Last Friday I visited the Business Network International (BNI) team Draken (The Dragon) in Gothenburg. I have made a couple of visits to other BNI teams before and it has always been interesting experiences.
BNI is a business reference network. A BNI team in the network consists of up to 40 people. The group meets once a week for the purpose of exchanging business references.
What makes the teams work is that each individual represents a different kind of business. A team may have only one car salesman, one hairdresser, one IT service provider, one accountant...
An IT service provider never has to worry about an accountant stealing her business, or vice versa. On the other hand, the accountant might have customers who need IT services. The IT service provider might know of a company that wants to lease cars, and so on.
BNI team members provide each other with information that is of little value to the sender, but of great value to the receiver.
This is of course a feature of all trade. If you buy a bar of chocolate, you buy it because the value of the chocolate bar is greater to you than the value of the money you must spend to get it.
As with all business transactions, the exchange of business references in a BNI team works better the greater the difference in perceived value by the team members.
This may seem way to obvious to be useful, but it is often the obvious things we miss. Finding something you have that is of low value to you, but of high value to someone else, so that you can trade it for something of value to you is a basic negotiating technique.
For example, the thing that brings new people to BNI is the promise of business references, but once you visit a team, you will discover that a considerable part of the value is the sense of community within the team. Of course, that sense of community also drives the sharing of business references.
BNI teams have a fixed meeting agenda they may not deviate from. The same agenda is used by BNI all over the world. Within the framework set by their meeting agenda, there is a lot of freedom. It is a great example of complex, intelligent behavior, that arises from a simple set of rules. You can see the same thing in an Agile (Scrum, XP, etc.) software development team that works well, or in some network based companies, like the famous Semco, W.L. Gore & Associates and Richard Branson's Virgin Group.
Managers and management consultants are like chess players: We look for patterns. When I first visited BNI I recognized the strategical set up as Exchanging Bricks for Jade, one of the Chinese 36 Stratagems. BNI calls the idea Givers Gain. One of the things givers gain in the BNI community is trust. Trust is valuable currency, because if people trust you, they will give you references.
Here is a diagram showing how it works: