The Network Mindset: Scaling Out, Not Up

Once you begin to recognize the webs of relationships that make up our world, you will never go back. This is what we call the network mindset shift. To adopt a network mindset is to embrace the reality that everything is connected — that the actions of individuals, organizations, and sectors affect one another in profound and often-unexpected ways. The network mindset is, more than anything, characterized by “a way of looking at the world, a shift in perspective . . . to see it relationally,” Christopher Vitale writes in Networkologies. Making this mindset shift is an essential step in the journey of thinking, learning, and working through networks to create change.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller, A Fuller View

Photo credit: Sam Moqadam

Those who have embraced the network mindset see themselves as part of a larger web of activity — as one of many nodes in the system, not the central hub. In this way, the network mindset shift can also be characterized as an evolution of focus from me to we, or from “ego-system awareness” to “eco-system awareness,” as Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer put it in Leading from the Emerging Future. With this shift, leaders become adept at noticing how their efforts are related to others, and as a result it becomes easier to identify opportunities to work together.

Rather than trying to scale up an individual organization, building an increasingly large and efficient machine, they instead seek to scale out, developing stronger connections to generate impact through collaboration. This way of thinking and working is absolutely crucial for our ability to engage effectively with complexity. The potential for impact increases significantly when all types of resources — leadership, money, and talent — are leveraged across systems toward a common purpose.

The network mindset is captured most succinctly by four principles championed by Jane Wei-Skillern. Leaders who have adopted a network mindset focus on the following:

  • Scaling impact, not growing their organization or function
  • Being part of an interconnected system, not the center of it
  • Sharing leadership and credit with peers, not hoarding power or trying to be a hero
  • Building trust-based relationships, not systems of control
Distinctions between the hierarchical mindset and the network mindset

One of the main implications of shifting to a network mindset is in how we think about leadership. Hierarchical leadership is directive and consolidates control. Power is centralized and is to be sought or guarded. In contrast, network leadership is facilitative, generating connections between others and decentralizing power such that people can organize without a top leader. While hierarchical leaders focus on the quantity and quality of their own relationships with others, network leaders focus on increasing the quantity and quality of relationships between others.

Similarly, it’s common for hierarchical leaders to think of themselves (or their organizations) as the sun, sitting at the center of their universe with all the other actors floating around them like orbiting planets. They are the hero of their own story, with others relegated to secondary roles. Leaders who have adopted a network mindset, however, recognize that they are part of a larger interconnected system. Rather than only looking inward, with an intense focus on internal metrics and financial goals, they look outward, beyond the walls of their organization. They act with an awareness of the whole system, becoming intimately connected with other groups who share their concerns. They put the pursuit of purpose at the center of their focus, rather than the growth of their own organization. This shift is reflected below.

Organization at the center: With a hierarchical mindset, your organization is at the center of your focus.
Purpose at the center: With a network mindset, you place the purpose at the center of your focus and see your organization as one part of a larger, interconnected system. These graphics are based on diagrams developed by Jane Wei-Skillern and Marty Kooistra.

When you embrace a network mindset, you stop working in isolation. Instead, you turn your focus toward cultivating connections, strengthening flows, and sharing resources to do more together than is possible alone.

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David Ehrlichman

David Ehrlichman

Author of Impact Networks. Catalyst & coordinator of Converge (converge.net). Writing about the way we work together and how it can be different.