Finding and Nurturing Networks

Finding and Nurturing Networks
How do we find, develop, and sustain deep relationships with other organizations—through partnerships and networks-- that allow us to work effectively toward reaching our purpose?

Many of the challenges we face are too complex for most organizations to address by themselves. Even the most powerful, passionate leader of an educational or nonprofit organization cannot achieve her goals without working effectively with others outside the boundaries of her organization.

Teitel (forthcoming 2009) suggests a three stage process for finding and nurturing partnerships and networks that begins with exploring your own organization's purpose and needs, and then looking for potential partners -- other organizations with common purposes and mutual interdependence -- that can help you meet those needs. The next step is developing and deepening those partnerships to unlock their potential for mutual organizational learning in order to improve how each partner gets better at reaching its purpose. Put more succinctly, Teitel suggests that there are three questions to answer: What are you trying to do? Who else can help you do it? How can you work differently with them?

The organizing framework with which we begin this introduction is based on an approach to finding and nurturing partnerships and networks that Lee Teitel writes about and uses in his partnerships workshops. (However, we welcome you to use these ideas as a springboard for sharing yours.

This is a wiki, a truly democratic collaborative tool. This is page is fully editable. Please contribute your knowledge and experience to our guiding questions on how to find and nurture networks below:

To return to the main content page and explore other aspects of Leading in a Networked World, click here.

1) What are you trying to do?
The first step to finding potential partners is internal: getting clear about your purpose. The purpose must be clear in the short term and the long term. What would success look like in 5-10 years? The next step is a fearless self-inventory: what things does your organization currently do well in reaching that longer term purpose you defined, and what are the holes or ragged spots? What do you need to be succesful? Doing this internal work allows you to move to the next step of more thoughtfully scanning for potential partners. Other organizations might have a complementary purpose or could provide things that your organization needs. For example, Molly Baldwin of Roca Inc. (, a youth development and advocacy organization in Chelsea, MA realized that the long term goals of Roca -- successful healthy youth and community -- were actually quite similar to those of the police department, social services, and local schools, although they often were at odds with each other. With this realization, she was able to reach out to potential community partners.

2) Who else can help you do it?
When Roca staff realized that the way they were currently working was not going to enable them to do what they wanted for youth in Chelsea, they knew they had to get help from other youth-serving agencies. They had to give up short term advocacy strategies, such as showing up and supporting gang members in clashes with police. Identifying partners was the easy part; the hard part was convincing the police, school administrators, and social service providers to align their strategies.

Once you become more clear about your organization's purpose, how do you look for potential partners? It helps to use some sort of systematic approach, since we often overlook potential relationships because they may not be immediately obvious. One approach is to think about all the different interdependencies your organization has with others.

Teitel (forthcoming 2009) identifies five types of relationships: 1- Serial/supply or value chain; 2 - Parallel/Peer relationships; 3 - Silos; 4 - Nested hierarchies; and 5 - Combinations of above, or unconnected, unaligned, unaffiliated. Click here for more information on the five interdependencies.

Another approach to identifying potential partners is to use a common problem or challenge as the focus and see what other organizations can contribute. In this approach, you and your colleagues would identify one or two pressing, tough, seemingly intractable issues you face in your organization and identify other organizations and networks that can contribute to that purpose. Any of these approaches will help you identify existing or potential partners. Some of these will be organizations you know about; some you will already have connections with. The next step is to figure out which relationships would make sense to develop or deepen, which requires thinking differently about how you work with them.

How can you work differently with them?
Deepening partnerships unlocks their potential for mutual organizational learning. It also improves how each partner reaches its purpose.

Molly Baldwin, executive director of Roca describes this as "showing up differently.” Changing Roca’s relationship with the police force, for instance, wasn't a proclamation of how we need to work differently with one another.
Baldwin says that the key to Roca’s organizational success in partnering with other community resources, most notably the police department, was simply putting in the work to truly get to know the potential partner. When Roca practices peace circles, participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking by passing a feather from person to person. The circles help to bring everyone together at a relatively raw emotional level. Such an experience contributes toward building a mutual understanding among diverse community members who previously felt disconnected and at odds with each other. Chelsea Police Captain, Keith Houghton, described the dramatic effect of his first participation in a peace circle with Molly, her staffers, and local community youth who deeply distrusted the police. Whether these discussions occur in the relative emotional safety of a peace circle, over coffee at the police station, or late at night during a confrontation on the streets, Molly says that there’s no shortcut. “You’ve got to put in the time. There’s no way around it” (class visit, February 20, 2009). Humility and a willingness to admit our vulnerabilities to our adversaries are requisites for creating deep partnerships.

First and foremost, develop trust to form partnerships. Five stages in partnership formation allow potential partners get past stage one (Ferguson). They need to see that there is enough trust and potential benefit to move forward. They need to trust one another to get to stage two, where they can sort out their turf issues and other differences, that enables them to get to stage three, where they reach common agreements, or stage four where they make deep commitments to the common work, or stage five where their achieved successes allow them to renew or reform partnerships for other purposes. Trust is not an abstract idea for Ferguson, who defines it as confidence in one another's "motives, competence, dependability, and collegiality.” Stephen R Covey Jr. uses a similar definition of trust (2006), which he defines as "integrity, intent, capabilities, and results.” Covey includes a self-test of where you stand on those dimensions, which although written for individuals, could be readily adapted for organizations.

Trust is essential for all partnerships and particularly for the more intense relationships where you and another organization are really learning from one another. Organizations can "partner" with one another in very different ways. In many cases, "partnerships" are not much more than an agreement to coordinate activities.

The deeper relationships discussed here are different. In these, each partner expects to learn from one another through their work in ways that can lead to deep change. The relationship between Roca and the Chelsea Police has led to deep changes and partnerships in both organizations. Writing about Roca, Wendy Wheeler (2006) calls these kinds of relationships "Engaged Institutions" and notes that they go beyond the usual forms of collaboration. They can be thought of as "Organizational Learning Partnerships", or "Critical Friends" relationships. Teitel (2008) calls these "transformative" partnerships, to distinguish them from the more typical "transactional" ones and thinks of relationships as falling on a continuum from No Connection <--> Transactional <--> Transformative.

Look at the list you generated of potential partners and organizations that could help your organization improve how it reaches its purpose. Which of them might be the best candidates to deepen?

Personal implications: what does it take to lead in this area?

· A willingness to reach out
· A willingness to fail
· An ability to go beyond formal authority and use informal authority (Heifetz, 1994)
· An ability to trust that the potential partners and the incentives are for working towards the common goal (Covey, 2006)

Lingering questions

· How does one assess the value of an incentive from one person to the next?
· An incentive for one partner may actually be a disincentive for another partner. How do you balance partners with differing ideals but who are working towards the same goal?
· Is it acceptable for a leader to fail and/or admit defeat?
· How do you measure success?

Additional Ideas

The following discussion is separated into two headings. The first section, "The Incentive to Collaborate," presents how incentives, failure, and support systems function in effective partnerships. The second section, "Structural Integrity," discusses how the size, structure, and diversity of skills within an organization can be leveraged to nurture inclusive internal and external partnerships. Please edit these, and add your own.

The Incentive to Collaborate
Key Ideas
  • Support systems: The best leaders are not “lonely at the top.” They are members of a team that believes in their goals. That team could be composed of professional peers, friends, family, and even spouses.
    Incentive: There must be an incentive to join for potential partners.
  • Failure: The deepest and most powerful networks take chances and risk failure. Many ideas will be cast aside before arriving at the final product.
Examples of this in action

  • Tom DelPrete of Clark University and the Hiatt Center (Worcester, MA) wanted to improve the neighborhood surrounding Clark University. To encourage long-time renters to buy, they needed to provide an incentive. Their answer was to offer free tuition to the residents. Their vision for the neighborhood allowed them to take advantage of available resources to mobilize others in collaboration.
Tools a leader might find useful to get better at leading in this area
  • Support systems in one’s life (friends, family, peers, spouse)
  • A formal process to identify potential partners and possible incentives
Structural Integrity
Key ideas

  • Size and structure:
Teams without a hierarchical structure are more flexible and able to become adaptive in collaborative partnership work. When every member (other than the leader) is equally important and endowed with the same level of authority, trust grows between members of the team. Smaller break out teams can brainstorm more effectively than larger groups, and this idea generation can then be pooled together for larger group consideration.
  • Diversity of skills:
Good teams require a variety different skills and talents.
  • Internal and external partners:
Leaders who want to nurture partnerships must remain humble and honor their internal and external partners for the work they do rather than take credit for this themselves.
  • Inclusion:
Socio-psychological factors keep large groups from brainstorming well together. In order to hear more peoples’ ideas, smaller breakout teams should be formed in order for more voices and ideas to be heard and included. Further, isolated silos within and between groups can lead to isolation and stagnation. Organizational partners must be identified and nurtured both internally and externally.

Examples of this in action

  • In a 1999 ABC Nightline episode, a task is given to IDEO, the largest and most innovative industrial product design firm in the world. The Silicon Valley-based company is told to take an old and familiar object, a shopping cart, and redesign it in just a few days. The manner in which IDEO approaches this task is illuminating when considering the formation of networking teams and what makes them successful. IDEO employees are experts on the process of design. Yet, their talents span from engineering to psychology to education to art. Just like the IDEO team, a solid networking team requires a good mix of talented people with varying backgrounds, both personal and professional. At IDEO, the leader or engineer is a people person. However, there is no fixed hierarchical structure besides the leader. All others act as equals.

  • Breaking into smaller, functional groups allows more productive brainstorming to occur. More ideas are generated and they tend to be of higher quality. Large group brainstorming is often misguided. It is not as effective as previously thought because of certain socio-psychological factors that impede the most creative brainstorming from occurring (2020 lecture, Ely, 2009). When small groups or solo thinkers return to the large group, there is no filtering of ideas. A “focused chaos” brings all ideas to the table to be vetted.

  • Visible symbols, including signage, easily and regularly communicate mission. One of IDEO’s sayings is “fail often to succeed sooner.” (Ted Koppel, Nightline, 1999). The deepest and most powerful networks take chances and risk failure. After five days of redesigning the shopping cart, many prototypes were thrown to the curb before arriving at the desired product. So too, will many ideas in a network be cast aside before capturing the big idea.

  • Wendy Wheeler, writing of the organization, Roca (, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, espouses the dual practices of humility and “namaste,” which she defines as literally “I bow to you.” Wheeler refuses to take credit for the successes young people make for themselves, so the namaste (or amen, or bravo) should never be uttered as self-congratulatory rhetoric ( Similarly, Wheeler and others at Roca honor the humility of their work as a necessary perspective on the part of leaders who privilege partnerships over top-down, hierarchical leadership styles.

  • Valdis Krebs (, 2008) highlights how working in silos can lead to stagnation. To innovate and grow, isolated clusters must build bridges between them. In this process, previously unconnected organizations can reach out and find new partners. At Roca, the police, and the city operated in isolated clusters. Until Molly Baldwin reached out to the other clusters, each of these separate groups was ineffective in helping very high risk youth stay safe in Chelsea. Chris Lynch, Carl Sussman, and Tom DelPrete (class visitors this semester) also reached out to other organizations to form unique partnerships.

  • Sometimes it’s difficult to identify potential partners if your current process of working does not include a method to identify new partners and collaborators. For example, if your organization is too inwardly focused, sometimes an external person is needed to show you the way. Similarly, if your organization is too externally focused, you might miss out on potential internal partners.