When Theory Met Practice

April 23, 2009 4 Comments

A colleague and I recently met with staff of a client organization to discuss their interest in crafting a regional “partnership” strategy.  Leading up to the meeting there had been some discussion with folk about what it would mean to bring a network lens to their work, to perhaps approach this as a “network building” opportunity.  Needless to say we were excited and came ready to dive deeply into the conversation.

My colleague and I decided it would be best to “start where the people are” and hear what their interest was in a partnership approach, how this had come about, and how they saw it as different than what they had been doing up until now.  There was some very interesting discussion about the need and desire to break out of silos, change from being project-focused to creating more of a coordinated continuum of services, and develop stronger relationships among stakeholders in each of the regions in question.

Then the time came to pop the question – “What about networks?  How do these fit into your work?”  I was invited to say a few general comments about network theory and network building and how this might be different than general collaboration/partnerships/coalition building.   On the heels of my brief presentation, there ensued commentary that is coming to be a bit of a refrain.  “I still don’t understand how network building is different than what we are trying to do in terms of partnering.”  “I’m not sure how we fit our work into that theory.”  In some instances, there was palpable consternation expressed along with these comments – “Frankly, that just makes it all the more confusing for me.”

Okay, I said, let’s stop right there.  If we are working too hard to fit our efforts into network theory or bending our brains too much to understand how networks are different than other kinds of collaboration, then we may not be headed in a very productive direction.  I decided to add simply that partnerships have a lot in common with networks, that they may in fact be networks of a sort.  The only caution is that partnerships can be overly deterministic in terms of who is in and who is out and how things get done, which might not move the needle as much as we hoped.  If network theory can offer anything, it is the suggestion that we not make our partnerships too much like business as usual with the usual suspects.  It might be of some benefit to hold space open for new ideas to emerge and make efforts to reach out to those to whom we might not otherwise engage.

To these comments, all heads around the table nodded.  Brows unfurrowed.  And we moved on.  With each of these kinds of conversations I realize that we are all truly where we are.  I am also reminded that practice often makes a more powerful lead than theory.  The two must, of course, dance together, but the real star is what we make happen in the world.  So I say, let’s not wait until we get it right, because there is no such thing.  Let’s just remain open as we go, because there’s life in that.


  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for the reminder Curtis, I too find myself more concerned with finding ways to communicate this possibility in a way that sticks around, that invites a more active engagement in a process of discovery. I realize that the more “practicable” something is the more likely it is to bring about change in a sustainable way. We have to try things together.

  • Melinda says:

    Your recounting of what happened in the room was so well told, that I felt like I was there. Then, I went further in my mind to actually put myself in their shoes — a client’s shoes….in the mind of those who are on the ground, in the roots of the grass, doing the work of community building, social change, whatever…and I think it clicked for me in a way it hasnt before: If Im in practicioner mode, talk of “theory” is likely going to make me have a reaction that belittles theory. We might just do well in our consulting to minimize that word when we talk about “a networked approach to….” or ” a network way of working”, or the like. As your experience that day illustrated, its not the content of the concept that people are adverse to ( folks doing community work lots of times already work in networks in some fashion), its perhaps our use of the word “theory” that becomes a stumblingblock

    Since I came to the Institute, fresh from working in low-income housing community in Mission Hill, I often cycle our work through what I’ll call the “‘hood litmus test’. If this work, methodology and language we use for “social change work” wont work, be helpful to, or understood by folks in the ‘hood, than for me, what good is it, really? Its those kind of lenses that provide a check for me. Like Rev. Gerald Bell who said to a bunch of young preachers (when I was one 😉 : “If your sermon you preach wont work for the folks in Sudan, than its not really the Gospel”. In a world where we can get so far afield (I certainly can) from that which will actually matter to the most vulnerable, self-checks and balance(s) like these experiences help to keep us and our tools sharp and relevant.

  • Linda says:

    This makes me think of one of my biggest lessons in mediation (a little different to be sure, but there are some things that carry over well). What I found over and over was that the role of mediator is one of following the parties and providing the process scaffolding needed to help them continue to move – rather than thinking of “leading” them to where I thought they should go. Wondering if part of the artistry of mediation and facilitation is knowing when we are leading and when we are supporting and following the group we’re working with.

  • Andria Winther says:

    Thank you for telling this story….hope we all continue to provide vignettes from the field…..wonderful way to share in our learning. Will be curious to see how this work evolves….

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