Hierarchies, Networks and Trust

Karen stephenson

We recently hosted Dr Karen Stephenson at Nesta for an event called 'Deciphering Trust' with the rather enticing sub-title 'How cigarette breaks, gossip and other informal networks influence your capacity to innovate'. The feedback from the event was excellent and possibly the best we've had, from all of the many events I've been involved with since I've been at Nesta. Check out the webcasts from the event here, and various pictures on flickr here and a good follow up article about it here.

I learned a lot from the event and can't begin to distill it all here now, but I do want to expand on one point she made about the complex interplay between hierarchies and informal trust based networks. She described how there are three ties that typically bind any professional group as follows:

  • Transactions – mindless interactions which too often typify professional life
  • Authority – power relationships necessary when managing uncertainty
  • Trust -  the glue that holds the network together, which at any point in time is more powerful than transactions and authority

All of these ties are necessary but we tend to overestimate the importance of hierarchies and underestimate the importance of trust. This is partly because hierarchies are so obvious (immortalised through the organisational chart for example) whereas trust based networks are far less visible but no less powerful. The analysis she has done on many organisations (from multinational companies to terrorist networks) is to look at the people you go to for information, ideas, advice, socialising etc, and map that information. These different networks will all be different though will probably have overlaps. For instance, a high-trust network is the career advice network and may be completely different to your innovation network, where you go to for ideas. Looking at how these networks evolve is particularly interesting before and after mergers and aquisitions, most of which fail, as they neglect the role of trusted networks.

Also, increasingly we all interact with, or work with multiple connected hierarchies, called heterarchies, which are connected by informal trust based networks. Managing heterarchies is the challenge of our times and we increasingly need to understand how these work if we are ever going to take open and collaborative innovation to scale. It's certainly our experience where building trust (sometimes through third parties) is vital to enable collaboration to happen, and is often overlooked.

Finally, like Gladwell, she categorises three primary types of 'actors' in a social network, hubs, pulsetakers, and gatekeepers. On a personal note, I realise that I naturally tend to be a 'hub-like' but increasingly, whilst this is fun and interesting, it's not necessarily where i need to be right now and probably want to migrate to be more like a pulsetaker. And top tips on how to migrate from one to the other?


  1. Roland, I think you’re onto something with the ‘pulsetaker’ insight. In my own organisation, I achieve this in three ways:
    (1) spend as little time as possible at HQ, thereby creating uncertainty about your approachability and avoiding the risk of being too visible or available to everybody who may have call on you;
    (2) say what you think, thereby alienating a large chunk of people who would seek you out solely for affirmation but not – crucially – your superiors, who will not feel inhibited about sharing their real opinions in return for your hyped-up ones;
    and, finally and most practically,
    (3) work with someone of a lower grade but longer history within the organisation who is in the habit of building relationships of trust with a wide range of people in different roles in the interest of getting things done on an operational level.
    This is only slightly tongue in cheek but not nearly so Machiavellian as it may seem – it struck me on looking through Karen Stephenson’s definition that that was an unintended consequence of having a preferred learning style that sits in opposition to the prevailing organisational culture!
    The challenge is, of course, to then adapt to the preferred learning style of others on those occasions when it would be valuable to put something back into the system for your own and the organisation’s collective benefit …

  2. Roland I think that pulse-taking might be as much a ‘mode’ as a preference.
    Being able to shift from one mode to another consciously would probably have many benefits… and also make you appear very smooth. 🙂

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