The final evaluation of the RSA networks project offered lessons for organisations about supporting more networked innovation, and lessons for managing the process of change. The full report is available to read here and can be downloaded from the NESTA website
If the goal is to encourage people to work together on issues about which they feel passionate, organisations need to provide platforms for people to meet, build relationships and earn one another’s trust. This approach, centred on building relationships, will be more fruitful in the long run than thinking in terms of new products and services.
Even when the focus is on building relationships, there needs to be a clearly stated invitation that explains to people what is on offer, how they can get involved, what is being asked of them, and what they stand to gain from becoming a participant. This can take time to develop, but it is well worth the effort: an unclear invitation creates anxiety and frustration, which in turns leads to disengagement and disillusionment.
When people do decide to get involved and give freely of their time and energy, this effort needs to be recognised. In the culture of networks, such recognition can come in the form of a thank you as much as a paycheque, a new set of connections as much as a job title. Generosity and mutuality lie at the heart of networks and failure to ‘see and hear’ people will result in the failure of any network-based initiative.
The best ideas can be found in surprising places, and networked innovation is not a linear process. There should always be space in the plan to follow unexpected leads, and it should be made as easy as possible for people to bring in their own connections and networks to increase the chances of a new idea emerging.
Online spaces for networking don’t work unless they are clearly connected to a wider set of activities that mix face-to-face meetings with virtual discussions. Once created, sites need to be easy to amend as people’s requirements change. If they are for a large and diverse audience, the needs of both the intensive and the occasional user must be catered for in equal measure.
Any organisation that sets out to get everyone participating all of the time is doomed to fail.Participation needs to be understood in terms of when and how, rather than as an either/or question. This is an important principle and must be reflected in every aspect of the change project’s design, including its success criteria.
Networks are not the same as a free-for-all where anyone’s idea carries. There is still ample room for judgement in networks: the difference is that the criteria for judging are shared, transparent, and consistently used. Networks centred on innovation need to allow for the fact that ideas arrive at different states of development, and therefore there should be a number of ‘ways in’, depending on how developed the idea is.
The most successful networked approaches to change think about their mission, not their organisation – and this in turn requires a degree of humility and a willingness to share in success rather than claim it all to the organisation. Commitment is what drives people on to achieve social change – and people are more excited by missions than by organisational goals.
The true potential of new networks will not be realised unless they can be integrated with the hierarchy, rather than be grafted on to it. The goal is not necessarily to eliminate the hierarchy altogether – but it does need to change if it is to successfully and meaningfully support the action being carried by new networks. This can be challenging work.
Networks are based on relationships and trust, both of which still require a ‘human touch’. Scale can only be achieved organically, and from the ground up: a decree from head office will not create a sustainable model. Networks need to be imagined as a series of connections or nodes, rather than one central hub around which everything else revolves, and this must drive the growth strategy.
The start of any major change process is inevitably uncomfortable and confusing. This has to be allowed for, as people re-orient themselves to new realities. Attempts to move too quickly to a more planned phase risks failing to generate ownership of the change project.
Organisations often forget that their customers and users are important sources of insight and ideas. Finding ways of unlocking this through the change process is important for long-term success. Much can be learnt from design disciplines, which are routinely used by many of the most successful organisations around the world to help them see their service offerings from a true customer perspective, in order to improve those services.
Where there is no blueprint for change, the only way of reaching a new destination is to experiment and then reflect. Doing this at a small scale initially is a way of managing the risks associated with change: it is through this process that organisations can determine which aspects of current ways of operating should be carried forward, and which should be discarded.
All change projects need a mixture of inspiration and perspiration. Charismatic leadership plays an essential part of galvanising action and inspiring courage; but it needs to be accompanied by a more enabling form of leadership that is centred on empowering the team to carry the project forward.