, and Washington DC. When she’s not thinking about networks, she’s dancing.

originally published at Collective Mind

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