Network stress: Unique challenges, anxieties, and insecurities that network coordinators face

Jonathan Peterson, Director, Network for Landscape Conservation


There is practically no really “big” problem these days that still exists because of a lack of information, a lack of technology, or a lack of knowledge about solutions. Almost all large problems in the world persist due to a lack of coordinated action, a lack of compassion, or a lack of interest.[1]

JT Reager, California Institute of Technology


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Physicist Stephen Hawking famously declared the 21st Century as the “century of complexity,” an assessment echoed by biologist E.O. Wilson. What Hawking and Wilson were acknowledging is that, in our quest to make sense of the world around us, it is the interconnections and interactions amongst parts—rather than the parts themselves—that are most relevant.

This is evident in the social and environmental challenges that we are increasingly being called to address. Gone are the days of predominantly technical challenges, those that emerge from within a “part” of a system and that can be readily solved by applying the right knowledge or by getting more information. More and more we are dealing with complex, seemingly intractable challenges that emerge from the interconnections and interactions of parts or elements within a broader system. Such adaptive challenges exceed the capacity of any single individual, entity, or organization to resolve independently, and demand new, innovative, and creative approaches. And more and more, that innovation and creativity is emerging through networks of collaborating partners: To address complexity we must embrace complexity.

Take for instance the environmental field, where today’s 21st Century challenges aren’t necessarily new—we’ve known of biodiversity loss, climate change, and environmental injustice for decades. These challenges are better understood though: We increasingly recognize the full breadth and interconnectedness of these crises. In the face of such daunting, complex, and interwoven challenges, how can we respond?  The answer increasingly is collaborative landscape conservation and stewardship, as in landscapes across the country networks of individuals, entities, and organizations are emerging to strive together towards a vision for people and place that no single individual, entity, or organization can advance alone.

As a result, in the environmental domain—and elsewhere throughout social change domains—a growing number of practitioners are turning to the work of cultivating and guiding networked responses. These practitioners are wrestling with how to stitch together individuals, entities, and organizations and how to provide the structures—the relationships, communication, and logistics—that allow partners to collectively orient towards common vision and shared impact. Such practitioners aspire to be the “glue” that holds networks of partners together and the “grease” that allows networks of partners to function effectively in pursuit of collective goals. This role of a network “coordinator” may be formally acknowledged—a person hired expressly to fill this role—or it may be informal, with an individual voluntarily stepping forward from a partner organization to carry forward the tasks in addition to their primary job duties. Regardless, it is complex work.

I write for this growing community of network coordinators, and do so from my vantage point within the collaborative landscape conservation and stewardship field. The work of coordinating a network is incredibly challenging and demands unique skillsets, perspectives, and approaches that differ significantly from what most of us have been called upon to develop in our careers. We collectively are still striving to more fully understand the contours and demands of this work, and how we can grow and strengthen our individual capacity in this space. Even as we do so, it is increasingly clear that this work leaves us vulnerable to unique stresses and anxieties that can make us question our capacity to effectively serve.

This article is a reflection of my personal experience coordinating networks, and of my conversations with a wide array of network coordinators over the last five years within a peer learning space for collaborative landscape practitioners.  I’ve had the enormous privilege of connecting with and learning alongside successive cohorts of network coordinators in this space, and I am indebted to the insights, perspectives, and experiences that these individuals have generously shared over the years.

Though I primarily draw upon my experiences and conversations in the landscape conservation and stewardship field, my sense is that what follows is applicable across any social change domain where folks are embracing networked responses to increasingly complex challenges. My hope is that through naming we can normalize: experiencing these anxieties and insecurities does not reflect individual failing, nor are these a burden that you alone carry. Rather, these are in many ways a product of the work of reaching for networked responses to shift systems and disrupt the status quo.


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The challenges and demands that network coordinators confront are in many ways dependent on the unique context in which they work, and yet I have consistently heard coordinators speak to a similar themes. Three specific anxieties appear to be foundational to the experience of coordinating networks:

First, the Loneliness Paradox.  Coordinating a network is an innately collaborative exercise: You are convening a wide range of partners to pursue collective goals, continually reaching out to and connecting with others. This work is premised on relationships and seemingly should be—and very often is—highly energizing and stimulating. Yet, the dedicated staffing for a network is typically quite lean, and the coordinator may be the sole individual that wakes up day-in and day-out thinking about the network. Especially early in a network’s life, nearly everyone else is engaging on the shoulders of responsibilities and duties within their host organization.

Hence this innately collaborative role can feel paradoxically isolating: Few if any others are focused on the functioning of the network in the same way that you are, or understand the intricacies, complexities, and going-ons of the network as fully as you do. Partners step in and engage in defined ways, but when a meeting or conversation ends they step back into their organizational contexts; it can feel as if you alone remain to wrestle with sensemaking, bridging across conversations, and navigating granular decisions for continuing forward. The loneliness emerges in the absence of that thought-partner with which to process and work through questions, challenges, and decision points deeply, comprehensively, and in detailed fashion.


Second, the Insufficiency Illusion. Coordinating and leading networks leaves us prone to continually feeling that we are falling short and struggling to keep up with the task at hand. This emerges from two aspects of networks:

    • First, in many ways, networks are boundless. These spaces lack the organizational bounds that are so helpful in defining priorities, projects, participants, and responsibilities. Instead, the potential scope of a network is conscribed only by the collective imagination of its participants.
    • Second, networks are breeding grounds for great ideas. Bring together a group of knowledgeable, committed individuals from a diversity of perspectives and experiences and give them space to connect and explore, and exciting ideas will emerge—often a flood of really good, previously unimagined (and perhaps even previously unimaginable) ideas.

These two aspects are indeed the root of the magic, potential, and power of networks. Yet these can also create a challenging experience for coordinators. As exciting and impactful ideas emerge in a variety of veins—and with participants juggling additional responsibilities and demands within their host organizations—it is easy to feel as if the network coordinator must pick up and carry forward these ideas. And no matter how much of yourself that you pour into the work, there is never enough of your time to fully follow through on all ideas and possibilities. This is where we as coordinators are susceptible to feeling as if we are dropping the ball or are, in a word, insufficient.

Of course, this is an illusion: the individuals that gravitate towards this work are almost universally uniquely committed and capable. Individuals seek out this work in large part because they are not satisfied with the status quo and see the constraints and bounds of the conventional systems in which we operate. Such individuals are grasping for opportunities to break through these constraints in ways that open new potential and possibility, embracing complexity and striving for deeper systemic change that moves us toward a more just, equitable, and sustainable future.


Third, the Imposter Syndrome. This is likely more familiar as it is not my creation; it is the acknowledgement that high-achieving individuals oftentimes are plagued by feelings of self-doubt, unable to fully appreciate their successes and accomplishments. Though clearly not unique to network coordinators—in some sense we all navigate this anxiety in various aspects of our lives—we as network coordinators may feel this especially acutely for two reasons:

    • First, networks are often comprised of key decision-makers, thought-leaders, and subject-matter experts within a geography or sector. As such, the coordinator is unlikely to be the expert in the room for any technical question or subject-matter issue. This is fine—bringing forward technical knowledge or expertise is not the role of the coordinator—but does leave us prone to questioning our abilities and the value we offer. As the knowledge, expertise, and experience that partners bring forward collides and sparks ideas and energy in new and exciting ways, it is easy to think to yourself, “Wait, how did I get into this room?”
    • Second, the value of network coordination is generally poorly understood and under-appreciated. Even as networked approaches gain in importance and relevancy, they remain novel and operate in a societal context that continues to be oriented to organizational structures. There is a growing body of literature on the distinctions between a networked mindset and an organizational mindset; we as coordinators are in many ways round pegs of network mindset trying to find fit within the square holes of organizational mindset that are the prevailing norm. The work of effectively coordinating collaboration—which requires a tremendous amount of skill and expertise, and which requires intentional, continual cultivation of perspective and mindset—is often diminished; the question, “What is it that you actually do, besides schedule meetings?” unfortunately may sound all too familiar. A general lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the complex, essential work that network coordinators do can magnify any feelings of self-doubt that creep into our minds.


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This is not to say that the Loneliness Paradox, the Insufficiency Illusion, and the Imposter Syndrome are the only anxieties that we face in coordinating networks, nor is it to suggest that the work of coordinating networks is strictly marked by anxiety and stress—this work is incredibly rewarding and uplifting, and a separate article (a longer one!) could be dedicated to the joys and fulfillment to be found in this work.  Rather, it is simply to suggest that these three themes consistently and regularly arise for network coordinators, and are directly related to the specifics of working in networked fashion.

My intent has been to surface these core stresses, and to give us space to observe and better understand these feelings—so that we can begin to intentionally reflect on how we may minimize or at least manage these to a certain extent. Although a follow up article will explore that question in greater detail, I don’t believe there is necessarily a single or simple antidote here. Part of the answer though is in how we (and perhaps as importantly, those around us) conceive of and define the role of a network coordinator.

Regardless though, experiencing these anxieties is not a reflection of individual failing on your part as a network coordinator, and you are not alone in experiencing these. The work of adopting networked approaches and coordinating networks is a source of tremendous joy, growth, and impact—and is also complex and challenging. My hope is that acknowledging and naming these common anxieties diminishes their weight on us, and allows us to feel more comfortable, confident, and empowered in our work.

Especially coming out of the intensities of the pandemic, with our “surge capacity” seemingly more drained than ever before, it is critical that we think about how best to steward our own individual human resource and to sustain ourselves over time. Our efforts are needed now more than ever: today’s “big’ problems are systemic. Such problems are not caused by an isolated faultline or fracture within a single, contained part of a system that can be readily addressed or fixed with specific expertise or information. Today’s adaptive problems instead emerge out of the complex interactions amongst a multitude of constituent parts within interconnected systems. Conventional approaches fail in the face of such challenges. We know new approaches are needed, approaches that match the complexity of the challenges—and we believe that advancing networked approaches will allow us to disrupt the status quo, shift systems, and create space for just, equitable, and sustainable futures to emerge. This work doesn’t happen readily, easily, or quickly, and if we are to succeed we will need skilled, capable network coordinators that are able to sustain themselves in guiding and leading this work over the long-term.


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If the above has resonated with you and your work in coordinating, stewarding, and leading a network (or collaborative, partnership, coalition, etc.), please do be in touch to let me know—I would love to hear reflections and observations from your vantage point. More importantly though, I hope you reach out to a counterpoint or colleague in an adjacent networked space and share this with them. My hope is that the very act of such ‘relational’ sharing can help foster the peer-to-peer connection, dialogue, and exchange that can be so valuable and beneficial in managing the very anxieties that are highlighted above. And above all else, thank you for the energy, effort, and commitment that you pour in your work! 

[1] For Young People, Saving the World isn’t a Fantasy. Aspen Institute:

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Network stress: Unique challenges, anxieties, and insecurities that network coordinators face