( Summer ’18) Carrie Watkins, G

The Wrap Up: Integrating Personal Theory of Practice

September 27, 2018

I began the summer – and my first blog post – eager to dive into the question of how intellectual structure and intuition play off one another. I had the privilege of getting to explore this through a project setting two organizations as foils for one another. Through this exercise, I hoped to reach equilibrium in my own struggle to balance intellect and intuition, and I sought to uncover recommendations for these two organizations looking to learn from this process of reflection.

While I can’t say I ultimately solved any existential queries, I did find a reflective concept that helped me reframe the tension and bridge the gap. Incredibly, I unknowingly alluded to this concept in my first blog post. Take a peek back and check out the phrase “theory of practice.” I brought it up rather disparagingly, citing it as one of the sources of my confusion, as something I mistakenly understood as attempting to supercede the indescribable intuition by challenging us to articulate it.

Halfway through the summer, I had a call with Professor Larry Susskind. When I described my grapplings with this tension, he immediately suggested I take a deeper dive into the theory of practice concept. He recommended I read the The Reflective Practitioner by former DUSP Professor Donald Schon. I got my hands on the book and set to work.

The book points out that process and grounding in professional expertise do not and cannot account for the more subjective and in-the-moment knowing that every practitioner uses in action. In other words, WesselinkVanZijst’s Strategic Stakeholder Management approach, however comprehensive, cannot provide answers for every situation that arises or take into account the essential style each practitioner brings to her own work. Another way of saying this is that just following the approach does not ensure success. It takes a certain person with certain skills to wield it effectively.

Everyone at WesselinkVanZijst readily recognized this, but while the organization put a lot of thoughtful intention into reflecting on and improving their organizational methods and values over the last 15 years, they only recently began adding the importance of personal leadership into their methodology.

On the other side, DAG, in recognizing the key function of each practitioner’s instinct and agility, put more of an implicit emphasis on personal theories of practice. However, they too did not have many forums for reflecting, articulating or sharing them. One of DAG’s hopes in bringing me over for the summer had been to draw inspiration from WesselinkVanZijst to develop their own operational theories. I did draft a basic theory of practice for DAG – a set of 6 concentric circles representing the iterative process – but that too still only represented a few of the cogs that make DAG tick.

While I had expected to uncover a handful of recommendations for each organization from the process of contrasting them, I ultimately found many of their practices necessarily divergent, reflections of effective work in their differing operational contexts. Additionally, after playing with the concept of theory of practice, I decided to reframe my quest. Instead of attempting to mitigate the tension between intuition and structure, I found that the idea of every practitioner wielding a theory of practice bridged the gap by providing recognition and form to it. Challenging a practitioner to articulate a theory of practice is not a challenge to the concept of intuition but a recognition of it. Realizing this allowed me to reframe the tension as one between espoused theory – what an organization says it does – and theory-in-action – what actually happens, and to see the practitioners’ actions and what motivated those actions as the missing link.

In my final presentation, I laid out my findings and recommended that both organizations create spaces for every individual to reflect upon their own personal theories of practice and to integrate those personal theories with the theories and methods of their organizations. This could take shape as a workshop, facilitated by a couple representatives from the other organization. Involving each other in this way would encourage continued collaboration and provide accountability to keep this project afloat despite the myriad other pressing priorities.

Fleur Ravensbergen, the Assistant Director at DAG, and Marc Wesselink, the Director of WesselinkVanZijst, responded to this proposal with enthusiasm, a testament to the value both organizations place on reflective learning and continued growth. I am excited to stay involved in some capacity and to see how this project continues forward.


Interlude: Check out my other blog!

I have also been writing for the MISTI IdentityX blog. Check out my posts:

What Does This Say About Me?

In and Out of Context: The Freedom of Fitting into Boxes


Relax: Nothing is Under Control

July 31, 2018

I first encountered this phrase on a silent meditation retreat. When the leader shared it in one of his daily teachings, the room erupted in laughter. Flipping through some prints at a flea market in Berlin a few weeks back, I saw it again, this time in German. It was written over a drawing of a meditating sloth, a speech bubble “ohm” escaping from his closed-eyed smile. It busted me up once more. It was a laughter of encountering a surprising truth, something at once so obvious and so counter-intuitive. Nothing is under control, so you might as well relax.

This summer’s work has been a kind of practice in this mindfulness. As is the case with all new beginnings, I couldn’t have known what I was getting into. My project this summer was to learn about these two organizations and figure out what they could learn from each other. What would the form and substance of my learning and analysis look like? Would I find concrete takeaways and recommendations to share, or would I come to see little of value the two organizations could glean from one another? Would I be able to present the findings in a meaningful and relevant way? What would that look like?

Each day revealed small clues to guide me towards answers to those questions. I have been observing meetings, conducting formal and informal interviews, reviewing relevant literature, Skyping with mentors to ask their advice, and taking in the general vibes of spending time in the offices and with the people. Some days have felt hectic and busy, and some days have been space left by cancelled meetings and pending email responses. Slowly, I have been piecing together the stories of these organizations. Only in the past couple weeks have I begun to identify a concrete way I can meaningfully contribute.

It would have been all too easy to have this process be a stressful one. Structure has only existed when I set it, and the goal until very recently was amorphous and abstract. I continue to move forward in my research, but I have no way of knowing exactly where I’m headed. I have to continuously trust that the tides are bringing me somewhere good, and that I have the skills to navigate them and make the best of wherever I end up. Nothing is under control, so I might as well stay calm.


The Structure of Intuition : Introduction to a Summer Project in Holland

June 29, 2018

I have been in the Netherlands for a couple weeks now, living with a friend in The Hague and splitting my time working between Amsterdam, an hour by train to the north, and a smaller town equidistantly east. My newest non-optional hobby, commuting by train, has been the perfect opportunity to catch up on novels. I sometimes stop on my bike ride to the station for a snack at the wooden herring stands by the canals, as it makes me feel very Dutch.

My real mission for the summer is a little less whimsical. I have been brought here to cross-pollinate between two mediation organizations in the Netherlands. The first, WesselinkVanZijst, uses consensus building and the mutual gains approach to solve complex public infrastructure disputes – think port expansions and new festival venues. The second, the Dialogue Advisory Group (DAG), facilitates political dialog to reduce violent conflict – think armed groups in Libya. The two organizations, recognizing both the similarities in their work and also the differences in both content and strategies, asked me to investigate how they can learn from each other.

According to the plan, I will map out existing theoretical frameworks and structures of each organization, draw parallels between the two organizations, and highlight differences. I will do this primarily through interviews, spending time with the ~14 people from each team. I will also be organizing and facilitating an afternoon of mutual learning and discussion between employees. I will wrap up the summer with a detailed report laying out my findings and setting in place mechanisms to facilitate further learning and organizational growth.

As my first week winds down, some broad brush strokes themes are beginning to emerge, which basically fall in line with the expectations I had upon arrival. WesselinkVanZijst proudly operates under a clear, concise, almost academic process it developed that it applies across its different projects. DAG, just as proudly, describes their work with heavy reliance on the words “intuition,” “instinct,” “trust,” and “relationship building.” They have little in the way of articulated methods.  Both organizations are highly successful and effective, and employees in both are very happy with their work.

As I sat on the train home last week, I realized that this paradigm of opposites between these two organizations in many ways manifests the tension that has been strongly present in my own intellectual and spiritual journey this year. I spent the year before arriving at MIT living in Jerusalem and in the mountains of Colorado, discovering meditation, music, and the pathways to my own heart. MIT, above whose stone pillars is carved mens et manus, mind and hand, has been a radical shift to operating instead within the intellectual and the utilitarian. In classes, I have been challenged to develop and articulate my “theory of practice,” my own combined set of ethics, purpose, and theory of change that I can use to actively navigate my life and career. I have been taught behavioral economics theories that  show how “going with your gut” can make humans racist, bad at investing, and often just plain wrong. I have learned to censor myself from too often using the phrase “I feel” in favor of a more substantial “I think.”

The process over the past year has been intellectually exhilarating, but I have been struggling to integrate it with the other more intuitive sides of myself and my life. It’s hard to win an intellectual argument in favor of intuition. There’s too strong a home court advantage. 

I am thus very excited to dive more fully into my work here, to learn more about these organizations and, hopefully, myself. How do intellect and intuition play off one another? When are they in conflict? In what contexts does structure provide necessary checks on bias and a common language for sharing experience, and when does it instead inhibit the wisdom of what makes us human? Are there objective truths about this to be uncovered, or will it come down to a subjective matter of preference? Analysing these two contrasting but highly adept organizations, what will I learn about this tension in professional practice, and in myself? Stay tuned as I find out!


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