Working in between domains and contexts

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mesopartner this year, we have been reflecting with each other and some close collaborators about our role in development. It has been a gratifying and humbling experience to hear what others think about our role (as Mesopartner) and how they reflect on their roles. Some of my friends, who were previously clients or colleagues, also reflecting on their changing roles as they shift from fieldwork to management or from one country to another.

One theme that has crystallised for me is that we often work between contexts in economic development. We connect local energy with ideas from far away, try to bridge the gap between the private and public sectors, foster feedback between interventions and beneficiaries, and connect ideas and domains that should be connected but are not. Even when we work in a large development organisation, we often work to identify and close gaps that we detect in the environments that we work in. Our focus is beyond and between organisations and not within. Building our team, our brand, or achieving our direct results is secondary to building the confidence and the capabilities of those that we call “counterparts”, “stakeholders”, or “beneficiaries”.

You might wonder why I think this is even worth sharing. This is such an obvious statement about development. Well, I think this is important to ponder because so many of the management instruments used in development originate in the corporate sector, where in theory, everyone is working in the same organisation towards the same goals. Just think of measurement instruments, planning methods or knowledge management. These concepts often assume that everyone is in the same boat heading towards the same shore.

But this is not true in economic development. When we try to get the private and the public sector to cooperate, they might now temporarily share a boat, but this is not likely their preferred means of getting to a destination. One might prefer a windsurf or a sailboat, while the other might prefer a cargo ship. We work between these domains and preferences, so our methods, logic and management approaches should reflect this “in-betweenness”. Suppose we want anything to stick or be taken up by anybody we work with. In that case, our methods must add value to their organisation’s goals and complement the kind of natural skills, resources and internal systems they have in place. Whenever we ask them to take up something that is not aligned or natural to how they usually work, we should not be surprised if, in the longer run, our ideas are not taken further.

As I have been reflecting on this for a few months, I have evaluated which of our instruments are temporary or specific and which ideas and concepts can be taken up and used in many different contexts. (I will shortly write about the Sensemaker survey that we used to collect narrative fragments of how our work in development matters and is changing). The way we facilitate conversations between stakeholders seems to have more value than the actual constructs we use to gather information or support decision-making. Perhaps the fact that we actively strive to get people together that usually move in different orbits also stands out. Some other ideas that stand out are the importance of creating moments in teams or even in temporary collaborations for people to stand back (from action) to reflect on where they are going, and whether whatever they are doing is having the desired effects.

Often the principles and the heuristics that we use have more value in the long run and different contexts than the methods or approaches we use. However, principles and heuristics are only transferred to the people we work with when used or applied in a specific context. Going forward, I will be paying more attention to the heuristics and principles that are valuable in the in-between contexts. I will also pay more attention to making it explicit how the ideas we work with can be adapted for different contexts and applications so that what works “in-between” can also be used to improve how things work within organisations.

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Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

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