When Theory Met PracticeApril 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.