Connected: why different networks are crucial for social entrepreneurs

Connected Was fascinated reading an article in the paper this weekend, entitled "Are your friends making you fat", which is all about research that demonstrates the influence of friends in your network on how you live and work. Like all the best books of this type, Connected seems at its heart to be based on a very obvious idea: that social networks affect our behaviour more powerfully than we tend to acknowledge. Be that in becoming obese, taking up (or quitting) smoking, or what we wear.

For me, the article became more interesting when it started to talk about how the success of projects or initiatives might depend on different types of networks. For example, the article discusses the success of a broadway musical:

Christakis tells the story of a friend of his, Brian Uzzi, who has used
the impact of social networks to analyse the success or otherwise of
Broadway musicals. "He finds that if the key players – the director,
costume designer, sound person, producer, etc – all worked together
before, and everyone knows everyone else, then the show is a flop. He
also finds that if you put together a group of people, who have never
worked together before, the show is also a flop. But if you put
together a group of people some of whom have worked together and some
who haven't, then the show is a runaway critical success with enormous
financial rewards."

This got me thinking about what I often say in presentations about SSE and why we attempt to put together a diverse group of social entrepreneurs in a cohort, and the importance of the network they develop in terms of resource, opportunity, support and experience. It's also worth reflecting on this when thinking about the type of organisation you build and the mix of skills + trust that is needed.

Later on in the piece, the researcher (Nicholas Christakis) discusses this in a different evolutionary context:

"If you want to hunt a mastodon," Christakis says, "it's really good if
all your friends know each other because you can work closely together
to kill it. But if you want to find a mastodon, it's much
better if your friends don't know each other – because they'll all have
the same information. If you don't know your friend's friend, the
chances are he will be able to tap more distant regions of the network."

I think this is potentially fascinating from a social entrepreneur's point of view, and demonstrates why networks can be so important to success.

For example, in the early stages of researching and establishing a new organisation (or 'finding a mastodon' in this context), a social entrepreneur needs information, expertise, inspiration, support and knowledge from a variety of sources. That's when the cohort of like-minded, supportive people who don't know each other beforehand can come into play, along with the networks of witnesses and staff they come into contact with at SSE.

Then, when it's about running the organisation, and building and mobilising a community of support behind it (or 'killing the mastodon'), it is those who share the same mission + are part of the same group or team who can play a key role in making that happen. The ability and confidence of the social entrepreneur to build that community + team around them, and to 'bring people with them'  on the journey is then pivotal.

Get both of those networks right, and those mastodons won't have a chance there'll be plenty more successful entrepreneurs and organisations to be influenced by.

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Intern Update… Part Deux

My name is Matt Gallagher and I am the other SSE intern. These past couple of weeks have been very busy for everyone here at the SSE- including the interns. Currently, we have been helping out with recuitment for the next London cohort (applications due 15th February) and a myriad of other tasks here and there. Last week was rather interesting as I was able to see social enterprise in action when I got to meet the students involved in this year’s program. It was very interesting to hear about all of their stories and what the different project they were trying to setup.

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Russell L. Ackoff and the F-Laws of business

Since I recommended Peter Day's World of Business in my top 10 podcasts for social entrepreneurs, it's only become more relevant. In the past few weeks, the programme has covered the Salvation Army (once described by Peter Drucker as the most effective organisation in the world, in any sector), Project Alcatraz (or how a Venezuelan businessman became a social entrepreneur) and, most interestingly of all for me, the thoughts and learnings of the late Russell Ackoff, a management and business thinker.

Ackoff speaks much sense about a whole range of topics related to business and management, but I was particularly interested (given our work here at SSE) in his emphasis on learning. He's strong on the difference between teaching and learning (something which we still struggle at times to get across). He emphasises that an ability and willingness to learn are the keys to a successful organisation, and that one can only learn from doing something wrong (or making a mistake). Further, the best opportunities for learning come in the face of adversity or difficult times: perhaps we should reframe 2010 as "a great year of learning for the third sector". More seriously, this chimes exactly with our belief in learning-by-doing.

I particularly like his distinction between errors of commission and errors of omission. The former consist of doing something that should not have been done; the latter consist of not doing something that should have been done. Ackoff contends that errors of omission are much more serious, because they cannot be corrected or retrieved…they are lost opportunities; and that organisations fail more often because of what they do not do, rather than what they do. But this is not often reflected in practice, because it is only errors of commission (i.e. what has been done wrongly) that are recorded and noted, which tends to make people averse to risk and less prone to challenging the status quo. Which makes an entrepreneurial ethic all the more important in establishing, leading and working within an organisation.

I've added three Russell Ackoff books to the SSE bookshop:

Management f-Laws: how organisations really work

Turning Learning Right Side Up

A Little Book of f-Laws

You can also download a pdf of the latter for free from

Highly recommended.

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Another day interning at the SSE…

…and it was the most interesting and inspiring yet! Today I pounced on the chance to attend the hands-on program side of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, witnessing how they educate and work with their students through guest presenters, group workshops, and peer-to-peer action learning.

Hclogo The eventful day began at a well-established IT corporation with a social focus called Happy (once called Happy Computers).Through a riveting hour-and-a-half discussion-based presentation from Founder and Chief Executive Henry Stewart, the students and I were able to learn from a variety of his own experiences of formulating and developing his own successful social enterprise. Henry’s presentation focused on the different ways to evaluate your own organisation, as well as constantly looking for areas of improvement within your organisation. One aspect of his presentation that changed my perspective on social enterprise was his discussion on profit, even within the not-for-profit sector. It was interesting to see how careful social enterprises need to be financially to ensure their sustainability and growth. Other tips that Henry included in his presentation included reflection on the passion and cultural attributes of the organisation, how to use awards not as a marketing tool but a tool to compare to other organisations, and how to celebrate mistakes, not only our own but our fellow co-workers and employees (using them as learning experiences).

After this wonderful presentation, we made haste to the SSE to catch a quick lunch and head off to the students’ reflection period and weekly learning session. After the reflection period, which had the students discuss Henry’s presentation, the students were given the opportunity to investigate their projects, the cultural attributes within their projects, and how they want their projects to be shaped in the end. I was happy to join the discussions and activities.

The first activity was to compare our organisations to a specific animal and describe why we choose that animal to represent our organisation. Without hesitation, Director of Learning Marcia Roswell-Joseph put me on the spot and insisted that I went first. Unfortunately, the closest animal that I could link to my social franchise (which is based on youth peer-to-peer mentoring) was a tapeworm and its ability to break apart in fragments and grow into new tapeworms. I knew my major in Biology would pay off somehow. Regardless, it broke the ice and led the way to a variety of answers to the activity that included tortoises representing durability and integrity to ostriches representing an organisation without blind spots. All in all, it was a successful activity just to hear how different individuals understand their own projects and how they want them to develop in the future years.

The next exercise was slightly more difficult for me – it no longer involved animals or any biological aspect. Marcia had us all break up into groups of two to discuss and expand on the issue of cultural attributes that currently exist within our projects, cultural attributes that we hope to exist within our projects, and how we want them to manifest within our organisations. I was fortunate to have been paired up with an individual who had a very different project from my own, which tied in a variety of different perspectives on the importance of different cultural attributes. This individual focused on ensuring there was a democratic process within the office space ensuring decisions were made as a collective group while tying into her project of creating “Green” or sustainable housing developments. I, on the other hand, focussed on keeping the passion towards a common goal within the organization, which is currently self-manifesting as a volunteer organization (those involved are only there because they want to be there, not because there is money).We also had the chance to discuss how our cultural attributes change with the growth of the organisation and how they would have to change to ensure that the organisation was operating effectively and efficiently within set parameters.

To be frank and honest, the sessions were exactly what I was looking for: an opportunity to discuss issues within our projects, and how to ensure that we are not forgetting or being ignorant of any one idea or perspective.(The whole experience also reminded me of my Smart Step workshops, except it was adults enjoying the positive learning environment, not teenagers – very interesting and refreshing). Summarizing my thoughts and feelings, I wish I could spend a year here at the SSE attending workshops and guest presenters. It would give me a world full of ideas, while ensuring that I stay focused on achieving my goals and turning my dreams into reality. In other words, it would be a phenomenal experience.

[Ed. – Please comment on what animal your organisation is most like and why below….!]

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A must do for any social entrepreneur… It’s a win-win.

Just starting the second week or fifth full day of my one month internship here at the London SSE, I have been given the assignment to research and blog about a wonderful opportunity open to social entrepreneurs around the globe who are looking for growth in their social ventures. The opportunity is called the Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), and is a program provided by the Skoll Foundation.
GSBI Logo As a young social entrepreneur myself, I see this opportunity as a dream program that is designed for any social entrepreneur wanting to re-adjust, polish, and develop their social enterprise with the assistance of experts.
You may be thinking this is a sales pitch, not a blog post, but I have yet to explain what the opportunity entails. Within the first five minutes of applying, I think you will begin to see how you will benefit.

The application is founded on three business planning exercises that are designed to assist the applicant in defining their organization’s value proposition, target market, and “social business” model. It is true that most social entrepreneurs have already defined their enterprises in these areas, but the GSBI application takes the applicant step-by-step through a mentored process with a variety of notes, examples and templates, which I believe, prove beneficial for any entrepreneur.From the applicant pool, twenty scholarship winners (US$25,000 value) will undergo a four month online, two week in-residence “action learning” and mentoring program. This program will develop the know-how in critical areas of business including: focussed mission/vision, target market segmentation, business models, finance, organizational capacity building, and metrics, teaching the aspiring social entrepreneur the "hard tools" behind entrepreneurial success.

Although young and so far unaccomplished within world of social  entrepreneurs, I will go through the application process as a learning tool. Not only will it allow me to help better  define the goals for my very own youth initiative program based out of Canada, but it will help shape my future ideas of creating a youth-led national social enterprise in Canada. Thus, regardless of how experienced you are as a social entrepreneur, I highly recommend that you do the same: use the application as a lesson and a tool. It is a win-win situation, and you never know how big the “win” will be.

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