Why Communication Planning is Different for Networks: How your network can re-learn communication to make it successful

Networks are able to solve problems that individuals and organizations cannot on their own. Often when we think of them, we think about coordinated resources and activities, but we also need to think about the coordinated flow of information and ideas.

After all, the reason networks are more effective at addressing large scale issues is that multiple clusters of expertise can inform one another in order to be both more efficient and more responsive to needs. Just as human organs are composed of cells and tissues, networks are made up of individuals and organizations working together to perform various functions simultaneously. To do so, they need to be in consistent communication with one another.

Communication in networks is different than in organizations. When we understand this, we can recognize and capitalize upon the incredible opportunities they present. Here are four ways communication is different for networks and four strategies for success.

1. Communication is multi-directional. In contrast to networks, the hierarchical organizations and systems we are accustomed to seek to maximize control and stability by having leaders decide what and how to share information, both inside and outside the organization. Unfortunately, these systems are breeding grounds for miscommunication and poor strategy because those who aren’t leaders also have valuable information that may not be being fully utilized.

Networks have an incredible opportunity re-think how information and resources can be fully utilized. Instead of looking to an executive, we can look to one another and assess what our goals are and how we might each contribute to get there. Organizations that participate in networks may find that it takes considerable effort to break habits based on organizational norms such as looking for clear directions to follow. Networks that use a collective impact framework may have a backbone organization leading coordination, but this can carry with it a risk that the other organizations will easily revert to the habits of traditional hierarchies that they are accustomed to.

The solution: Develop an internal communications strategy. Sometimes networks put the cart before the horse by thinking about marketing or branding before they’ve focused on group clarity and coordination. Establishing group identity and an internal narrative will help your network progress and it will also help those outside the network better understand what you are doing and why. A strategy should include your network’s shared goals and their coordinated plan for reaching it. A discussion about how resources will be shared should also include how external communication will be supported and executed, preparing the cart for when the horse is really to run.

It is important to remember that communication both reflects and drives culture. One network I’ve worked with developed their strategic plan together but then months later when the network was getting disorganized and losing focus, the plan was sitting on the shelf. A different one continues to reference their shared vision, even sharing best practices with other networks.

2. More people need to reach consensus internally. The strength and potency of networks is not measured by the number of people or organizations involved, but rather whether there is sufficient diversity of thought and experience to create new solutions and maximize their potential for success. Having many different voices at the table can invite unique challenges such as:

  • Members feel confused, especially because they may not be yet versed in one another’s language, terminology, organizational norms, stakeholders, and/or experiences.
  • Members are not getting enough information from one another because attendance is irregular, discussions are dominated by a few members, and/or information is not consistently distributed.
  • Members feel conflicted because of culture clashes and/or competition and because their loyalties and responsibilities are ambiguously divided between their organization and the network as a whole.
  • Members’ commitment wanes because members do not feel heard, important, or that the group is moving forward.

Knowledge-based social networks are all about leveraging what who you know knows, but before we can do that we must first know what each of us knows. Sharing with other network members isn’t always easy, especially because our individual need to belong often eclipses our group need to accomplish tasks. But once many voices can learn to harmonize in unison, their volume will be difficult for anyone to ignore.

The solution: Invest in building trust. Building trust takes considerable time. Networks may have to ask themselves: “Is it more important to accomplish specific tasks within a given timeframe or is it more important to reach our goal?” Doing the latter may require sacrificing the former.

Building trust also requires leaning into discomfort and conflict, which generally we try to avoid. I have found that the simplest, most effortless way to do this is to use a visual communication tool known as graphic recording to support group members in real-time with understanding complexity and feeling included.

For example, one graphic recording I’ve created visually captured a meeting that was a turning point for two networks that had felt in competition with one another. While individuals arrived at the meeting skeptical about engaging in a facilitated process together, they used the visual to work through their conflicts and by the following year recognized the graphically recorded meeting as the one during which they came together as one.

3. External communication is essential. Networks present opportunities to break through former communication barriers that impede progress, but they are still at risk of becoming isolated from the input of information they need to be effective simply because our natural inclination is to associate with those we are most like.

Complex networks in nature demonstrate that long-term sustainability depends upon balancing efficiency and resilience. The hitch is that while efficiency depends upon the minimization of diversity and interconnectivity, resilience depends on the maximization of them. Likewise, communication in social networks must balance strengthening existing relationships in order to use current network knowledge and consistently creating new relationships in order to expand that knowledge.

Whether your network thinks of this as partnership building, community stakeholder engagement, or marketing, keep in mind that communication is never one-way. Networks may provide information, but they can also get the information they need, for example about the effects their activities are having or the effects they could or should.

The solution: Create new ties thoughtfully. Your network will need to apply the same patient, realistic, strategic approach that you practice internally to build relationships with external stakeholders. It is worth the careful consideration this takes in order to ensure that the work of your network stays relevant.

Respect the time and contributions of others by thinking about what matters to them. If you seek to build bridges by empowering individuals to voice their concerns, then plan to address those concerns (or better yet to give them the agency to do so themselves) so those bridges don’t then get burnt.

One network I’ve worked with is really great at using deliberate facilitative processes but is less practiced at producing early wins that keep stakeholders engaged and hopeful. Others I know can get so focused on producing certain outcomes by deadlines set by a funder, such as having a certain number of people attend meetings, that progress toward their primary goal, such as to have those people inform solutions that will work, is stunted.

4. Messaging (including data) is dynamic. While the organizations that comprise them may focus on offers of services or products that solve concrete needs, networks are in the business of sharing ideas that are often complex and sometimes invisible. Furthermore, networks themselves are fluid, and as more information becomes available messages will need to change.

Networks also have to communicate with multiple audiences, which can challenge individual organizations who may relate differently to them (for example, one organization in the network may rely upon a critical partner who is a perceived threat to another organization).

The solution: Create structures for consistent learning and reporting. As their work ebbs and flows, networks need to stay focused on what’s currently happening. Through thoughtful collection and reporting of high-quality data (both quantitative and qualitative), networks can position themselves to be able to intentionally adapt.

  • Commit to integrated data collection and reporting. Using one another’s data will not only improve the network’s success, but perhaps also generate more at the organizational level.
  • As questions that get at the heart of what you need to understand to reach your goals. Are the network’s activities leading to desired changes and are those changes sustained over time?
  • Measure the network itself. For example, assess whether goals are clear, participation is equitable, and information is being shared effectively.
  • Remain focused on what you will be able to act upon. Data is not an ends in itself, but rather a means for thoughtful decision making. Does the data you are collecting help your network work better?

I admire the networks I work with who are willing to dedicate adequate thought and resources to this development. I am saddened by those who get distracted by technical tools when they can start now, even with simple paper surveys, ensuring there will be some data to show change over time.

The ones that I know are guaranteed to make a difference are those who are willing to discover what isn’t working and be open to change. That kind of resiliency is the very reason networks are capable of exceptional results.

This article was originally published on The National Rural Health Resource Center's OnCenter blog.

Sketchnotes from Culture of Data Conference

Last week the Colorado Public Health Association hosted the Culture of Data Conference, attracting hundreds of local professionals interested in learning more about using community data and engagement to achieve health equity. Here are some sketchnotes of some of the sessions I attended.


If you are interested in learning more about how to communicate about data, join our peer community!

"Hiding" in your communications: When it's helpful

My last blog was all about the ways that we might be hiding instead of communicating and how doing so can hurt us. 

Now for the good news: hiders like myself can also put their instincts to good use. Here are some ways that I've found my introverted, introspective attributes to be highly helpful in communications:

1. Listening and observing. If you pay close attention, you will hear and see what others may be missing. Rather than using social media (or meetings for that matter) for promoting your services, use them to tune into what people are talking and caring about. Practicing reflective listening, where you repeat back to the person what you heard them say, is also good practice for finding a message that will resonate with the people you seek to serve.

2. Exercising prudence with words. Speaking of messaging, we all know how much words matter. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words leave wounds more lasting. Experts hiders like myself may be more selective about what they say, when they say it, and/or who they say it to. Such restraint is an especially important skill in situations of stress, tension, mistrust, and conflict.

3. Honoring confidentiality (and giving shout-outs). At the very least, refraining from toxic gossip can move mountains towards building trust. Keeping confidences is an even better way to demonstrate that you are focused on building bridges not taking sides or claiming turf. (Speaking of which, while it's helpful to take credit for what is yours, when you are curating the work of others, say so.)

4. Recognizing less is more. This principle not only works with words, but also with numbers, images, pages, time, etc. Clearing away the clutter and noise paves the pay for honing in on what matters most. Expert hiders can practice refining the art of concealing what doesn't. (Note, this can also be the most difficult practice if our habit is to complicate and perfect.)

5. Speaking up in service to others. Nothing irks me more (yes, not even poor design) than a presenter who spends hours of time pitching their ideas and then a few minutes basically shrugging at questions posed by their audience. What the folks they are speaking to struggle with is exactly what the expert should be paying the most attention to. Just like these folks need to learn to listen more than talk, we hiders have to be willing to speak up if/when we can be of service. When we recognize that doing so doesn't have to be about promoting ourselves but rather can be about helping others, we more easily overcome our hesitation and are willing to risk speaking up despite our self-doubt.

6. Using uncertainty as opportunity. It was excruciating but liberating for me when I realized that what often causes me the greatest distress (my inability to communicate effectively) was actually a reflection of my strengths. I naturally do all of the things that were labeled as harmful in the previous blog - take a step back, listen to others, sit with complexity, put things in order, and iterate as needed - and these gifts are exactly what enable me to help my clients succeed. You see, if we don't do these things at least on occasion, we are just running endlessly from task to task, absorbed in the minutiae, missing the bigger picture, and stuck in confusion or inaction. Cave dwellers like me are experts at staying in the dark long enough to be able to see the light, however small it may be. 

You might notice that many of these helpful strategies also allow us to generally be more objective. It has taken me years to understand that this correlation may be at least partly why scientists and other quantitatively-strong individuals are not well known for their ability to share or promote their ideas. As always, it is my hope that my experiences may provide hope and possibility for these folks, especially because I so passionately believe that these ideas are the very key to transforming our struggling world.

If you take nothing else from this blog, take this: there is no shame in hiding, or perhaps any other thing we tell ourselves we "shouldn't" be doing. The goal of growth need not be to erase our weaknesses, it can simply be to bring them into harmony with our strengths. It takes practice, and we need confidence, not judgement or recrimination, to be able and willing to begin.

"Hiding" in your communications: When it's harmful

While you may know me as an expert communicator, what you may not know about me is that I am also an expert hider. It has taken me years to develop messages about my services, to have a website that I am proud of, to be able to write and stories like this - and a lot of that time and energy was spent waiting, overanalyzing, rehearsing, pretending. Knowing one needs to communicate well and committing oneself to the hard work of doing it consistently are two different things.

Like me, the organizations I work with often recognize that communication - among internal teams and with the communities they are a part of - is one of the greatest obstacles they face as they seek to grow their impact. Some are willing to face this challenge, but many may not achieve the results they seek. It is just so tempting and easy to stay safe within the echo chambers we are already in.

In her book "Playing Big", Tara Mohr identifies six ways that women in particular continue to stay small based on her experience coaching them. Not surprisingly, I found these to be the same strategies that I see in organizations that may say they want to better promote their programs but yet can never quite get there. They are the same habits that I have seen in myself as I've tried to strengthen my own courage to make myself visible enough to offer services to these organizations.

The good news is that when we see these behaviors as the distractions that they are, we open ourselves to finding new possibilities and opportunities to take the actions that will expand our influence and ability to serve.

1. Thinking "this before that." What this often sounds like in organizations is: "we need to have software before we can create materials," "we need to learn code or hire a web designer before we can have a website," or, most commonly, "we need a lot more money before we can get our message out there." Personally, I have told myself things like "I need a perfect business plan and expensive consultant or coach before I can work with more clients." What I have found is that waiting to take action doesn't make it easier to do so.

2. Designing at the whiteboard. This means that you come up with ideas entirely on your own, without any input from or testing with others. Such plans, whether business plans, strategic plans, or communication plans, are easy to create but usually not very realistic or effective. The most effective way to design anything is to actually put the audience first. Taking the time to deeply understand their needs and concerns will make any plans informed and possible.

3. Overcomplicating and endless polishing. When it comes to communications, I see this most frequently with website projects and branding processes. Both can be time and resource consuming, a seemingly-endless search for impossible perfection. This trap is why constraints are so critical to creating anything. Limiting the amount of time, number of people, cost, revisions, etc. and being willing to get to "good enough" focuses attention on what is most important and ensures you will be able to celebrate at the finish line.

4. Curating others' ideas. Sometimes this just looks like a preoccupation with other organizations that share similar ideas, services, and/or resources, which distracts us from minding our own. This is also a habit that is rampant on social media platforms, where you can easily share ideas produced by others rather than generating original ideas of your own. In a time when collective impact is all the rage, it can be all the more easy for boundaries to blur, but it also makes it all the more imperative to avoid...

5. Omitting your own story. I know that producing original stories, data, and any other kind of content is difficult. And that what's even harder is including experiences not just theories as part of what you share. We all know that the best stories are about triumph over "failure" - and that those are the most challenging for us to personally share. But consider what happens if you do: you connect with people in a way that matters, to them and to you. If you read previous posts on this blog, for example, you will experience for yourself that the less-personalized stories that I used to share are on average less inspiring and useful than the ones I've been daring myself to write more recently.

6. Pursuing evermore education (or other accreditation). While individuals may think they need certifications or higher degrees to get a stamp of credibility or authority, organizations may think they need to win awards or garner large amounts of funding. What this reflects is simply that we are seeking recognition. In addition to having our story be seen and heard, we want it to be believed. But what I have discovered is that no external validation is a guarantee that we will fully believe in ourselves - and that is what we must practice doing if we wish others to do the same.

Guess what? The best way to stop hiding is to start practicing sharing your story now, however imperfectly. If we want to feel the warmth of the sun, we have to be willing to come out of the cave. Take it from a fellow cave-dweller: yelling from them just doesn't work.

But there is good news for us expert hiders too! Read my next blog to hear all about it.