I have been haunted by a question for the past four years. After my company worked on a visioning project in a community not far from Atlanta, a business leader turned to me and asked, “So what do we do now?”
If I do say so, the year-long visioning project had gone well. More than 800 citizens participated in 12 visioning sessions, collectively generating more than 4,000 ideas and images of what they would like their community to be. Working with a planning group drawn from those who participated in the visioning sessions, we boiled down those ideas into 14 strategic objectives, 27 specific recommendations and 173 action steps. It was the greatest act of citizen engagement and planning the community had ever undertaken, and its sponsors were delighted with the results, which were ambitious, affirming and specific.
So I was happy to go back afterward to talk with one of the sponsors, a business executive with wide community and political experience who had immersed herself in the project. “So what do we do now,” she asked me. “How do we implement these ideas?”
I fumbled for an answer, saying something about creating groups to take charge of the most promising ideas, but I had two thoughts in the back of my mind. The first was that I was in the visioning business, not the implementing business. Thankfully, I didn’t say that. My second thought was one of surprise: You mean even smart and experienced community leaders don’t know how to get things done? Thankfully, I didn’t say that either.
It hit me as I drove back to Atlanta that I needed – and she needed – a theory of community change, one simple enough to fit on a sheet of paper but which fully describes the way complicated and diverse communities make up their minds to do something different – and get it done.
In the years since, I’ve sketched and resketched multiple versions of that theory. I tried first expressing it as a formula, kind of like E=MC². Then I tried doing it as a step-by-step process. (I had been influenced by John Kotter’s eight-step process for corporate change.) Then I tried various ways of drawing flow charts. The problem, I quickly realized, wasn’t in how I represented the process; the problem was that it was hard to capture all the elements of community change and still keep it simple enough to be useful.
At long last, though, I have a version of what I’m calling a “map of community change.” (Click below to see it.) It’s a simplified flow chart (no diamond-shaped boxes indicating decision points, no concurrency symbols). Its value, I hope, is that it will help leaders figure out where they are in their own change efforts and where they need to go next. Which, of course, is why I’m calling it a “map.”
In the next few postings, I’ll explain different parts of the map. For the time being, though, take a look at the three horizontal “phases” – discussion, planning and decision. Community leaders, I think, concentrate too much on the first and third phases (the blue and green areas) and not nearly enough on the gray area in the middle. And it was this area that the business leader was asking about: How do we use an engaged group of citizens to prepare challenging ideas for public acceptance and government action?
Again, I’ll talk about the phases in detail in the coming weeks, but let me offer three general thoughts about the map: First, the most successful mayors, chamber executives and community leaders I’ve ever known carried a map like this around in their heads. They knew how long it took to travel from realizing a need to making a decision (and even longer to implementing the decision), and they knew that most ideas didn’t survive that journey. But for those that did, this was the road they traveled.
Second, the area where ideas succeed or fail is usually in the gray zone, the planning phase. It’s here that advocates assemble the elements of success (which I call, simply, “the plan”) or they don’t. (Bear with me; I’ll explain the elements in future postings.)
Finally, there’s something very big that’s not represented on the map: luck. Communities are conservative places; they don’t accept change readily. Responsibility is diffuse, interests entrenched, and power hard to bring together. And, as Barney Frank, the U.S. representative from Massachusetts, once explained, opponents start with a great advantage over supporters: “It’s easier to get everybody together on ‘no,’ ” he said, “You all have to have the same reason for ‘yes.’ You don’t have to have the same reason for ‘no.’ ”
For that reason, every big idea that succeeds in a community requires some amount of luck: things happening at the right moments to confirm – to the public, elected leaders and bureaucrats – that this is the right decision. I can’t think of how to picture it, but as you look at this map imagine that, at various points, there’s an invisible force at work that helps advocates overcome obstacles. I could probably think up a fancier name, but for the moment let’s just call it “luck.”
This is the first of a series of postings about mapping community change.
Photo by Mark Deckers licensed under Creative Commons.