Running a successful network – insights from the core

By Oliver Greenfield, Convenor, Green Economy Coalition

Oliver Greenfield (c) GEC

Invited to write about the tips of running a successful coalition network, I only have one data point: the Green Economy Coalition, of which I am the convenor.  However, I offer these thoughts with the hope they can be useful to others.  I could go on forever, but I decided to focus on my top 5 points that have been critical to our success as an effective network for the transition to sustainable economies.

1. “There is no silver bullet. Complexity is inherent. Embrace it.” The transition to a sustainable economy is highly complex, with a very large number of interconnected issues, a large number of actors (often in conflicting positions) representing many disciplines and underlying often invisible cultural norms. Where do you start?

You start by embracing complexity.  I find the work of W. Ross Ashby insightful.  His Law of Complexity states that if the number of variables in a complex system is X, the number of interventions needs to be ≥ X.  At first that is disorientating, but gradually it has become our central rationale for working as a coalition.  We know that many interventions need to be made (in 2011 we identified 164 but our understanding has developed since then!), but all these interventions also need to be coherent, mutually reinforcing, and tackled in something shaped like a plan. They also need to be adaptive and responsive to unforeseen opportunities.

Achieving all that is way beyond any single organisation. It can only be achieved by a collective: multiple organisations, each leading on the work that plays best to their strengths, but part of a coherent movement.

2. “Create coherence to the complexity”. The dominant reflex of most organisations is to ‘focus’ – dive into one iconic issue, usually their comfort zone. Indeed, the pressure from all quarters to narrow the focus is significant, even for a coalition. But collective work requires coherence, so that partners are communicating, strategically orientated and responsive to change. Therefore, a primary value-add for our coalition is creating coherence in complexity. This requires a commitment to breadth.

The GEC does this by putting the transition narrative at the forefront of our work. Our transition narrative started as our ‘Big Picture’ and has evolved into supportive products such as annual transition stock takes called Barometers, our websites, and the 5 themes into which we divide necessary interventions.  Other key transition products are imminent!

3. “Fund Collective action”. The GEC was originally set-up as a share-and-learn network. Individual organisations came together, interested to see if green economy concepts could advance their agendas. They learnt together, and shared their experiences.

Our first real test came when we were challenged to say something collectively – when we were asked to intervene, as a coalition. Collective intervention is the truest test of a coalition’s strength.  Can it convince a group of diverse organisations, perhaps out of their comfort zones, to work together? Many organisations say they are keen on collaboration, but very few are actually good at it.

The best answer we have found for this is to make collaboration pay. Funded programmes motivate partners to really work together to delivery shared goals; collaboration is no longer a good intention, but a necessity. This is increasingly popular with funders, as they also embrace complexity and the need for collaboration.  Donors should realise however that many of these collaborations are put together opportunistically for particular funding calls, and may not be built on a longstanding collaboration of trusting, effective relationships.

4. “Focus on Effective relationships and have fun”.

It feels almost too obvious to state but it is a truth: we would be nowhere without our relationships.  This is a major pre-occupation of our coalition.  Every new relationship needs to be managed, and investment is required on both sides. I estimate although our membership is 51 organisations, we have closer to 300 working relationships, some of which are very intense, with daily interactions.

Clearly, we do prioritise some relationships to the detriment of others, but we know that improving the quality of all our relationships can only make us stronger as a coalition. To that end, we are exploring using new software, creating more events, assigning secretariat ownership and setting and achieving a service level that brings greater value to our partners. It can be demanding, but relationships are central to network success.

However, with our limitations, and I am not sure I should admit it, I apply a golden rule: we work with people we like.  We work with people that bring energy, positivity, and a can-do attitude, otherwise we could not manage the number the relationships we do.  I think this is reciprocal. No organisation or individual is mandated to work with the GEC – and it is important to remember that. They do so initially because they are interested in the subject, but continue to do so because they recognise value, impact and positivity. Enjoyment is a deep, valuable asset that underpins difficult conversations and the compromise necessary for collective action. We try to make sure GEC is both impactful and fun to work with.

5. Finally, “invest in a high-performing secretariat team”. The roles and responsibilities across a network need to be well defined, but at the core of every good network is the secretariat team. A mix of skills is essential: communications and partnership engagement are most important, but vision, programme and operational management are also vital. Without this core team the network will fail. But beware – an excellent team creates one of most common network problems: partners can overly depend on the secretariat and the secretariat can do too much of the work.  At the GEC we haven’t yet got this balance right, but we are always seeking to improve.

On a personal note, this is the best job I have ever had.  I believe not only in the goals, but also in the approach – ‘partners for economic system change’.  It is a privilege to work at the GEC and it would not have been possible without our ground-breaking partnership with the MAVA foundation.

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