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Outcome Mapping Practitioner Guide

Conceptually visualizing boundary partners: size, distance, position, relationships

A way to conceptualise and visualise the relative positions of boundary partners around a central theme, their relationships to that theme and their relationships to each other

Author: Jeph Mathias

Published: Wednesday 20 August 2014

With teams new to OM the concept of Boundary Partners may be difficult to grasp. There are no formal answers on how to select boundary partners to work with, although there are suggestions in the OM manual, always guided by the key characteristics of what a Boundary Partner. I present one way, based on my experience, to facilitate a deeper understanding of what a boundary partner is and how to think about them and ways of creating change around the central theme.

Step 1: I first show a slide of whaling ships on one side and a raft of presumably protest activists in an inflatable boat. Between them is the carcass of a whale. The slide is a visual aid. I ask the team to visualise their theme as the whale (e.g. child trafficking in Bihar, India or small NGOs in South east Asia and Africa trying experimental approaches to development). The team then draws a “whale-shaped” outline in the centre of a large piece of paper and writes the theme they are working on in that space. (note this is the theme they are working on, not the name of their NGO or project- a common mistake is to write their own project name in here).

Step 2: Referring back to the slide I talk about the lines (harpoons) connecting the whale to the whaling ship and also the connection between the inflatable boat and the dead whale. I also point out the relative proximity of each to the carcass and their disparity in size. I stress that this is only a visual metaphor. Their challenge is to draw the various individuals groups or organizations that have a relationship to the issue the team is working on. The size and position of partners is significant. They should be positioned relative to each other as they are in the real world. Just as anti-whaling activists and whaling ships are almost diametrically opposed to each other in the whaling debate so are, say, trafficking middle-men and an international anti slavery NGO working in the area (a potential boundary partner). In this case middle-men and the police may not be diametrically opposed to each other as there are various bribes and negotiations as well as legal issues between the two.

Step 3: As well as position the relative size of Boundary Partners, we also determine their ‘distance’ from the problem. For the example of an agency working with small development NGOs trying to support more innovation might visualise the Australian government (International development department) as a large player, but quite far from the central issue. Local development practitioners would be visualised as much smaller (fewer resources to influence the problem) but closer to the central theme. Similarly vulnerable families are very close to the child trafficking problem but with less ability to influence it directly whereas the state and national governments are a little further but quite significant in terms of their ability to influence the problem.

Step 4: Finally the position of Boundary Partners relative to each other is significant. In the child trafficking example if middle men are placed at 12 o’clock, the anti slavery NGO would be at 6 O’clock, vulnerable families might be at say 7.30 (basically against trafficking but paradoxically needing it as it is a source of income). The police might be at about 9.00 (against trafficking but also in complex ways supporting it as it is a source of bribes for them).

Now you have a conceptual map: Central theme and various groups and organizations placed around it represented by circles of varying size, distance and position around the theme and positioned carefully relative to each other. The task now is to draw lines between boundary partners and the central theme and write the nature of that relationship (e.g. the Antislavery NGO might be morally and operationally opposed to trafficking, the police might be legally opposed to trafficking, but practically involved in some ways.) This step takes a bit of time but the process of discussing will deepen understanding of the issue. The next step is to draw lines of relationship between various boundary partners and write the nature of the relationships (e.g. bribery and legal obligations between police and middle men, legal obligations and asymmetric power between police and vulnerable families.) This whole process should create a rich basis for discussion about Boundary Partners.

Time for a game!

We all go outside and the team has to figure out how to move a bucket of “radio-active poison” (bucket of water) without getting within 2 metres or spilling a single drop. The solution requires many team members pulling ropes in opposite directions, like spokes on a cycle wheel. Of course the game is not essential but it energises and illustrates a difficult problems being shifted only by pulling simultaneously from many directions. So to change child trafficking you have to work with middle men and marginalised families and middle men and government and international NGOs and may also have to look for new boundary partners to fill ‘directions from where there is no pull”. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faith based organisations are conceptually in a very different place to government and there is the opportunity for interesting relationships with middle men, vulnerable families NGOs etc. Deciding to have Imams and pujaris and pastors added to the team’s options to contribute to change. Games are cool, maybe even essential.

The point is to choose partners from all around the issue and to choose ones that are close enough to the problem and also bigger ones that are further but might have the muscle to provide traction. There is no right answer as to which boundary partners to select, but this method uncovers surprises and provides a rich substrate for discussion. Visualising might also show that possible locus of action for the team is on the relationship of boundary partners to their issue but also moving the relative position of partners (e.g. closer, more philosophically opposed to trafficking) and working on the relationships between boundary partners is important (e.g. faith based organisations meet and bless middle men who change their practise). At minimum the team will understand their own issue much better.

Overall I have found this visual and practical way of creating dialogue to be fun, great for creating understanding and energising for me as well as for the team. I think you have to be confident of the principles, good at facilitating games and good at facilitating discussion and drawing out the lessons. Also you have to be relaxed about time. It will take (in my experience )at least three hours and could be longer.

If you use this I would love your feedback on success, problems, reflections from teams on how it was.

Related Practitioner Guide sections:

Latin America & Carribean Sub-Saharan Africa North Africa & Middle East South Asia South East Asia & Pacific Far-East Asia Eastern Europe & CIS (ex USSR) Western Europe North America & Canada Australasia