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Six lessons in network leadership

Networks are increasingly important in addressing many of the challenges we face across health and care.  But networks are complex; you can’t control a network you need to motivate it.

I first realised the power of networks when I was recruited by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. My role was to manage a research project studying how network approaches could be used to improve healthcare. We wanted to harness the motivation of clinicians and researchers and use knowledge from patients and their families. We also wanted to know if we could create a better care system.

Working with the ImproveCareNow network we designed systems for patients and healthcare staff to share information and solve problems. We demonstrated that networks can be really powerful in bringing people together, building relationships and enabling effective collaboration, we measured our success by the outcomes we improved.

Here are six things that I’ve learned that effective network leadership requires:

1. Champion purpose  

Networks need a clear purpose and vision in order to unify members. Network leaders must ensure that initiatives or any asks of the members always serve the purpose of the network. There needs to be clear progression towards that purpose too, and it falls to network leaders to refocus conversations and ideas when they stray.  It’s essential to motivate members, drive action and overcome inertia. The ImproveCareNow network starts most of its meetings by having a network leader state the network’s purpose and reviewing progress towards it. This helps to ensure that the overarching purpose drives activities, discussions and decisions.

2. Using a common language is essential

Skilled network leaders bring together people from different disciplines. That will mean they use their own professional vocabulary, jargon and often use the same words to mean very different things. This confusion prevents effective communication and collaboration and hinders the development of trust. Network leaders need to be sensitive to this and be able to translate across disciplines and help people with different backgrounds, calibrate around language and build shared understanding.

3. Credibility counts for a lot

Networks often rely on discretionary effort and voluntary contributions from members. So leaders must often appeal to people’s motivation to contribute to something bigger than the organisation they work for. Network leaders typically do this without formal authority but use their influence and persuasive powers to convince skeptics, recruit new members and ask members to contribute further and serve the network. This often requires credibility that comes from independent accomplishment within the field.

4. Spread the credit

Networks rely on a culture of generosity and contribution that is set and signalled by network leaders. Successful network leaders frequently and liberally praise members for their contributions and make sure that all recognition of the network’s achievement is attributed to the whole network. I first found out that the ImproveCareNow Network had received the prestigious Drucker Prize when I received a phone call from one of the network leaders congratulating me and thanking me for my contributions. In addition to the positive recognition I felt, the call also increased my feelings of ownership of the network encouraging me to contribute further.

5. Take responsibility

It seems obvious, but it is worth repeating that strong network leaders are also willing to take responsibility when things go wrong and use set-back as an opportunity to model reflective practice and learning from failure.

6. Develop more leaders

The best network leaders constantly seek to develop more leadership from the community and are delighted when opportunities to share responsibility present. It is about being comfortable with letting go of control to share power and decision making with others. This involves proactively giving people the opportunities to take on more responsibility, motivating and empowering them to contribute as much as possible.

The potential networks offer to transform care means that networks are particularly well-suited to responding to complex challenges.

Leading networks requires a different approach from the traditional command and control style found in hierarchical organisations. It involves constant communication to champion the network and keep up the drumbeat of activity. You also need to put in the time to convince sceptical stakeholders of the network’s value and possibilities.

But the benefits are worth the effort. The potential networks offer to transform care means that networks are particularly well-suited to responding to complex challenges. Using a flexible and distributed structure is especially effective when navigating uncertainty and rapidly changing circumstances, and things have rarely been as uncertain as now.

George Dellal25 February 2021


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