Tips & Tools for Network Instigators: Managing Change (2/3)

Networks are similar to suspension bridges. They are held together and supported by the organizations that compose them. Our previous blog covered changes in the whole network, but impactful change can happen among organizational members. Change within a member organization can upset the balance of the network, impacting one or many organizations in the network. 

Consider a scenario where a critical participating organization undergoes a management change. A new manager could shift the priorities of that organization. This change might be a small change, like ending a program, or a significant change, like shifting the geographic focus from one neighborhood to the entire county. In many cases, these new priorities might be misaligned with the network’s goals. Misalignment can disrupt network goals, reduce or delay network social impact, and in extreme cases, cause the entire network to disband. 

Organizations and networks must have a response plan for organizational change to ensure that the network “bridge” remains sturdy even during major organizational shifts. Networks need a plan to minimize the social impact cost that such an organizational shift could cause. To help networks direct this response, Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper offer a decision tree that can help networks identify the best response strategy based on the circumstance of the network change. Our previous blog covered Strategic Planning for Networks. This blog will focus on Action Learning Teams and Deciding to Leave–both of which offer preemptive protection against member organization change.

Shumate and Cooper’s decision tree of change and appropriate response:

  1. Action Learning Teams

Networks should use Action Learning Teams when facing organizational change that does not challenge the identity and core activities of the organization or close the organization itself. Action Learning Teams are best suited for incremental organizational change that requires minor network adjustment. These teams allow the network to focus on the action learning process rather than the solution itself. These efforts can result in efficient network adjustment and reestablishment following organizational change.

What is an Action Learning Team?

Action Learnings Teams are teams made up of four to eight members from different network organizations. They are diverse teams gathered to tackle urgent problems, tasks, or projects within the network. The group gathers in one space, and one leader or consultant directs inquiry under an established set of “ground rules.”

What makes Action Learning Teams unique?

Firstly, Action Learning Teams bring a diverse group of network stakeholders and organizational representatives together into one team. Being in a diverse team increases communication among different organizations and ensures that a representative range of voices and opinions is acknowledged during network decision-making. Second, Action Learning Teams operate under a guided set of “ground rules” that change the course and direction of decision-making dialog. For example, participants must lead with questions rather than answers or knowledge because the group aims to learn.

Finally, Action Learning Teams can provide additional benefits by promoting collaborative leadership, growing leadership talent, and promotive learning culture. All three aid the present and future practices and successes of the social impact of the network.

What does an Action Learning Team look like in action?

The infographic below is a sequence identified by Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan for how organization-focused change might occur in an Action Learning Team. Note that the sequence may change based on whether the change impacts specific organizations (shown in the infographic) or the network as a whole.

In sum, Action Learning Teams allow networks to manage incremental change through a smaller representative team of network participants. These participants gather, analyze, discuss, and solve with the help of an appointed facilitator. 

When facing organizational change, the availability of this network response increases information flow and ultimately reduces the likelihood of negative impact from incremental organizational changes. Still, there are instances where the change is too quick or too drastic for a network to adapt to–even with solid Action Learning Teams. In such cases, an organization might decide to leave a network.

  1. Deciding to Leave

Returning to the decision tree, an organization might decide to leave a network when the change can potentially alter the identity, core activities, or close the organization. In large-scale organizational change, an organization might temporarily or permanently withdraw from a network. 

An organization might be inclined to temporarily withdraw from a network’s work when undergoing a significant change that requires internal focus to manage. Sometimes it is beneficial to both the organization and the network for an organization to take time off to manage its internal affairs. Whether it is a conflict that requires resolution or some outside influence that has shaken the core of an organization’s goal or mission, a majorly changing organization can be more consequential than its participation is worth. It might just take a small hiatus to iron out these issues, and then an organization might return to a network and continue work. 

Alternatively, sometimes an organization should withdraw from a network entirely. It should withdraw when the organization finds that the network no longer helps them achieve its more significant social impact goals. If the network is no longer serving an organization, it is logical that they remove their efforts and stakes from that network and shift their focus towards more prosperous avenues. This permanent leave may be difficult to admit and execute, but in the long run, it does not serve the organization or the network if their goals are not in alignment.

Overall, networks have to work for the organizations composing them and the communities they serve. If a network no longer serves the best interests of the organization(s), the organization can and should leave the network. Furthermore, networks also benefit from establishing offramps for organizations in the case of both temporary and permanent leave. Long-term network work requires stable, dedicated, and mission-aligned organizations. They are the bridge to social impact.