Seeing Network Patterns: Inform Your Next Wise Action

After you have mapped your system—or even parts of your system—many questions will emerge. So what does this map mean? So what can I learn from it?

Network Mapping

This change the world is the third in a series about using networks as a way to think about the patterns of interaction that move the work forward in your organization or community. The series is focused on the concept of seeing the flow of information and energy in your system as a network of connections that contribute to its resilience and sustainability. So far we have introduced two concepts that make this perspective relevant to your work.

  • In November we introduced the idea of an “adaptive” network—one in which the connections between people, ideas, and issues allow the network to be sensitive, responsive, and robust in the complexity of the 21st century.
  • In December we shared a guide for mapping your network by looking at the patterns of interaction and decision making that shape your system. The questions in that guide allow you to see into the underlying dynamics of those interactions.
  • This month’s Change the World offers insights about how to make sense of your adaptive network map. The deeper patterns of human interactions that shape your network hold the seeds that determine its fitness for the work you do.
  • In February we will talk about particular actions you can take to shift current patterns toward greater fitness, pointing to innovative options for action to move you through the complexity.
  • In March we will bring all the concepts together to talk about building individual and organizational capacity as a source for 21st century solutions.

Making Sense of Your Adaptive Action Network Map

After you have mapped your system—or even parts of your system—many questions will emerge. So what does this map mean? So what can I learn from it? Scientists and mathematicians have been studying networks for a long time, and have characterized types of networks according to the innate structure and function. Each type of network has been described precisely and carefully in mathematical terms. That is not our intention here. We have “borrowed” these terms—with gratitude to the experts who give us these descriptions and to Wikipedia—to help us understand, in very simple ways, the complexity of our worlds.

For each category, we offer insights you can use to understand assets and barriers you may be experiencing in your own network.

Random Network
Random network

Random networks have no clear patterns of connection—all nodes are generally connected to all other nodes. Examples include large crowds who gather around a shared cause in one place and people who show up in a public place for their own interests and interact only as they cross each other’s paths.  

Random networks allow the flow of power and resources across the network, but nodes are often confused and/or inconsistent in their contributions to the whole. These networks are expensive in resources it takes to support the whole, and they are highly unpredictable.

As a manager in a random network, your work is often surprising and confusing. You can’t rely on standard communication patterns or paths. Each individual is connected to others, enabling quick exchanges that may or may not be filtered by shared understandings or perspectives. Gossip and celebrations can move quickly across the system. The network activities can lack coherence across the whole, leaving a sense that the “left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” 

On the other hand, a manager in this type of network can benefit from the independence and activity that occurs in all parts of the system. Each point in the network can generate patterns of productivity and innovation, without being constrained by the demands of the whole.

Your role is to help the individuals and groups understand their roles and contributions in the greater network. You are a connector and interpreter, creating understanding and collaboration when it benefits the whole. Control and prediction are not what you seek. Rather you support surprise and emergence across the network.

Hub and Spoke Network
Hub-and-spoke network

Hub-and-spoke networks are structured as their name implies. A central hub is surrounded by a number of nodes that connect directly to the center, but not to each other. All resources that move through the network have to go through the hub to get to other nodes. Examples include a hierarchical organization with one strong manager/boss; distribution centers that manage and process goods in one place and then send them out to the field; and families with one dominant parent.

A hub-and-spoke network concentrates power and information at the center, which can quickly exhaust the hub. They are relatively fragile because a break in any of the “spokes” can disconnect it from the rest of the network. On the other hand, they are highly predictable because of the strong functioning of the hub.

If you manage a hub-and-spoke network, your work is to manage the flow of resources across many individuals and groups who connect to you. You are the center of that universe and everyone comes to you for answers and connection. You can quickly become overwhelmed and exhausted as you attempt to respond to emergent issues in multiple “spokes.”

On the other hand, your central role can be exhilarating and interesting as you bring together the different needs and perspectives of the various groups that rely on you. You get to see across the whole and help individuals and groups see how their work contributes to and complements others’ work.

Your role is to process information and other resources to distribute them across the whole. You work to strengthen and maintain fragile connections to keep all parts of the network linked together. You appreciate predictability and value order and control across boundaries.

Scale Free Network
Scale-free network

In scale-free networks any part of the network has a similar structure to the whole. They contain centers or larger nodes (hubs) that connect to each other and to their own set of a number of smaller nodes. Information flows across the network freely, often bypassing hubs and moving directly from node to node. Examples include groups who share strong cultural or religious bonds; an emergent network where diverse members agree on a shared set of simple rules; and “flat” and un-siloed organizations that limit hierarchy, allowing connections at all scales across the whole

Scale-free networks are robust because they have multiple paths and options for flow of information and resources. So when any part of the network fails, the rest of the network can go on functioning. Power and information are distributed across the whole so any node can support the system’s fitness or functioning. Connections and freedom of movement allow influence from multiple sources, making these networks unpredictable.

If you manage in a scale-free network, your job is to create and support coherence across the network. When that coherence exists, individual nodes and hubs work together toward greater fitness of the whole. You seek to ensure redundancies in paths of sharing across the system, so that the network, as a whole, is not dependent on any one node or hub. You recognize the autonomy and authority of individuals and groups, even as you work to ensure coherence and mutual support.

In some scale-free networks, however, the necessary coherence does not exist, allowing individuals and groups to work in isolation. The focus of the whole can be lost as the groups focus on their own success and needs. You are unable to control by fiat; and action in one part of the network can bring unpredictable and unintended consequences.

Your role is to build necessary coherence in the system by supporting the leadership of hubs, using Simple Rules, providing access to shared information, and maintaining a strong focus or purpose for the whole.

Small World Network
Small-world network

In small-world networks most nodes are not neighbors of many other nodes, but the neighbors of any single given node are likely to be neighbors of each other. Most nodes can be reached from every other node by a small number of hops or steps. In such a loosely or seemingly disconnected network, a path can be described that will join any two points in the network. Examples include highly diverse, segregated communities; siloed industries or businesses with parts that compete for shared resources; and different branches of a large family.

These networks hold information and power in subsets or cliques. Multiple hubs are generally connected to each other. These networks are efficient in the parts because of the consistency, and less efficient in the larger scale, from hub to hub. They are robust because if something happens to one part, the network can go on and function, with each hub acting as a fairly independent functioning unit. This level of connection and efficiency generally creates a more predictable network.

If you are a manager in a small-world network, your job is to ensure the connections and inclusion of each of the hubs and nodes. You may often face challenges in ensuring connection and resource flow across the whole. Efforts to ensure system-wide coherence can become very challenging as you look for ways to bring the disparate groups and individuals together in a single purpose.  

On the other hand, the relative ease of connection from one node to any other node across the network can be a bridge to building shared perspective and understanding. A danger in this type of network is the possibility of emergent cliques and competition between the groups of neighbors, so managers have to look for ways to ensure open access and shared focus.

You support the local connections, even as you nurture the connections between the hubs or centers of action. You use tools such as Simple Rules, common language, and role clarity to support collaboration and innovation that serves the greater whole.  

Understanding and using these structural descriptors can help you clarify challenges and make informed decisions to support the type of structure that is best fit for the purpose of your network.

This month’s Change the World offers you a mini-guide about how to understand your network map in ways that can inform your next wise action for problem solving and decision making. Use it to understand your network and let us know what you find.

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