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Pucks and Partnerships: Learning Lessons from an Unexpected Place

By Joanne Lee on July 1st, 2015

When I reflect on what makes healthy community partnerships successful, sports analogies often spring to mind. Common comparisons reference sports like football and baseball, in which the efforts of a team rely upon key positions such as a quarterback or pitcher. While the appropriate model certainly depends upon the context of the game or community, these analogies don’t quite capture the process of collaboration and teamwork that is vital to successful community partnerships. While I am far from a sports aficionado, my first experience watching a National Hockey League game left an impression on me. I didn’t understand the details of the sport, but I was able to follow enough of the game to recognize and appreciate the seamless flow and well-choreographed plays of the winning team, as well as the parallels to healthy communities work.

Each player on a hockey team has an assigned position and contributes unique skills. When a hockey team has the puck, the offensive players take control and drive the action. When the puck changes sides, defensive players take the ice on the fly, even in the middle of a play. This enables each player to focus their efforts and contributions in ways that are deeper and more valuable to the collective team. Similarly, high-functioning partnerships are diverse, with each member contributing a valuable perspective to benefit the collaborative effort. A great example is the Healthy RC partnership in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, which authentically engages professional organizations, staff from the city and community residents and youth in making decisions and driving action to make their community healthy.

Well-executed plays also require respect and trust among players. When watching a hockey team move the puck from one end of the ice to the other in a beautifully executed play, I’ve always been impressed by how quickly players pass the puck back and forth and through defensemen, often without making eye contact with their teammates. There seems to be an assurance that your teammate is going to be where they need to be at the right time to receive the hand-off. This type of reliance and accountability among partners has helped the Live Healthy Baldwin partnership sustain healthy community change efforts through transferring ownership of successful strategies to partnership groups such as the Bicycling Club of Milledgeville and the Harrisburg neighborhood.

Finally, scoring and wins take advantage of timing and opportunity. As with every sport, having a solid game plan is a key to success. At the same time, players need to continually assess the action as it unfolds during the game, be nimble and adept in addressing unanticipated barriers, and pick up on new opportunities to advance to the goal. In the words of the great Wayne Gretzky, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” The Down East Partnership in Nash and Edgecombe counties, NC, had the Gretzky-esque foresight to add health as a priority in order to meet the needs of families and children in its communities and launched the Healthy Kids Collaborative.

A successful model of collaboration, like a winning hockey team, requires adaptable, multi-disciplinary partnerships; committed and trusting partners with a shared vision; and the flexibility to seize opportunity when it arises. However, unlike hockey, the real work to affect and sustain efforts in communities is more than a game, and it does not end. As I follow community partnerships that I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from in the past, I continue to be impressed and appreciative of their longstanding commitment, personal passion and selfless efforts.

Learn more about successful models of collaboration in Lessons for Leaders.

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.