Several years ago, I encountered an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review which researched “How Leaders Create and Use Networks.” The authors made the distinction between Operational Networks, Personal Networks and Strategic Networks. Most of our time is spent working within Operational or Personal Networks. The authors presented the importance of spending significant time creating and nurturing your strategic network.
The more I reflected on the article the more I realized that the notion of “strategic networking” should be extended well beyond the author’s observations. My first extension was to include strategic networking as a major yearly goal for my direct reports. I realized that they were so focused on operational networking and the “here and now” that they weren’t paying enough attention to the “there and then.” Amazing what a little “expect what you inspect” and manipulating the compensation system does to generate better organizational performance.
I then included strategic networking as a core reading for my UW graduate classes and for the entrepreneur mentoring work I engaged in. I even used strategic networking as the class project for one of my UW HCDE courses. While the article quickly became an active part of my work, I found that students and entrepreneurs rarely glimpsed the importance of strategic networking. They viewed it as just another form of operational networking and didn’t see the important differences.
As I spent more time with David Robinson, I realized that what was missing in my trying to evangelize the power of strategic networking is that I was violating the “experience first, make meaning second” mantra. David kindly agreed to demonstrate a different path for my grad students to understand these concepts through a series of kinesthetic group exercises.
David started by drawing the Chaos -> Order trajectory and then his story cycle on the white board. He shared that “chaos” is the source of all story and the movement to create order. He pointed out the following:
- Business is all about chaos
- Companies get stuck when they focus on the “order” or the product that they created rather than continuing to loop back to the chaos.
- Learning is about not knowing.
- Having to know before we act comes out of causal thinking. Having the capacity to act without knowing comes out of effectual thinking.
- Another way of looking at this cycle is are you oriented towards a question or oriented towards an answer?
- Story is about when a yearning meets an obstacle.
- Organization change can be thought of in the same way as personal change. So as we explore personal change processes they are very similar to organizational change processes.
During class, we went through the following exercises:
Objective: To demonstrate through movement the bunching or binding that occurs naturally when anything is framed in terms of a duality.
Caveats: Have the experience first, and then we’ll make meaning of it afterwards. All learning happens at your edges.
- If you come to a discomfort edge that is where you are learning.
- Judgment is your edge. Suspend your judgment.
- Put yourself into an entrepreneurial and effectual mindset.
- Recognize that you are making choices and you are choosing all the time.
This works well when used in sequence with the Triangle exercise. In some cases, this is also a good warm up exercise. We use it because of how it works with Triangles (which demonstrates both interconnectedness and the ease and flow that occurs naturally when anything is framed in triads).
Everyone stands in a circle.
Secretly, each participant chooses two other participants, identifying one as their “angel” and the other as their “devil.”
Their goal is to move so that their “angel” is always between them and their “devil.”
In almost every case, the group will bunch up, lock up, and then explode. Then, they will repeat the pattern if you let the movement go long enough. Ask first what they noticed, what was their experience? If this was a sculpture (it is) what do they notice about the use of space, locations, textures. Etc.
Objective: To demonstrate through movement the interconnectedness and flow that occurs naturally when something is framed in terms of a triad.
This works well when used in sequence with Angel/Devil. In some cases, this is also a good warm up exercise. We use it at the end of a session because of how it works with Angel/Devil (which demonstrates the bunching and binding that occurs naturally when anything is framed in duality).
Everyone stands in a circle.
Secretly, each participant chooses two other participants, identifying them as the two other points in a triangle (the participant doing the choosing is the third point). The goal is to move so that they always maintain an equilateral triangle (If the two points move apart, the third point must adjust to keep the triangle equilateral).
Tell participants that, at one point during the movement, you will touch one person on the shoulder; that person must sit down immediately. The rule is that, if one of your points sits, you must also sit down immediately. This stops the movement so that participants can see how interconnected they are (you touch one person and the whole group sits), also they will be able to see the pattern they create.
In almost every case, the group will use the whole space (unlike Angel/Devil), forming a circle, looking towards a common center. Ask first what they noticed, what was their experience? Ask them to look at the patterns and positions of people in the room: if this was a sculpture (it is) what do they notice about the use of space, locations, etc..
The Angel/Devil and Triangle exercises helped the graduate students to experience and “see” the networks that they are a part of (with our class projects and in their work environments). And they see the different structures depending on how they frame the question that their network is interacting with.
Our sponsor for the Strategic Networking engagement was Barney Barnett, a long time organizational consultant for the Benziger Family Winery. Barney prepared the green team for the workshop with this teaser:
“We will begin with two short 5 to 7 minute experiential exercises. These will involve walking/moving around as a whole group in the barn. We will have lunch, debrief and make meaning of the experiences. The focus will be to understand strategic networking as a different way to think about what we normally do for operational networks. This new conceptualizing turns around how we (as a Green Team, a member of Benziger and our other networking) create something new to attract others to see how they want to have the influence of the Green Team’s (or Benziger’s) values as part of what is important to their networking strategies. We may use other storytelling, light guided meditation or dialogue to deepen the wrap up and implications for action of this one hour brown bag symposium/experience. “
As we thought about how to wrap the above exercises (Angel/Devil and Triangle) into a stand alone workshop, we started with yet another variant on strategic networking – how to set it up as a two way process – what do you need to learn from others and what do others need to learn from you? This simple addition to the strategic networking helps transform the teacher/student dysfunction to thinking through how the participant needs to be both a student and a teacher.
We started the Green team session with a brief introduction to the HBR Strategic Networking article. I shared my own experiences of learning so much from the Benzigers about biodynamics and observing how many different ways it takes to walk the talk of being green and sustainable.
We posed the following thought experiment to the participants “who does the Benziger Green Team need to learn from and who in the outside world really needs to learn about what the Benziger Family winery is doing with biodynamics and day to day sustainability?”
As we did our initial quick introductions of the participants it became obvious that many of the participants didn’t know each other. Taking this into account, David started with a different exercise – introducing yourself as a problem.
We stood in a circle and David had us think of some small problem (not a large devastating type of problem). We paired up and introduced ourselves as our problem (rather than extolling our virtues to make ourselves look good to a stranger). After 2-3 minutes with our initial partner, we then shifted to new partners a couple of times. During the debrief we all laughed at how difficult it was.
We then reformed the circle and David started us with a different exercise – introduce ourselves by what we bring. What is our gift? We then spent a couple of minutes with several different pairs – with the instruction to introduce ourselves to someone we knew the least. The energy in the room rose dramatically. Nobody wanted to leave their current pair because they were having such a lively discussion. During the debrief David asked us to reflect on the differences between introducing ourselves as a problem versus the introduction of what we bring. Most of us experienced how much easier and engaging the conversation was with what we bring. Most of us wanted to have lots more time to continue sharing.
After the energy generated through the pairwise and movement pattern exercises, we returned to the circular tables. I observed that Benziger had done a great job over the years of learning from the best of the best about biodynamics and what it means to create a green company. Since we had just a little time left, I asked the participants to focus on who (besides the wine consumers who visit the winery) needs to strategically network with the Benziger Green team.
Who do you need to learn from? Who needs to know what the Benziger Green Team is doing?
Pretty quickly a consensus emerged that CEOs and corporate executive teams could really benefit from some experiential seminars that focused on biodynamics and sustainability rather than on just the great wine products that Benziger produces. It was exciting to see the energy released when each of the team members realized that they had something to teach (bring) others as well as strategically networking to learn from others.
Who should you be including in your strategic network? To learn from? To bring to (teach)?
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