It was the conservationist John Muir who said “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.” Scientists are discovering that all sorts of natural phenomenon, from the root systems of trees to the foraging behavior of honey bees, are actually expressions of a larger, collective intelligence.
How can we ensure that our social networks also work intelligently and effectively? We asked leadership coach Trish Silber, president of Aliniad Consulting Partners, to help us identify the traits of these smart networks and how we can foster better collaboration.
What are the characteristics of a “smart network”?
I learned about the term ‘smart network’ from June Holley and Valdis Krebs and it has completely changed how I think about the networks in my life. In the simplest terms, better and more diverse relationships in your network create better opportunities with less effort.
A smart network includes a close core of diverse, high quality relationships that exhibit great communication and collaboration. Not everyone may know each other directly in this close core, but individuals can be connected with each other easily and quickly to work together.
The periphery of the network is exponentially (3-5 times) larger than the core, so new thinking, ideas and resources flow easily into the core because everyone on the periphery is connected to someone in the core. And when you ensure that the core and the periphery are highly diverse, you can imagine the access, energy, creativity, and resources a network like this can bring!
Why is it important to have a smart network?
It’s the intentional networks that I’m part of – those networks that are working toward a common vision and trying to have impact of some kind — that I cultivate to become smart networks.
I need a smart network when I’m dealing with huge challenges or opportunities, when I’m trying to do something transformational, and /or when I need to engage or access a broad set of stakeholders outside of my own community.
I keep finding that it’s like a flywheel — when I start cultivating a smart network, it seems like it begins slowly, but then it starts to build momentum and eventually really picks up speed. I end up feeling that the network is actually working for me – saving me significant time and effort and achieving results beyond what I could initially imagine. A smart network extends your reach and amplifies your ability to have impact.
How has your own network helped you in your work?
When I think of my greatest successes and the impact I’ve had in both my career and in the areas I volunteer, I can always point to people in my network who helped make them happen.
Colleagues in my network have created access for me. They’ve opened doors nationally and internationally and ensured that I had a seat at the table. The periphery members of my network have eyes and ears where I don’t and have made sure I’ve had an understanding of context and access to information. When I think about the most extraordinary clients I’ve worked with throughout my career, they were each introduced to me by people in my network.
Members of my network are only a phone call (or text) away with all manner of support, such as ideas and resources. I don’t ever feel that I am facing challenges alone. My network makes sure I am thinking big enough, holds me accountable and supports me in being the best, most authentic version of myself.
And when it comes to learning, members of my network (especially on the periphery) are out on the leading edge of research and innovation in fields related to my work and are voracious readers. They let me know what’s worth reading, what I need to be savvy about, and what I’ll want to attend. They have saved me countless hours, have fueled my interests, and have introduced me to leading thinkers I would never have met or heard of otherwise.
And finally, having a network that brings access, support and learning has allowed me to scale my work beyond what I could ever have achieved on my own.
How can I assess my own network?
If I am beginning a new effort, or feeling that my current network is a little stale, I like to reflect on the following characteristics of an effective network. I always get a specific insight about actions I can take to build or refresh my network.
- Diversity: To what degree does my network include all the types of individuals and groups that are needed for success in the issue(s) I care most about? What key relationships and connections are missing from my network?
- Visibility: Does my network provide me with the visibility I need? Am I in the right rooms with the right people?
- Energy: How active is my network? Do members of my network communicate with me and others in ways that foster engagement, participation and action? Does my network motivate me?
- Mutuality: What do members of my network offer me compared to what I offer them? What kind of ‘return’ do I get from my investment in various relationships in my network?
- Freshness: Is my network forward-looking and innovative? Do members of my network identify new opportunities where we can invest our efforts for even greater impact? How often do I create strong connections with new people?
- Resilience: Is the core of my network too dependent on one group or individual? Are there individuals or groups in my network that need to be better connected with each other?
Trish Silber, president of Aliniad Consulting Partners, has more than 30 years of experience in organizational and leadership development, executive coaching, and conflict management. She recently completed her second term as the Chair of the Nominating Committee for the National Environmental Education Foundation board and provides pro bono executive coaching for TED Fellows.