Simon Terry

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Building the Goodwill of Networks

Networks give people access to more people than ever before. However, they can also create new inconveniences by allowing people to free ride. Networks are fostered when people are encouraged others to making contributions to others first and to consider in their approaches the value created for others in their requests. These actions, like purposeful and generous working out loud, rebuild the goodwill that free riders consume.

The Network Externality of Free Riders

In economics, an externality is a cost imposed on other people who did not choose to incur it. Free riding is where a person consumes more than their share of a common resource. Every network depends on common resource of goodwill in continuing connection. A common barrier to the development of collaboration in networks is the network externality of thoughtlessness and free riding.

Great networks build up goodwill among the members which facilitates collaboration through trust, shared connection and a sense of reciprocal benefits. Free riders are members of those networks who don’t contribute to the general goodwill. 

The Externality of Thoughtlessnesss

Thoughtless activities in networks consume goodwill because they impose costs on others in the network without any return:

  • Noise: It takes time and effort to filter out noise. Creating noise in networks is costly to everyone. Noise can include repetitive posts, broadcast messages, long rambling messages, diversions from purpose, spam and other forms of low value messages.
  • Laziness: Failing to check that the question you ask has not been answered already or that the answer is not readily available. Let me Google That For You is a great example of a solution to this common occurrence.
  • Confusion: Making a unclear request of the network. In many cases questions are far easier to ask than to answer well. Many people do not think through what others need to be able to answer their query. It takes time and effort to clarify what the issue is and what answers or assistance will be helpful.
  • Selfishness: Making request of others for effort without giving anything back. We have all been asked to help others in our networks. The better requests are respectful of the individual and the network. Most of the requests that come through Linkedin have a clear benefit to the other person but much less consideration on how I might be interested in helping. Responding to these requests takes time and effort which lowers the value of the network and the priority of responding at all.
  • Lack of Follow-through: Making requests that are ambit claims, have unnecessary urgency or where you are not prepared to invest in follow through on the responses others will make. A common issue is when people ask for urgent help and then disappear again without responding to even acknowledge the answers given to their query. 
  • Unclear Benefit: Making unclear offers of benefits. If you suggest something offers ‘exposure’, ‘mutual benefit’, ‘rewards’, ‘an opportunity’ or similar it helps to quantify this in your request. Leaving it for others to discover the meaning of your obscurity imposes costs on others and on you.

There are many more examples. While it may be easy to decline all poorly framed requests, some times opportunity lurks under the thoughtlessness.  The challenge is that the time and effort to respond, to clarify, to negotiate mutual benefit and to help can unduly burden network participants. Suddenly people withdraw from helping others in the network because the collective experience is burdensome. 

Sidenote: Recognise Your Own Value In Networks

Under an avalanche of requests for free time, free help, free speaking engagements, free advice, offers of ‘exposure’ and general lack of consideration, it can be tempting to decide that you have to acquiesce because the whole system works this way. This is even more the case when you are told ‘everyone else’ seems to be doing things on this basis. We are still learning how to manage relationships at scales, timeliness and distances that have never been possible before in human history. Remember always you have choices. The best way to make choices is to respect the value you bring, set your own strategy and set your own rules for the value exchange. That way you take and miss the opportunities you choose, not others. Ask people you trust to help you assess the value you create, if you can’t do it yourself. Grace, humble respect for the value you create and a focus on reciprocity can make magic happen.

Replenishing Goodwill with Purpose, Contributions and Serendipity

One of the reasons that I am a advocate of John Stepper’s work in promoting the value of working out loud is that John has made explicit the value of making contributions to others. Making purposeful contributions to people in your network builds goodwill. It is a great way to start a relationship. People are more likely to assist you if they have seen you making contributions to others. Most importantly of all to make a contribution to another person you need to take the time to think of that other person and their needs.

Goodwill erodes if it is not actively restored by reciprocal benefits in a network. Creating goodwill through consistent contributions to others and serendipitous benefits helps the networks deliver net benefits to participants overcoming the costs imposed by the thoughtless and the deliberate free riders. The more people make purposeful contributions to others the more likely the balance will be a net positive one. For this reason many early online forums excluded lurkers in an effort to foster purposeful participation and reciprocity. The champions, change agents and connectors at the heart of your network will be some of the most purposeful, considerate and generous individuals that you know.

Fostering a culture of working out loud that is purposeful and generous will help any network overcome the challenges of occasional free-riding.


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