The network effect in projects

In 1980 Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet standard for connecting computers over a short distance, developed a theory that came to be known as Metcalfe’s Law:

The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

Essentially this means that the greater the number of nodes (or devices, or users) connected to a system, the greater the value of the system to its users. At the time the analogy went that one fax machine on its own is no use as a communication tool, two fax machines can only connect to each other, five fax machines can make 10 connections, twelve fax machines can make 66 connections, and so on.

This is the principle that social networking is based on: the network effect that the value of a network increases proportionally to the number of people on it – the more the merrier. Clearly there is a limit to the value of the network – it’s a lot of work to actively connect with two thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, but in principle the more people on a network, the higher the likelihood that the people you’ll want to connect with will also be on it.

The same cannot be said for projects, where the greater the number of people involved, the harder and more time-consuming it becomes to agree aims and objectives (and even harder to agree the what and the how of getting things done), communicate effectively, manage progress across fiefdoms, and to establish responsibility when hard decisions need to be made[1].

Project teams build their own scaffolding to cope with these demands: Project Mandates, a Project / Programme Management Office (PMO), Project Plans, Communications Plans, Project Organisation Structures, Stakeholder Maps, and so on. Sometimes these structures can get in the way – it can be tempting to think that if the planned steps are being followed, you’re on the path to success, but planning has to reflect reality rather than an abstraction of it. Assuming that keeping people with different contexts, aspirations, fears, agendas and abilities on board in a difficult but meaningful endeavour can be reduced to a tickbox exercise is fantasy.

The key to managing the network effect in projects is to keep asking the simple questions, and taking action according to the answers:

  1. What is the fundamental thing that this project is trying to achieve?
  2. Who do I absolutely require to be involved in order for this to work?
  3. Am I communicating 1. to the people identified in 2. in the clearest and most effective way possible?
  4. Are we all doing what we agreed to make this project happen?

Allowing our efforts to be diluted across an ever-increasing network of stakeholders sucks our time. Focusing our efforts makes the most of it.

[1] The effort necessary to establish responsibility is dramatically reduced when the hard decisions have been made, and hard(er) work has been done – we all want to be seen as successful, though how we go about it can be very different.