People often join a network because they’re inspired by its purpose, whether that’s to improve a community’s school lunch program or protect a sprawling wildlife preserve. But people stay for a very different reason: who is involved. Which means who is part of a network is just as important, if not more important, than why the network exists.
Bringing your network together
With relationships being front and center of every network, being thoughtful and strategic about how you bring people together is vital. Impact networks offer many ways for people to connect. Communication platforms provide spaces for participants to hold conversations, share events and opportunities, make requests, and keep each other updated. Network leaders connect people directly by making introductions. And an assortment of in-person and online activities—including webinars, site visits, learning journeys, and meals organized around a topic—create opportunities for people to engage via shared interests.
Still, there’s simply no substitute for convenings, whether they take place online or in person. Convenings bring all participants together to simultaneously build relationships, learn from one another, and make decisions for the future. They are milestone moments that can propel a network forward as both a tight-knit community and a vehicle for creating change.
Though every convening should be customized to fit the particular needs of the network, these six key strategies ultimately contribute to its success:
- Put relationships first.
Many people believe that meetings aren’t worthwhile unless they result in tangible outcomes and plans for the future. But progress is about so much more than defining strategies and clarifying next steps. In the world of impact networks, building relationships is the work.Forward motion happens when people have conversations they don’t normally have, with people they don’t normally have them with. It happens when people learn more about their differences and find where they agree. It also happens when participants foster a sense of belonging, together.
Far too many meetings are designed primarily around content. But the most valuable resource at any gathering is the people who attend. The rare opportunity of having people together at one time is too often wasted with presentations that could be recorded and broadcast online instead.
- Embrace the magic of small groups.
For people to engage fully, they need to be in small enough groups to see and interact with each other simultaneously.Small groups give everyone a chance to speak and be heard while also warming people up and making it easier for them to speak in the full group later.
As a general guideline, think of the full group as a place for framing and summarizing, and use small groups to dig into content and discussions.
- Focus on your framing questions.
Like the network itself, the design of your convening should provide just enough structure and no more. The way to do this is with framing questions, which help groups focus their attention on what matters most. Otherwise, conversations might range widely from group to group, creating a lack of cohesion across the convening.The best framing questions get to the heart of the matter. They invite people to bring their own meaning forward based on their own experiences. They have an edge that creates palpable energy when people offer their response.
At the beginning of a session, questions such as “Why does this work matter to you?” and “What are your hopes for our time today?” help set the tone for the work ahead. At the end of a session, questions like “What is something important you learned at this convening?” and “What is one thing we absolutely must keep in mind moving forward?” provide closure to the gathering.
- Create deeper experiences.
In most professional meetings, people leave their emotions at the door. But this lack of personal intimacy is a huge impediment to building trust. To create deeper connections, we need to disrupt these norms and create experiences that feel markedly different from typical meetings.Invite people into a space that feels different from their usual professional environment. Encourage people to share a personal story or meaningful moment in their lives. Incorporate rituals—elements that are repeated at each convening—to bring groups together into a deeper space at a specific moment of every gathering. Use art, humor, and creative room setups to create a sense that, yes, this is different.
With a bit of nudging, people will move beyond the guarded surface-level interactions they’re used to in professional spaces, opening the door for deeper connections.
- Incorporate space.
Because convenings are relatively rare events, there’s usually a lot to get to, and you may feel pressure to fit everything in. The hardest part about designing agendas isn’t deciding what to include—but rather what to exclude.Oversaturating an agenda with activity after activity is a common mistake. When agendas are overplanned, with activities filling every second of the day, they stifle the possibility for new ideas and conversations to emerge organically.
Instead, incorporate space. Always keep in mind that activities will take longer than you expect, conversations need space to breathe, and magic happens in unstructured time.
- Infuse energy into the network.
Each convening needs to be a unique and valuable experience. The moment when convenings turn into tedious affairs filled with updates, presentations, and procedural deliberations is the moment when participants start to lose interest, and energy begins to fade.
To make every convening special in its own way, frame conversations that get to the heart of the network’s biggest challenges or growth areas, design interactive exercises that deepen relationships, and don’t be afraid to try something new. As a participant told us after a convening we led, “I’ll keep showing up just to see what happens next!”
Written by David Ehrlichman.
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