By Phill Butler
BREAKTHROUGH OR MAINTENANCE?
Networks have enormous, game changing potential. They can re-write the future. In an increasingly interconnected world they hey can help realize truly impossible dreams far beyond the capacity of any individual or organization. Yet many well intentioned networks never realize their potential. There are reasons for this. This short paper seeks to explore some of the keys that spell the difference between an ordinary and a high performance ‘breakthrough’ network.
TWO VISIONS OF KINGDOM COLLABORATION:
Ministry networks may be motivated by a range of vision, urgency, and strategic challenge. At one end of the continuum are those networks born out of a vision to simply make outcomes for its constituency more efficient and, with that efficiency, possibly greater effectiveness — depending on metrics used and specific outcomes sought. Essentially it is a quality maintenance vision. While such efforts have value, they will never reshape the future.
At the other end of the continuum are those networks born out of a sense of overwhelmingly critical or strategic challenges. These are massive issues that have enormous consequences and that are so beyond the scope of any single participating network member that the only possible hope of achieving the outcome is working together effectively with others of like mind. These networks see a radically different future. An alternative or sharply different future “story” from the predictable one associated with the status quo. They inspire and facilitate collaborative work that articulates and realizes outrageous dreams. These high performance networks, capable of real breakthroughs, take a very high level of commitment, focus, and diligent, committed leadership. But they and their potential outcomes are worth it.
The highly strategic, high performance network. It’s the power and potential of these kinds of networks that in this short piece I would like to help you imagine and then actually experience.
If you have an interest, read on.
WHAT OF NETWORKING, SOCIAL NETWORKS, AND A HIGHLY FOCUSED COMMITMENT?
There are legitimate concern about “networks” in the current context where there seem to be so many ‘easy on, easy off’ relationships that fly under the flag of ‘network.’ They lack the serious objectives of a great vision. Clearly a great vision can ever be realized with that kind of transient commitment and/or relationship.
Social/relational ‘networks,’ as a discipline in the field of sociology, is not new. That this whole thing didn’t start with the recent phenomena of ‘social networking’ web sites is now well known. Many text books and a wide range of academic programs have been addressing the topic and granting advanced degrees in this field for many years.
Social/relational networks are commonly classified as being on a continuum of ‘strong’ to ‘weak’ – usually based on the power, motivation, perceived value, along with other factors that bind the members of the network together. One is not necessarily better than another. They are simply different. It is important not to dismiss a network model just because our primary experience may have been with a form of network that is ill-focused, requires low commitment, and/or is comparatively weak or ineffective in other ways.
A network always defines its own ground rules regarding participation. Typically ‘strong’ networks are based on very specific points of commonality among the participants and there are clear and reasonably costly participation requirements (those costs may be cash, resources, political, organizational, influence, personal loyalty and/or commitment, commitment of other tangible or intangible assets, or other obligations of participants). Those costs of getting in or staying in gives potential participants pause for thought as to:
- whether they will be able to meet and maintain the requirements of the network, and
- if the ‘cost/benefits’ analysis for themselves or their organization suggest that being inside the network has clear added value for their own vision/mission.
Classically the ascribed quality of a network is a combination of:
- the merit of the ‘big goal/vision’ that the network is seeking to address that can never be realized by any individual agency or person.
- the perceived value to the participants (individuals or organizations) themselves and the extent to which it helps them achieve their already-established vision/mission in ways they could not on their own.
- the nature of the camaraderie and ‘espirit de corps’ this common commitment and experience produce among all participants. In Christian ministry this may be perceived as quality of ‘fellowship’ (Clear/high standards almost always produce a sense of value and/or exclusivity. As the U.S. Marines say, all they need are “just a few good men” and then make good by demonstrating their standards when you get into boot camp!)
- and, above all, that through its collaborative efforts, the network is actually producing results in the big vision sector that is substantially if not wildly beyond the capacity of “my” agency.
All of these factors add up to the network’s perceived value, quality, and identity—internally and externally.
QUALITIES OF THE HIGH PERFORMANCE, BREAKTHROUGH NETWORK:
All networks begin with a vision. Even those that eventually address an ‘impossible dream’ typically start modestly; an individual or small group of individuals who are captured by a great ministry vision and who can see the power and potential of working together to realize that vision.
Even in the early going, those seeking to launch or effectively sustain high performance networks are well advised to consider:
Engagement and Ownership
All networks gain their long-term value when there is genuine engagement, ownership, contribution, and perceived value within the network. This perception of genuine value added is always two-way. First, there are the uniquely collective benefits possible only in/from the network itself that accrue to the participants. Participants receive value as the network helps them achieve their personal or organizational vision, encouragement, professional development, technical assistance, or in a variety of other ways. It is this perceived value that continues to engage participants and allows them to “sell” or communicate the value of the network to their own constituencies. Then, there are the benefits that can only occur collectively as the individual participants (individuals or ministries) contribute to the network’s on-going objectives. They extend the reach and capacity far beyond what any single organization could achieve. The network takes on or grows in value as collectively its participants achieve their interim and longer-term goals together. In the best of ministry networks the network’s identity is achieved by what it accomplishes not by simply the nature of being a member.’
This reveals a core value common among strong, high performance networks that achieve breakthroughs. They go far beyond ‘commitment’ to statements and/or agreed values. They are an active, alive meeting/facilitating point where, as the big dream is always held up to everyone, all parties can communicate, actively work together on commonly acknowledged priority issues vital to realizing the big dream. They can share the information, resources, successes, and other qualities that accrue from this collective effort. High performance networks have participants or members that have counted the costs. They are actively involved in one or more of the network’s Task Forces or Working Groups (see the next section) powering key initiatives the network has prioritized. They may have put their influence or network of relationships into play on behalf the network’s vision. They may have shared their own resources. They are regularly involved in the network’s working meetings, and they may have even loaned personnel from their own ministry to play essential roles in the network.
The Power of Limited Achievable Objectives
Nothing destroys hope sooner, often with finality, is a network, having adopted a great dream then tries to realize the great vision with a ‘great plan’ — too much too soon. Every network must have that big vision broken down into key elements — building blocks, if you will, in an overall strategy to realize the great dream. Each of these building blocks will have limited achievable objectives that are clearly defined and regularly assessed. These building blocks may be longer-term, more complex initiatives; they may be shorter, project or event-oriented. These building blocks are communicated to and fully understood throughout the network. And these initiatives always need one or more individuals committed to the network’s vision and yet who will assume responsibility to act as a coordinator/facilitator for this particular initiative (see Key Roles below).
These building blocks or initiatives are the natural outgrowth of a healthy, high performance network. The network becomes the ‘mother ship’ for a variety of sub groups – partnerships, task forces, working groups, etc. – all of which are coordinated within the network’s vision and operation. The network communication among the participants about activity and progress in each of these areas is critical. Regular, highly energized communications about what God is doing in/through the network becomes the fodder for energy, motivation, and eventual collective success. This is also the core fuel for healthy longevity of the network.
Just as with the big vision, each of these sub groups need to address is how their specific vision/objectives can be ‘broken down’ into key, essential elements and what proactive efforts can be made to draw in the widest possible number of participant ministries to work on those elements. In so doing, they distribute the load, increase the likelihood of success sooner, engage more network ‘members,’ widen the sense of ownership, and, through all of this raise the perceived value of network’s efforts in the eyes of its participants.
This means that each of a network’s primary sectors or initiatives that support the network’s big vision requires:
- strong leadership that is an active part of the network’s overall facilitation team.
- clear focus with basis for evaluation and assessment.
- strong communication within the working group/task force and externally with the wider network.
Clear Statement and Constant Restatement of the Vision
Every person in the network should know with crystal clarity the network’s overarching, long-range vision. They should also be able to articulate the core strategies or initiatives that the network has identified as the primary near-medium term goals. And the outcomes that the network expects that are essential successfully fulfilling the big dream need to be equally clear. It is so easy to lose focus. The press of current or urgent priorities has a way of causing the best of us to at least temporarily lose sight of the big picture. The network’s leadership is well advised to continually restate and remind participants of this vision and the interim objectives they have agreed to. This restatement needs to occur in:
- Regular network communication (e.g. e-Newsletters, web sites, etc.)
- In communication with or orientation of any prospective network participants.
- At the outset of any task force, working group, or special initiative group within the network, asking, “With this as the network’s primary goal, in what specific ways does what we are doing in our group contribute to reaching that big goal?”
- At the outset of any regional or international working meetings conducted by the network.
- In communication with any investing partner — whether they invest through prayer, volunteer time, or finance.
- And all reporting on progress must refer to this larger vision and, where appropriate, provide context or ‘baseline’ as a reference in reporting on the status of any specific initiatives being reported on.
In short, a brief, powerfully motivating statement about “This is who we are, What we are committed to accomplish, and How we are going about realizing this dream” needs to be a consistent ‘north star’ for both network leadership and the network’s participants.
Clear Definition and Assignment of Key Roles
All high performance networks require visionary, committed leadership. Typical key roles are:
Network Facilitator –
The network leader is a combination of servant and prophet. He or she continues to point to the network’s North Star, calls the network to evaluation of its progress, ensures that all other key leadership roles are filled, trained, and effectively working. He or she encourages both other leaders and rank and file participants. In an appropriate way is the network’s ‘cheerleader.’ He or she is the one who must “wake up every morning thinking about everything” and is the one who, when all else fails, provides the ‘glue’ that holds the network together and focused.
Working group/Task Force Facilitators –
Each specific, limited, achievable objective the network identifies as critical to achieving the long-term vision must be led by a man or woman who believes in, is involved with, and is committed to high quality/high performance outcome in that particular sector. They encourage, keep their group focused, help group members who lack facilities or get bogged down. They consistently remind the group of how their part is essential to the big dream. Key to success is the facilitator regularly being in touch with all who have responsibility — encouraging, suggesting connections and resources, and getting updates on progress. In turn, sharing that progress with the rest of that group and with the wider network.
Communications Facilitator –
Communications is the life blood of any high performance network. Internal communications may involve eNewsletters / Bulletins to network members. It may involve a secure web site allowing network members, task forces, and other groups to share information, prayer priorities, and to identify resources vital to the network’s objectives. Frequently these roles are split up allowing one individual, for instance, to do nothing but maintain a highly effective, high participation network web site, while another individual facilitates other key network communications functions.
Working Meeting/Event Coordinator –
Every high performance network has working meetings — regional, national, or international. These meetings may be more or less frequent. They may be ‘virtual’ in this increasingly electronically connected world. Often these meetings take on special importance as they become the only occasion where network members or participants can meet, share, pray, and informally interact together around the common theme(s) or issue(s) that bind them together. The importance of the vision and investment being made by network participants means that these meetings cannot be left to last minute ‘best efforts.’ They need to be carefully planned and facilitated from the earliest planning stage through execution and the necessary follow-up or ‘downstream’ action points that flow out of the meetings.
Prayer Coordinator –
Satan does not want God’s people to work together — effectively and durably — particularly in seeking to take the Good News of Jesus to those who have heard. He and his minions are active opposition seeking every opportunity they can to divide and destroy. Every spiritually high performance network has several key prayer elements that undergird the implementation of the vision. The facilitation team and network leadership place high value and emphasis on prayer. The leadership demonstrates this by the time spent in prayer as they work together. The network established a working group within the network whose sole responsibility is to identify key prayer needs and points of progress — both of which need to fed into the pro-active prayer process. Establish and external prayer network(s) with those around the world who share a vision with the network and have the time and commitment to pray and draw in others to this vital role of prayer.
Resource Development Coordinator –
High performance networks do not come free. All participants who are engaged at a level allowing them to see ‘return on investment’ will invest time, influence, expertise, often facilities, and in the case of many networks, money. However, networks frequently mount projects that are beyond the financial capacity of the Task Force or Working Group supervising the initiative or even the overall network. Networks where participants are fully engaged and demonstrating full commitment are often actually seen as a highly attractive investment by Kingdom-minded investors — be they individuals or ‘professional’ funders such as foundations or trusts. Doing the research, writing the proposals, making the contacts, and doing the follow-up necessary for these vital tasks cannot effectively be done by even well-intentioned and committed individuals. Experience, focus, and a sense of ministry calling are needed.
TYING THE VARIOUS PIECES TOGETHER:
Every high performance network that powers a breakthrough has a pro-active coordination point which keeps the strategic focus and ties all the pieces together. Some networks call it the Facilitation Team. Others call it a Steering Committee or some other variation.
The main point is that this group is made up of all the key leaders like those suggested above — and usually with at least a couple of ‘members at large’ from within the participating organizations. They assess, coordinate, and then make an active communications back throughout the network possible.
This team needs to communicate and meet regularly. In a network of any size there is too much going on and without this regular connection too much is missed, simply ‘falls through the cracks, or is poorly communicated.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances this team probably needs to be meeting at least once a month. Normally with the team spread out geographically, those meetings are going to be virtual — with team connecting by phone, Skype, or similar means. Like all effective meetings, even these regular meetings are best when there is a regular format, a clear agenda and purpose, and some kind of documentation of at least the main action points.
PREPARING, ENCOURAGING, AND SUPPORTING THE NETWORK’S LEADERSHIP:
If effective, high performance, breakthrough networks were easy we would see many more of them. And, those who have never participated in one would not be so skeptical! The truth is we tend to place good people in key roles of leadership without the faintest awareness of and/or appreciation for the essential skills set they need.
High performance networks need multiple people, men and women, in their leadership team that have been specifically trained and who have access to on-going coaching as they play their vital roles. Each of the network’s leaders will benefit enormously, as will the network itself, if they make partnership/collaboration training an essential element as they plan, prepare, and step into these kinds of network roles.
They can more creatively, effectively deal with the frequent day to day challenges of individuals and groups working across organizational lines. And they can make a clearer contribution on those larger, direction-setting issues that have major impact on the network realizing the big dream.
A particularly vital reason for this training and coaching is the challenge of continuity. All networks face the practical issue of changes in leadership as missions change direction or move personnel from one field/region to another or personal/family circumstances prevent individuals from continued service. Having a strong ‘back up’ makes all the difference.
Together it really is possible to dream big Kingdom dreams and, through the power of His Spirit, see those dreams realized.
Phill Butler is an author and internationally acknowledged expert in partnerships and strategic alliances. For nearly three decades, Phill has led the way in developing missional partnerships among Christian organizations in more than 70 countries. Phill is the founder and current Senior Strategic Advisor of visionSynergy, and was the previous founder and director of Interdev and Intercristo. In his earlier years, Phill was an international radio and news correspondent with ABC News.