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Published: November 28, 2007


The Community Network Solution

Once we had our map of connectors, we began to work with local groups to shine a light on these individuals and to connect them with one another. We did this by developing a mentorship program, a set of workshops on leadership, and a competency profile for civic leaders. And we developed a new high school leadership curriculum to identify and coach the next generation of connectors.

Both in the U.K. pilots and in Philadelphia, we found a recurring pattern I came to call “heterarchies”: high-trust connections among particular groups of three or more organizations. These groups did not share ownership or governance structures — sometimes public agencies, private companies, and nonprofit organizations were in the same heterarchy — but the people involved all felt they needed each other to get things done. Thus, instead of staying within the boundaries of their workplace hierarchies, these highly connected people kept closely in touch with one another and collaborated regularly. I soon came to realize that, in the increasingly small, flat world in which we live, these heterarchies are fast be­coming the rule, not the exception.

After studying the complex webs on both sides of the Atlantic, I reached a conclusion that seems to hold true in other communities as well: Networks of trust in heterarchical structures are the key to collaborative success. By contrast, when agencies and sectors retreat to their organizational silos and do not work together, local inertia tends to take hold. The maps we created provided a very different impression from the statements we heard from local managers and political leaders about how things got done. Mid­level to junior-level staff in the government bodies of British townships, for instance, often played the decisive role in enabling agencies to cooperate, but their efforts went largely unnoticed and found little official support or respect. Such people were hidden resources waiting to be recognized and more formally unleashed.

I’ll never forget the meeting we held with a local community group in Philadelphia that had lobbied us to let it view and publicize the results of our search for connectors. When members of the group finally saw the precious list of key connectors, their disappointment was palpable. “Who are these people?” they protested. “And why do you think they’re important?” As it turned out, there was only a 1 percent overlap between our connectors and a local magazine’s list of “Philadelphia’s 100 Most Powerful People.”

Of course, many of those on the most-powerful list had had the good sense to hire these connectors in their organizations. But maps of connections defy conventional wisdom everywhere — in communities and organizations alike — precisely because they depict people’s ability to informally collaborate across levels, sectors, and organizations. I have come to think that the desire to have conventionally powerful people — the usual suspects of the top 100 list — at the head of an initiative is nearly universal, and based on a commonplace, irrational fallacy. High-profile individuals are assumed to be powerful; they are seen as special carriers of the mysterious, innate qualities that will ensure the success of any venture. These are our magic people: If we bring them on board, great things will happen.

The Beauty of Heterarchy
In the social sciences, this assumption is known as the theory of contagion; it was first and powerfully enunciated in James George Frazer’s classic study of ancient rit­ual, The Golden Bough. Frazer hypothesized that rituals that appeared to work in specific circumstances (the dance that seemed to bring rain, the rainmaker that seemed to bring money, the sacrifice credited with turning a plague aside) were picked up by neighboring tribes and disseminated across great distances by word of mouth and anecdote until they achieved the status of myth. Such rituals in effect made up the best practices of preindustrial humanity.

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