How To Make Informal Networks Emerge in Enterprises
Creating a Fertile Environment to Nurture Connections
“You want all your bought goods in one home delivery even though you want some things on a private receipt, while others are paid for by your company? I’m so sorry. Our IT system does not admit registrations of mixed-order home deliveries. Many customers request that function, and I understand why. But, unfortunately, I do not know anyone at R&D to whom I can forward this request to,” the shop assistant in the big furniture store told me.
Imagine if large companies were as entangled as a mycorrhizal network, also known as the World Wood Web. Fungi under the ground act as distribution channels between the trees in the forest. Plants that cannot reach the sun beams get carbon from other plants. Those who have been exposed to invasive species receive nutritional support from healthier trees or from trees that have died and dumped all their valuable assets in the fungal network. New connections are formed organically and old ones disappear. In fact, this model is reminiscent of information sharing in a successful corporation’s informal network.
By definition, informal networks cannot be designed. However, there are methods to create soil fertility so that informal networks can reproduce and maintain themselves over time. You’ll see a few concrete examples of how to accomplish this later in this article. However, an indicator is that information flows across disciplines, across silo boundaries, and from expert to expert without passing hubs. Ultimately, the informal network is also a complement to an employee’s instinctive choice of collaborators and friends — their echo chamber.
Three Parallel Organizations: Formal, Informal, and De Facto Delivery
All enterprises have at least three internal organizations:
- The formal system consists of all the manager–subordinate hierarchies and the employees’ habitat. It also includes the defined processes we find in our playbook. Guilds and other communities, of which it is clear to an employee whether or not they are a member, are part of the formal system. Project organizations are in this category as well.
- Value progression paths are the ways our products take from idea to cash — the routine steps of our delivery. For a car assembly line, we can compare the path to a stream. We go from start to finish and visit some predetermined work stations along the way. Unfortunately, the path is not that linear and repetitive in product and software development. Here, unique trajectories emerge and may thus only be understood in hindsight.
- The informal network is all the short- and long-lived connections between employees, who receive nourishment only from trust. It is thus a complement to the connections we find in the formal system. Alice from the IT division knows the store salesman, Bob. They sometimes meet for a chat and a cup of coffee, but neither of them formally delivers to or supervises the other.
Benefits of Strong Informal Networks
All three organizations are needed and also exist in an enterprise. While most organizations spend significant effort on improving deliveries and structure, not so many invest in creating new 1:1 relations. Those connections get neglected despite the fact that a stronger and broader informal network may come with competitive advantages, for example:
- The speed of information diffusion increases. By definition, only those whom we trust are included in our informal network. Trust means that we do not have to double-check the validity of the things people in our informal network say.
- Experts reach experts with fine-grained and accurate information without passing through intermediaries. These bits of knowledge may have too little broad interest to even be mentioned at the project meetings. However, they can still be crucial for an individual’s performance.
- Inattentional blindness is less likely. Clustered organizations suffer from local echo chambers. Diversity is the medicine, and far-reaching informal networks are one possible solution.
- Redundancy and resilience increases. One isolated expert’s resignation from a company may cause a devastating organizational memory gap. No one else is prepared to take on from where they left.
- Better understanding of the backend tech systems among our colleagues working close to the customer. This knowledge eventually helps them distinguish no-brainers from what would be complex to develop when they request new features in the IT system.
- Tech teams get a better grip on what services and products our beloved customers value. Some team members have never met a paying customer. Tech people who are more in touch might make better everyday design decisions that benefit customers. And, in the long run, this insight also leads to…
- Employees’ intrinsic motivation increases when they figure out how they are contributing to a larger purpose. Employees begin to realize that their small component is necessary for our customers to be successful in their jobs-to-be-done.
How Can We Make Informal Networks Emerge?
By now, you might be wondering how we can “create soil fertility so that informal networks can reproduce and maintain themselves over time.” In partnership with clients, I’ve experimented with a dozen different methods. Impact and success factors vary according to the circumstances that already exist in their organization. Every enterprise is unique. However, here are three generalized examples that seem to work well in most enterprises.
Biweekly Open Space for a division, or even better, for an entire business area. Diversity in these sessions is paramount. Set aside an hour every second week. It will be enough for a short intro, two fifteen-minute sessions, and a summary. Plan a breakout room and a digital whiteboard per topic. Make sure topics are defined on the go and that they are ambiguous — preferably just one or two words — so that they attract a wide area of disciplines and new discussions can emerge. Aim for at least thirty participants, but preferably 300. This method scales well.
Buddy system for the entire organization. Every quarter, you will be paired with another random employee in the company. You book thirty minutes biweekly for online calls. The sole item on the agenda is: what am I working on right now? Explain at a level that your buddy can understand. Do not be surprised if, for example, the CFO becomes a buddy with the janitor.
Lean Coffee in the project status meetings. Suppose our big project has an hour scheduled for status reporting. Normally, only sub-project managers and stakeholders are invited. But here, we invite everyone who participates in the project: customers, programmers, architects, testers, designers, and so on. It might be hundreds of people. Shrink the status report part to the first half of the meeting and reserve the second half hour for Lean Coffee. Everyone is allowed to register topics, and voting determines in which order the group examines these topics. Anyone is allowed to share their view in the emerging discussions.
In all three examples, new 1:1 relationships emerge across silo boundaries. Some of these connections will, later on, prove to be very useful. Others will be forgotten. The new connections — our informal network — and the interactions that will grow there may uncover important unknown unknowns sooner rather than later. And the probability that the customer finally gets their long-awaited function for one single delivery of mixed orders will increase dramatically.
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