The FAN Approach took shape during a large-scale experiment with networks of Dutch livestock farmers. I was asked to contribute because I had developed a theory on living networks in my PhD thesis, which was based upon a study of Dutch agriculture in the post-war period.


Therefore I was delighted to be presented with fifty farmers' networks and asked how to make them "come alive". However it was not an easy task. We discovered that the facilitators (35 subject matter researchers from Wageningen University and Research) could not actually put into practise all that they had learnt in project management. Most of them simply followed their instincts.


I introduced peer consultations with the facilitators to find out what was actually going on. What worked and what didn't? They found it very difficult to recall their own contribution to things that went well in the network. They had worked intuitively and without reflection.  Thus their actions disappeared from their conscious memory, like dreams that could not be recalled in the morning.

The consultations were very helpful in retracing what they had actually been done to make a difference. Often they subconsciously knew the right thing to do. But on other occasions, they had worked from a limited repertoire of interventions and it was not helpful.


My colleagues and I worked out models which gave the facilitators a language to talk about what really mattered. Three and a half years and 120 networks later, we had a lot of of documented experiences to illustrate these tools.

We discovered that the role of one actor with the position and skills to do whatever necessary to make the network function well is crucial. This is what we called the ‘Free Actor’ and gave the name to the approach.


The experiment was a success and this approach to facilitating networks of innovative entrepreneurs became mainstream in the agricultural sector. I started providing courses on working with networks at Wageningen Business School and the Management for Development Foundation, and it has grown from there.