Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

How do our networks need to change with time?

Extensive studies of communications traffic, and who actually talks to who, have identified unexpected practical information about what makes an effective network, and how this changes with time.

Father of the field of ‘organizational network analysis’ (ONA), Prof Rob Cross’s decade of research has revealed that it usually takes 3 to 5 years for a newcomer to build an established network.  However his team noted that some managed it much sooner.  These people also harnessed their network to make them more productive AND stayed at the new organization past the 2 to 4-year point (when people are most likely to leave).

What was different about the approach of these positive outliers?

Firstly, the researchers found more was less.  Purely aiming to create a large network and build your brand broadly across the organization correlated with people leaving in the danger zone of 2 – 4 years of tenure.

The second surprise was that newcomers did not do better with a formal mentor or an initial strong connection to a leader.

Instead those that built an effective network quickly, and stayed the distance, were both more selective and more genuine in who and how they reached out to people.  They still took the initiative to set up a lot of exploratory meetings, but focused on:

  • Asking plenty of questions
  • Offering expertise and assistance wherever possible
  • Creating mutual wins
  • Generating energy

As Prof Cross explains, it’s about “working to pull people into your network rather than pushing your way into theirs”.

In terms of ‘who’ they aimed to draw into their network – two key groups were:

  1. ‘Connectors’ – those already well connected in the organization with high informal influence who could share how things really got done, as well as giving the newcomer legitimacy
  2. Fellow ‘intake’ – those joining at the same time were able to support each other informally and share similar challenges

How did their successful approach change with time?

They branched out. Interestingly, at around 2 to 4 years the effective networkers figure out ways to be more efficient in their comms with immediate colleagues. This allows them to free up time to connect with a diverse range of people outside their function or unit – often based on similar values or passions rather than a current work need. Prof Cross found this led to individuals feeling more engaged and performing better, as well as helping spark new ideas across the business.   Again, this is contrary to what often happens – whereby we stick within the groups we have formed and become less likely to make the effort to branch out.  Our recent blog on ‘boundary-spanning leadership’ demonstrated how important this is.

In our sessions with global matrix organizations we explore the benefits of setting up regular ‘virtual coffees’ to continue to generate energy and mutual support – in particular with members of our wider network (and beyond).  Again, there is usually no specific action or work objective to these calls – just a chance to reconnect socially and professionally, and see if any mutual wins emerge at that point or later down the line. This reaps benefits whether you’ve been at the organization 4 or 40 years.

So take a moment to think about where you can streamline collaboration and interaction with close colleagues – to free up time to build relationships further afield.

For example, can you reduce time spent on routine interactions? Can you challenge approval levels (for expenses, hiring processes), or streamline other processes? Double check that you are not holding onto processes or levels of involvement designed for past issues, when the need has passed. This way we’ll build a network that brings us energy, helps us meet our goals and returns the favour for those around us.

No more communication traffic jams.


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