The dynamics at play in networks are fascinating. If you want to observe how people shape their environments together, networks are far more interesting than organisations.

The relationships people develop to get things done in a network are not restricted by the confines of the organisations they work in.


Two processes play out simultaneously when people collaborate to get things done:

The first process relates to how people find each other in relation to what they want to do. The second relates to the structure within which they hope to do it. The FAN Approach identifies the elements of these processes within the Red Column and the Blue Column of achieving change.

The Blue Column shows the conventional way we have been taught to organise activities:

•    There is a shared mission.
•    This is made operational in SMART formulated targets.
•    We choose appropriate tools.
•    We assess the skills needed to carry out the tasks. We select and, if necessary,  train people to acquire them.
•    We set performance indicators to allow for monitoring and evaluation.

And then we hope that the people involved will do what they are supposed to...

The Blue Column assumes that the people involved share a mission from the outset and that the process of change can be controlled in a calculated manner. This is the dominant approach in organisations.

These assumptions cannot be taken for granted in a network. Here, a shared mission is not the start but the result of a healthy process, in which individual ambitions have grown towards each other. Ambitions, opinions and mutual trust may change over time. Network partners cannot be controlled like factory workers.

People engage in networks for a purpose. Networks allow them to join forces, mobilising and sharing different assets through task division and specialisation.  Networks can also provide access to knowledge, resources and decision makers.

In contrast to conventional organisations and projects, hierarchy is not a precondition and usually mandates are not clearly defined. Therefore networks depend heavily on the voluntary contributions of their partners.

Recognising this, the FAN Approach turns the Blue Column upside down and starts with people. This creates the Red Column, which shows what it takes to get people motivated and engaged in a process of change together:

•    When individuals with ambitions connect, they find that others share their dreams and this increases the chance that these dreams might come true.
•    This generates energy.
•    Informal networks emerge, seeking ways to join forces.
•    At a certain point, this leads to target setting, in order to focus the efforts.
•    When trust increases, ambitions convert into a shared mission.

The two columns complement each other. We do not aim to invalidate one in favour of the other.  In fact, organisations may use the principles of the Red Column to motivate staff, whilst networks may use the Blue Column to organise and accomplish activities.



However, the distinction between the Red and Blue columns underlines the point that it is risky to approach networks in the same manner as organisations.

Since the elements in the Red Column are hard to plan for and make it more difficult to hold people accountable for their actions, its principles are generally overlooked in a culture where organisations are supposed to deliver specific products effectively and efficiently. In networks, hierarchy has limited options to force people into obedience.

Most management tools were developed with hierarchical organisations in mind, and follow the Blue principles of planning and control. The FAN Approach offers the Red Column tools, focussing on energy and connection. An initiative is the starting point.

Networks can be seen as living organisms, with a life cycle:

•    They reproduce themselves through patterns of interaction, as long as all  the essential elements are connected.
•    They can be healthy or sick.

Every network is a node in a larger network, and similarly every node in a network is a network in itself. From this perspective, networks are a way of conceptualising society. Organisations, projects, families and village communities are all networks, each with their own characteristics.

Patterns, whether constructive or destructive, are always present in living systems:

In a healthy network the interaction is rewarding. This encourages people to make an effort and align with others, which, in turn, makes the interaction more rewarding. As trust grows, the network develops higher levels of coherence, with more strength and greater ability to respond to its environment.

The reverse can happen as well. When interaction is not rewarding, willingness to make effort or align decreases. This is a spiralling process which leads to either chaos or stagnation and can result in the dissolution of the network.

Connection is crucial to healthy networks.

Keeping a network healthy requires people who are able to recognise destructive patterns and who have the position, skills and courage to do what it takes to restore connection. This is the role of the Free Actor.

This is where the FAN Approach (Free Actors in Networks) gets it name from. No network can survive without them. Free Actors position themselves between the managers, initiators and providers and build bridges between these positions in the network. In this way, they act as catalysts for change. (See the Triangle of Change)

Anyone can adopt the role of the Free Actor, but it is crucial that someone does. Someone needs to act, because they think it is necessary for the network, regardless of whether they have the mandate to do so. This means there is no task description for the Free Actor: it is not a "position". On the other hand, the Free Actor is only effective if their position is accepted by the others in the network. The FAN Approach offers tools to Free Actors to enable them to act effectively.

The FAN Approach is based on two distinct assumptions:

•    Investing in mutual relationships to keep the network healthy is the best way to get results that are relevant within their context.
•    There is no blueprint for the ideal network. Networks vary and if you want the     network to work you need someone to keep an eye on the relationships within it.

The thinking behind this is that although people engage in networks to achieve results, it is hard to predict where the networks will take them over time. Methods for planning and control are not enough. However, a healthy network with strong relationships is capable of responding to a complex environment. The outcomes that emerge from the network processes might be better than anyone could have foreseen. This is why the FAN Approach focuses on tools for improving connections, rather than on reaching goals.

We all have basic knowledge of what to do to keep connected in networks. As social beings, people developed the skill to keep networks healthy much earlier in their evolution than the rational capacities of logical planning. We experience these skills as intuition for what needs to be done in a given situation.

However, over time we also learn patterns for defence that might not always be helpful and may limit our repertoire for action. As the proverb says: "To someone who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The tools in the FAN Approach do not replace our intuition with proven recipes of how to act. They provide a language for identifying what matters in network processes, thereby facilitating reflection on personal experiences.

By reflecting on their personal experiences, people hone their intuition and become more effective in new situations. The FAN Approach aims to contribute to the capacity of people to respond effectively to what their network requires and to the responsive capacity of networks within their environment.  It does this with tools designed to help identify patterns in the dynamics of networks.  Subsequent analysis provides insight into the underlying processes and the options for change.