Why we decided to release Personal Boardroom’s IP and tools for anyone to use

Last week, co-founders Amanda Scott and I decided to release Personal Boardroom’s intellectual property and our tools so that anyone can use them. That means everyone:

  • any trainer or facilitator working with any group on topics like network-building, career self-management, collective problem-solving or leadership
  • any coach, mentor, manager or friend helping an individual get along in their career
  • anyone at all who wants to take charge of their future

For more specifics on what we are offering, and to tell us how we can make this work best for you, please visit our website. We’ve written this article to give the background to our thinking.

Background to the Personal Boardroom

Amanda and I started working together in 2012 after we discovered a shared desire to come up with something practical that could be used to improve an area of life — your network — which is important but difficult to navigate. The result was the Personal Boardroom, a practical, simple approach which revolves around the 12 network roles shown below. Our inspiration came from academic research, and particularly studies by Rob Cross and others of what the networks of high-performers are like.

We developed an online tool and wrote a book to help people apply our approach, and out of this built a business selling workshops and talks to corporates. Our approach has been used in many large companies (RBS, SSE, Google, Eli Lilly, BBC and others) and professional services firms (including EY, Linklaters and Arthur Cox). Up until now, we have focused on large companies for commercial reasons.

But now we are now at a crossroads. We know we’ve created something really good, but we think it could be better.

Our vision has always been for the language of the 12 roles to become shared by teams and groups. The 12 roles are useful as a shorthand to refer to different types of help, an oil that lubricates conversations. As someone becomes fluent in the language of the 12 roles, they become a better network member because they are more effective at seeking the help they need, and more effective in giving help to others. They become a more fruitful person to know, in turn creating riches for other people in their network. In this way, the networks they are part of become stronger.

So our vision is to help everyone be part of a stronger network. For that to vision to take hold, we want as many people as possible to know about the 12 roles and use them. But we cannot achieve this on a large scale if we only run our workshops for corporate clients who will pay. And besides, as we discuss below, there are many people who don’t work in big companies who could really benefit from our fresh and practical approach.

So we have decided to try to be both more inclusive and both more generous in the way we spread the word and share our tools and materials. We want to move from a narrow mindset, where we only pursue opportunities that suit us, to a generous and open mindset, where we invite you and people you know to make use of our stuff. The crucial point is that we invite you to be generous with our tools and materials too, by sharing them with people in your network. For that reason, we’ve taken the decision to release the IP. If we are more free with it, we believe that you will feel free too.

We also want to be more inclusive. We’d love it if the useful approach we’ve developed found its way to people who could never find the money to buy it. We can’t achieve that by working on our own. We are looking to you and people you know, to spread the word in the sectors you work in. And especially we invite you to be inclusive — to find individuals who are less advantaged than you are, for whatever reason, and talk to them about the Personal Boardroom idea and the 12 roles if you think it could be of use to them.

So we are shaping a new vision for Personal Boardroom as a gift that people share with others in their network. And we are starting here by sharing it with you.

This vision is not real yet. We don’t know if it’s achievable — especially the desire to be more inclusive. But we want to try.

Thank you for reading this far. You already know enough so feel free to leave us here. We’d love to hear what possibilities this creates for you; to do that please visit our website or comment below.

And if you’d like to know more about where this has come from, the rest of this article explains the background to our thinking.

A failure of networks

The UK’s dividedness is apparent as never before and we hear the rhetoric of “us and them” everywhere, most recently and tragically at Grenfell Tower, with its appalling consequences, from the perpetrator in the Finsbury Park mosque attack, from the Manchester and London Bridge attackers. Ireland, where Amanda lives, has lived with geographic and religious fractures for decades. There has been progress, as the recent election of Leo Varadkar suggests, but there is still much work to do, plus the prospect of new borders as Ireland becomes the frontier where the EU meets an independent UK.

For us, the fissures that have become apparent in the UK can be explained by the networks we move in. It’s easier to know people like us and than it is to know them. There are complex human and evolutionary reasons for this. Our networks are prescribed for us, by where we born, where we can afford to live, where we are educated and where we work. We have access to some networks and are cut off from others. That means that we tend to tune in to the views of people like us and social media cranks this up. This creates misunderstandings, deafness and silos.

The parallel conversations going in Britain in the run-up to the Brexit referendum are a prime example. On the morning of the Brexit referendum result, I was shocked at how little I, as a Remainer, understood the perspective of those who voted the other way. I simply didn’t know people who, to quote Matt Clifford who found their lives painful and hopeless and who felt that no one was offering a solution. I was shocked because, like Matt, I’m used to winning — not necessarily in an electoral sense, but in the sense of my life outcomes.

In the run-up to the vote, I listened to many people who shared my views and few who challenged them. After the result, I discovered friends who were pro-leave, but I had not heard their voices. One said she kept her views to herself, because she was in the minority in her social circles. My surprise at the result reflected, I felt, a failure of my network.

To solve the problems we are facing as a society, in the UK, Ireland and beyond, we need to be able to hear the voices of people who are different, understand their outlook and work together.

The belongingness and constraints of networks

In our work at Personal Boardroom, we advocate diversity of thinking — surrounding yourself with people who bring different perspectives. But that is hard to achieve in practice, for an often overlooked reason. We often say that it’s important to branch out and meet new people — and indeed it is for self-advancement as well as for diversity of thinking — but that overlooks the belongingness of networks, the fact that we belong to our social groupings because they are part of who we are. It’s affirming and warm and fun to be part of the group, to share good times and bad, to draw on jokes and stories, to remember the ups and downs, to have your go-to people. These are the interactions that make us human.

We need to embrace this belongingness, but also to recognise its constraints on us and how it excludes others. Academic researchers who study networks use a measure of “network constraint”, defined on Wikipedia as “the extent to which the manager’s network of colleagues is like a straitjacket around the manager, limiting his or her vision of alternative ideas and sources of support”. Academics like Ron Burt point to the competitive advantages of certain network positions where you can bridge social groups, and control flows of information and resources across so-called structural holes. If you can engineer yourself into such positions, they say, you get to be powerful.

But in real life, these positions are both impossible to discern and to engineer. How does a young person from a rural community with few job openings create a structural hole? How does someone on a zero-hours contract bridge a gap across the management divide? Or a middle manager whose skin tone or accent or education isn’t like those at the centre of power? If you’re straightjacketed inside a network of powerful people, it’s hard to see both how this limits you, and how it cuts out others.

The complexity of networks

Another problem for those of us with richer networks is their very complexity. The social groups we belong to are heavily entwined. Until privacy policies changed, you could map your connections on Facebook and LinkedIn. These visualisations tended to reveal a fur-ball of connections between groups — friends, colleagues, colleagues who become friends, friends you ended up working with, local people, far away people. Here’s my LinkedIn network five years ago.

Such visualisations provoke a so-what feeling. It’s hard to see where my network constrains me and what biases I have, unless I really think about it. It’s also hard to see where hidden fruit in the tangle — the undiscovered opportunities — might lie.

We think that is why the Personal Boardroom framework has been so popular, providing a way to pick and prioritise conversations, with the intention of unearthing one of those hidden fruit. But unless we actively take a different approach, we are bound within the inertia of our existing networks. Elite networks like Davos or the Founders Forum allow the most fortunate to forge even stronger ties with each other. Plenty of hidden fruit for them to find. And for the rest? How will we solve the problems of society if the elite only connect with each other?

The Forward Institute, which aims to create “responsible leadership”, recognises the dangers of fostering yet another elite network. I know they are thinking hard about how to connect their fellows with people who are far less fortunate than they are, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to meet the next cohort of fellows later this year.

As noted above, Amanda and I have started to think that, by working mainly with corporates, and by focusing our efforts on people who are already endowed with good networks and with career opportunities, we are contributing to the problem rather than to a solution. Yes, exclusion within elite networks is still a problem, and this needs to change. There is still plenty of work to do in large organisations.

But we also wonder if our practical, simple approach, more widely shared, might be helpful to a less advantaged audience. We’ve been approached in the past by people who work with young people, with the out-of-work and in charities and NGOs. We’ve worked with one innovative network-building programme in Africa, thanks to our good friend Maggie Dugan. What if we were more open with our tools? Who might benefit? We’re curious to find out.

We’d love to hear what possibilities this creates for you; to do that please visit our website or comment below.

Ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared, they get bigger (Seth Godin)