In the early life of a network—the first year, say—how can you tell how well it’s doing? Right off the bat there’s observation: what does a network gathering look like, feel like, sound like? I’ve been in network annual meetings where newcomers to the network were astonished about how much energy and exchange network members put out—and the sheer amount of noise in the room. Even more astonishing, the members maintained a high level of energy for day after day. At the end, maybe they were exhausted—but during their time together they were passionately committed to giving and getting as much as they could.
Hidden in all that energy is a clue to what you’re really looking for if you want to gauge the network’s condition. It has to do with what makes a network tick, as we explain in chapter 1 of Connecting: two social dynamics—reciprocity and shared identity—emerge and are amplified by the network’s decentralized structure.
Reciprocity is a behavior, but it is driven by an emotion: a commitment to the success of others on their own terms. In a strong network, members don’t just know each other well, they are committed to each other’s success, and will take action on behalf of others. When you survey network members ask them how committed they feel they are to the success of other members and how committed they think other members are to their success.
Shared identity is also a feeling, a sense of common cause, mutual interest, alignment, and of belonging to something—literally, being a member. When you survey members ask them how much they feel they are a part of something larger than themselves, something communal.
In a network’s start-up phase, it takes time for members to develop a deep commitment to others in the network and a feeling of belonging and alignment in the network. But its emergence is what network builders should be watching for.