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Is my challenge a good fit for engaging with a social impact network?

Social challenges come in every shape and size, and there is never a straightforward plug-and-play process to find the most promising path forward, no matter if you are using a network or a different approach. Instead, you need to understand the nature of the problem before you in order to understand the best approach to take.

Networks are suited to solving a particular type of problem. There are certain qualities you can look for to determine whether a network is likely or unlikely to be a good fit. There is an entire body of knowledge around problem typologies—discussing the range of problems and the different characteristics that they exhibit. Some people call them Type I, II, III problems. Others refer to them as technical, complicated, complex and chaotic problems. Some call them “wicked or tame” problems. This matters because the type of problem you face will help determine the solution approach you adopt.

Below we’ve outlined characteristics of a challenge where a network could be particularly valuable and those situations where it may not be as powerful. Review this to gain a better understanding of the nature of the challenge you’re facing and if a network may be an effective tool. Whatever your conclusions, hold them lightly, and return to double-check your thinking after you’ve learned more about the landscape and gauged the potential for starting or joining a network.

A likely fit

The problem you are trying to solve…

  • Has no single root cause and is connected to (or a symptom of) other problems
  • Is emergent and shifting, defying silver-bullet solutions
  • Could not be solved by any single organization, and lacks a clear or widely-agreed definition among the actors who could address it
  • Cuts across the domains in which the actors typically work (e.g., governmental jurisdiction, issue focus, or industry sector)

And any progress towards a solution will require…

  • The involvement of many actors, especially if they are from different sectors
  • More resources or capacity than any one actor could provide
  • A portfolio of interventions that work on many levers of change to address deep rooted causes
  • Working beyond the scope of any of the relevant actors—such as changing policies, structures, or other elements of the social system that surrounds them

An unlikely fit

The problem you are trying to solve…

  • Is well understood and involves a relatively simple solution
  • Exists in an organization or system that is entirely under one leader’s formal authority

And any progress towards a solution will require…

  • Work that requires little information exchange or coordination among the relevant actors
  • Hierarchical management and meaningful accountability to ensure that the relevant actors play their part
  • Replication of a clearly-defined program or practice
  • Execution by very few independent actors

The bigger and more complex the challenge, the more I think it needs some sort of a network.Shelly London, Poses Family Foundation

I don’t believe we could have achieved our goals [of producing rice varieties with value to poor consumers] without creating a network. No single institution had the capacity to work all the way from discovery to application in the field. Gary Toenniessen, the Rockefeller Foundation