Social network stimulation

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List of methods / Design and innovation

The main principle behind Social Network Stimulation (SNS) is to harness the power of the informal networks that co-exist as context-free information channels alongside the more formal networks or processes in an organisation. Informal networks are helpful for gaining broader information, and especially at times of crisis humans put these to use in fairly quick and low-cost ways to help make sense of how to act. This method is helpful when there is a large intractable issue or problem to be solved, requiring perhaps a new approach.

The aims of the SNS method are to shift the focus onto the channels through which knowledge and ideas flow, as opposed to focusing on knowledge and ideas as artefacts themselves by creating new and expanded informal networks. Along with increasing network interconnectivity and/ or building an informal network, SNS can be used as a way of resolving difficult problems and more fairly allocating rewards, beyond business as usual or the usual suspects.

The SNS method can enable you to intervene in an organisation in such a way as to reduce years of casual acquaintance into months or weeks. SNS replicates how social relationships form, but telescopes the time down to do this and as a result reduces degrees of separation.

It does this in a novel way while addressing other organisational issues and challenges. As these issues are addressed a denser social fabric across silos forms, which leads to significant improvements in overall organizational effectiveness.

Successful people in an organisation are almost always well connected; they are within a few connections of most people in an organisation, especially those who are critical to what they do. This typically occurs as people spend time together, through work projects, teams and often augmented by social activities. Over time as people migrate from one job to the next, they accumulate a collection of residual relationships. The experience of these relationships are inherently based on trust and reciprocity. They build social capital that ebbs and flows across the organisation to its benefit.

Name and history

The original approach was developed in the earlier 2000. The approach can be run in a workshop, in compressed time, over 2-3 months, or as a continuous process. The key is to have an intractable (wicked problem) problem as the challenge. The groups should self-form but you can put some constraints in place (enabling constraints) such as you must engage with a maximum of one person you've worked with before.


Snowden (2005) explores the issues related to SNA (Social Network Analysis) and outlines methods for address some of the existing issues. These are based on abstraction through the use of identities and archetypes.

He proposes an approach SNS (Social Network Stimulation) to establish the conditions for the formation of informal networks: with 3 degrees of separation it means that you will know someone, who in turn will know someone and that person will know someone who can help or advise you with an issue

Community Type Size
Crisis 5
Informal 15
Expert 150
Formal Not relevant

Based on the type of community and the degree of separation this is the number of people who are available to you. You can see that for most organisations a degree of separation no more than 3 is needed and for a smaller organisation a degree of separation of 2 may be all that is needed.

Separation Informal Expert
1 15 150
2 225 22500
3 3375 3375000

Prior knowledge

No prior knowledge of the approach is needed

Preparation and requirements to use this method

You need to consider what will be the reward(s) if you are running this as a competition. Really this should be something that you can not buy.

Facilitation skills Required

High knowledge of complex facilitation skills is generally a requirement for this method. General principles are set out in in the facilitation article. Some knowledge of exec teams and executive board level decision-making may also be desirable for the running of this method.

  • Linked to Method property "COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL": How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?


Can be done in workshop setting, or through the SenseMaker tool.

Workshop materials generally hexagon post-it notes or normal post-it notes, Flipchart paper and multiple small tables.

The preparation before this comes in the form of gathering contextual knowledge, e.g. data from HR on qualifications, background, demographic which can be used to devise rules e.g. to identify diversity of disciplinary backgrounds for different teams. The information gathered should enable you to identify potential rules to help force diversity into the network. The rules need to be easy to make explicit and this data will help you to also identify what rewards are difficult to allocate fairly, or perhaps cause the most resentment. e.g. how is money distributed to/ from a community centre; what is the right to a company sabbatical or bonus; how are residential car parking spaces allocated. More information on this is outlined below in the next section.

  • Linked to Method property "COST & RESOURCES": How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?

Participant Onboarding

Note whether any preparation or prior knowledge is required on the part of participants in the Method.

  • Linked to the Method property "ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT": How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?

Giving the context Important questions are answered with respect to the existing state of informal communications within the community (or within and between merging communities). For example, geographic and divisional demographics, turnover rates, existing formal communities, regular meetings, and other “state of affairs” information help provide a starting point. Narrative methods, Social Network Analysis, observation, and interviewing can be used as appropriate to determine demographic and cultural parameters. It is not necessary or even possible to assess the state of affairs in great detail, because the very observation will affect the state of affairs (see Hawthorne effect). However, it is necessary to gather a broad awareness of the organisation so that a diverse response can emerge. One of the ways that a learning community forms, where the participants are not trust tagged or previously known to each other, is that a disparate group of individuals come together and through some common activity form a trusted bond that persists beyond the activity itself and can lead to new activities organically emerging. For example, a group of management trainees joining a company fresh from different universities create the potential for such a new community, and such communities will frequently form. The fact that this particular group has been selected by management does not mean that they will form a sustainable bond over time, and in practice there may be major differences. However, the probability is that different sub-groups will form which will persist over the following decades, sometimes with overlaps of membership (boundary spanners in the language of [Social Network Analysis]. Some project teams create an identity which persists beyond the end of the project, but not all project teams even when formed under similar circumstances persist.

Key elements and artefacts

SNS design is predicated on the understanding that there is a need for some form of problem-solving environment or common threat/opportunity, together with the introduction of novel new contacts to allow new identities to form. Based on the current state of affairs, one or more "noble purposes" are identified. These are purposes that everyone agrees are worth doing but that no one can find time for or resource to resolve. The number of purposes, their scope, and how they are derived, can vary. It is best to derive them using narrative methods, but they can also be set by executive management. They must be purposes around which people have untapped creative energy. The noble purposes actually matter less than the connectivity achieved in pursuing them, but progress on them is a beneficial side effect. Group membership is volunteer only – no official time set aside – but is rewarded in a meaningful way. However, natural processes take time and the intrinsic rewards of social interaction that act as their own reward take time to build in other than crisis situations. As a result, in SNS design, we build in more explicit rules that force diversity into team formation plus a third element - the use of explicit reward structures together with a process to engender engagement. The three elements are then:

  1. An intractable problem(s). Intractable problems are suitable for informal networks; they are generally those which cannot be solved by normal techniques and may be difficult to understand or define. They are also attractive for experimental projects, as the past failure creates a greater willingness for risk-taking. It is also important to create a measure of successful resolution of the problem that is objective in nature, and which cannot be perceived to be subject to internal patronage.
  2. A reward normally achievable through patronage . These are many and various. They can (and have) included promotion, access to senior management development programmes, sabbaticals or even tickets for a football match. Such rewards are often not available to mavericks in organisations, whose "troublesome" nature exclude them from the normal power relationships, but more often making them suitable for innovative ideas and solutions. The reward needs to be broad enough in scope to be allocated to a team. Rewards should be surprising, high-visibility and full of meaning for the particular population. For example, if travel is ordinarily a problem, the whole group can meet in a tropical location for a week to pursue the noble purpose. Or if travel is unimportant but the promotion structure is important, the group who wins a competition receives promotions all around. Or if time is limited, the whole group gets one Friday a month to devote to nothing but the noble purpose. The idea is to find a trigger that releases creative energy.
  3. A set of boundary conditions or rules within which a team is permitted to form. Besides providing a reward mechanism for existing groups, the purpose of rules is to create new identities. Rules will need to be explicit and based on readily available data which can be rendered into search mechanisms so that people can construct teams. For example, for the technique used to merge silos post-merger, then a rule might be that one-third of the team has to come from the organisation A and two-thirds of the team from organisation B. The asymmetry is to avoid conflict, as 50-50 rules tend to engender dominance games in the context of a merger. Another rule might require one member of the team to have an arts degree, or less than three months' service. As an overall constraint, a team could be limited to 15 members or less.


"Sequence of an SNS Programme" The basic theme of SNS is then to link the patronage reward to the ability of a team to form and resolve the intractable problem. The sequence of a SNS programme is as follows:

  1. Identify an intractable problem or problems and a patronage reward or rewards. This can range from a simple one-to-one coupling to complex menus of options in which people choose rewards and/or problems, possibly balancing the ease of resolution with desirability of reward.
  2. Modelling the impact of different rules. Gather all possible demographic and related "factual" data and model the impact of different rules on team formation in terms of the speed in which a dense network could form. This modelling can be done by discussion and a back-of-the-envelope calculation but is best achieved through agent-based modelling software which can provide a staged delivery in its own right, demonstrating the sensitivity of the network to different starting conditions.
  3. Initiate the programme and facilitate team formation. If the rules have been designed correctly, it will be difficult for people to create a team from their existing social networks, although a core group of two to three may be able to form. To gather the rest of the team will require assistance: methods that can work include the use of dating agency software (matching rules is rather like filling in a form to say what sort of characteristics you have and are looking for in a partner), speed dating and virtual or physical hiring fairs in which people can encounter others and form teams based on who they choose to work with.
  4. Programme is run. The programme runs for a designated period as intractable problems are solved and rewards are allocated. This can be continuous, or event-based and/or first-come-first-served based or various permutations thereof. What is vital is that there is no element of judgement involved in the determination of success - if it's achieved you get the reward

An SNS can be run every 6 months with a rule that the groups have to changed diversify to help increase the higher connectivity. This method can work well where silo thinking/ working is present, and can be paired with entangled trios (which is a more micro-level alternative to SNS).

Identity a suitable intractable problem or problems and a suitable patronage-based reward or rewards By patronage we mean a reward that could not be brought
Establish the rules for the formation of the teams and the time related to the activity. Teams should be larger than 15 Some modeling may be needed and where you are looking group ensure the percentages are not 50/50
Initiate the formation of the teams based on the rules that have been established and published The core team of 2-3 may form quickly and then some assistance may be needed via techniques such as speed dating
Let the programme run for the designated period Note there should need to be no element of judgment in the determination of success. You either address the problem or the team didn't

Do's and Don'ts

Make sure that you use intractable problems to ensure that there is no judgment involved in the determination of success

Virtual running

Key Roles and Responsibilities

Facilitators The Facilitator will act both as a catalyst and as a guide during the workshop. The Facilitator must have some experience with complexity facilitation of small groups and Cognitive Edge methods. The facilitation is generally done in a way to be as unobtrusive as possible whilst observing the following “golden rules”: Never as a direct question as this does not stimulate a diverse response Never give an example that has similarity with the workshop participants common background or shared experience as this could entrain their thinking and limit the groups self-description

Participants The participants in the workshops will normally have some form of common or shared experience. This common or shared experience may be as intimate as working along side each other on a particular project, or may be as abstract as working in the same organisation. All that is required from the participants is just that, to participate in the workshop. You will find in most instances it is ideal to have people of similar ‘rank’ or role or position in the workshop. If one person is present who is ‘Senior’ they can adversely impact the workshop and inhibit other participants in their willingness to share stories.


Add the link to the article on six degrees of separation


  • The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Robert L. Cross, Andrew Parker. 2004



Related methods and approaches

This section is intended for third party approaches that may help gain insight into the method. Any methods that are on the wiki should be referenced in the above sections.

Method card material

This material will be extracted for the method cards

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

Social Network Stimulation is a method to solve intractable problems, increase informal network density and, unlock innovative trusted collaboration.

Back of card summary

Originally developed as an alternative to Social Network Analysis, Social Network Stimulation is a method to accelerate networking and trust-building in an organisation, replicating how social relationships form naturally in an accelerated process that reduces degrees of separation. SNS invites teams to form around a set of intractable issues or problems that offer value if solved, incentivised by a meaningful reward and guided by a set of boundary conditions or enabling constraints regarding who can form a team. As these issues are addressed a denser social fabric across silos forms, which leads to significant improvements in overall organisational effectiveness.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

Method Properties - Ratings

Represented by symbols - interpretation/voting scales are:

COST & RESOURCES: How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?

  1. Requires only common office equipment (eg paper and pens)
  2. Requires simple facilitation materials (special hexies, printouts, whiteboards etc)
  3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials
  4. Requires moderate investment in tools or software to apply
  5. Requires significant investment in software or other specialist tools

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?

  1. No complex facilitation experience is required
  2. Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space
  3. Should be mentored while developing complex facilitation skill
  4. Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical
  5. Advanced, requires deep knowledge of theory and experience

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?

  1. Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease
  2. Requires time commitment but overall, engaging and not difficult to achieve
  3. Mild uncertainty or discomfort, may need work to keep people engaged
  4. Indirect/ambiguous method, requires engagement through sustained levels of uncertainty
  5. Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach