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Thinking Sideways

Blog post on network thinking.
© Purdue Agile Strategy Lab

Here is another way to differentiate between hierarchical and network thinking. It may seem simple but it is another fundamental cognitive shift we need to make. In hierarchies, we think up and down. In networks, we think sideways.

Most of us are born into hierarchies. We enter life with a parent or two who are clearly in charge. If you have siblings, the hierarchy is likely evident there as well. When you enter school there are more hierarchies – the formal ones made up of heads of school, teachers, and students, as well as the informal ones based on lots of different factors – how smart you are, how attractive you are, whether you are good at sports, etc.

We experience hierarchies early and often. This shapes our thinking. We are used to looking toward the top of the hierarchy for permission and approval and toward the bottom where we expect people to do as we say. In a network there is no top or bottom. It requires sideways or horizontal, rather than vertical thinking.

In this short blog post the author recounts a workshop in which he invited participants to consider the differences between networked and more traditional hierarchy-centric ways of thinking. He then offers five characteristics of network thinking that emerged in the discussion:

  1. Adaptability instead of control. The author argues that in complex challenges, it is impossible for any one person or “leader” to know exactly what must be done to address the issue and that a much more decentralized and self-organizing group, moving in lockstep, will find the right path. Pushing responsibility out to the edges is what helps networks survive and thrive.

  2. Emergence instead of predictability. In complex living systems, when a group of people work together, we cannot always predict what will be created. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Striving for predictability might risk overlooking new possibilities.

  3. Resilience and redundancy instead of “rockstar-dom”. The author points to sports as an example. When a star player gets injured or leaves the team, the team suffers. Resilient networks are built upon redundancy of functions and a richness of interconnections. If one node of that network goes away, the network can adjust and continue its work.

  4. Contributions before credentials. The author points to a story in which a janitor anonymously submitted his idea for a new shoe design during a company-wide contest and won. The new product idea ended up making millions for the company. In this case, perceived “expertise” and seniority had little nothing to do with the success. In fact, these credentials often create a bottleneck in many organizations. Ego can get in the way of excellence.

  5. Diversity and divergence. New thinking comes from the meeting of different fields, experiences, and perspectives. There is an old saying, “preaching to the choir” that means we are often tempted to only interact with others who already agree with us. This usually gets us the same results we’ve always gotten.

Thinking sideways or network thinking can be difficult at first but it is a skill that can be learned and perfected with practice. Keeping in mind these five characteristics is a good start.

© Purdue Agile Strategy Lab
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