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Informal networks 2: learning from the unplanned

My friend Naa-Aku Acquaye-Baddoo told me about an exercise she did a while ago to help teams in SNV Asia think about role clarity and teamwork. Participants literally "walk" the relationships they have with others around a specific issue or topic, and carry a colored threat to visualise their walk. What emerges on the floor among participants is a colorful network that can then be discussed and analysed. 

I used the exercise the other day with a group of 20 to study how they had successfully dealt with a large unexpected event. We started by reflecting individually on the best part of the experience. When shared, this brings people back to the essence of what works for them. They then identified the "informal teams" that had spontaneously emerged to deal with the situation. In this case, participants identified 4 teams, which we labeled as follows: 

  • the coordinators
  • the field
  • the logistics
  • the supporters

It was clear that these informal teams were different from the formal teams in the organigram!

Each informal team selected a color of wool, and made a list of every time they needed one of the other teams. They then took the wool threat from their own 'label' to the 'label' of another team, one threat for each time they had needed that other team. It's not about visualising the action (e.g. driving get's one threat), but about visualising the number of interactions (e.g. for that event you drove me around 12 times, so 12 threats).

There is something about everyone in the organisation, from the director to the driver, actually "walking" over to each other. It helps people to remember and appreciate how the organisation actually works: self-organises. The use of different color balls of wool also stimulates creative parts of the brain which is good for learning from chaos.

The discussion and analysis proved useful in two ways:

  • deeper understanding and appreciation of each others' needs and efforts
  • deeper understanding of the 'order' in the chaos, so that the team might be able to better organise next time such an unplanned event occurs

The exercise might also work to visualise networking among different organisations in a multi-stakeholder workshop. The number of colors are limited, but you could be creative: colors for the region people organisations come from, or for the topic they work on, whatever the group feels might bring useful insights.

If you like this network visualisation tool, also check out my blog on informal networking: circles of influence.

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