Ground Rules Deep Dive #6: Look for solutions with multiple uses
By Milenko Matanovic
Together we are capable of extraordinary achievements. Over the years, Pomegranate Center has proven this by encouraging people to uphold a code of conduct that leads to creativity and collaboration. This code of conduct, what we call “ground rules,” is essential to creating a positive atmosphere that focuses on how things can be improved, free from complaints. In this series of short essays, I will look at different ground rules, evaluate why they are important, and share stories from the field.
When Pomegranate Center runs community meetings, we encourage participants to link their ideas with those of others and develop a plan that meets many goals, or a multiple victories approach. It seems like a no-brainer, but it is surprisingly hard to achieve. The obstacle is that we do not come to these meetings to learn and discover, but to fight for single goals.
For example, an environmental group wants an outdoor classroom to teach about plants, their primary goal. To enrich upon this idea, we always suggest a community meeting where people can add their inspirations and explore ways for the project to meet additional needs. We gather neighbors, future users, representatives of nearby schools, businesses and libraries, environmental non-profits, elders, parents, youth, old-timers, and newcomers ti find what they have to add.
Often our partners push back: “This will take time. Besides, we may get ideas that are so outside of what is possible, and then we will have to say ‘no’ to their ideas, and then they will get angry.”
After conducting hundreds of meetings, we now give an unconditional assurance that projects, when done right, will be stronger and better and more beautiful because of engagement. It will result in stronger ownership and better design.
So what goes into doing it right? First, we need to explain why the project matters. Too often we skip over this part, assuming it is self-evident. But every project begins with a poetic intuition. It is valuable for all to hear about it.
Then we need to explain project criteria: who is funding, how much, when, what is possible and, to discourage ideas that can’t be implemented, also what is not possible. Then, and only then, we ask participants for their input. We make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute.
People care about many things, attuned to the different slices of life: mothers want safety, artists beauty, engineers safety, some concentrate on history, others on the environment, yet others on justice and equity.
Usually we hear anywhere between 35 and 70 ideas for how to wire into the project other qualities and goals. There are always surprises that reveal invaluable local knowledge: a neighbor tells us to orient the shelter away from the wind that usually arrives just when it would be needed the most. Another warns about water puddles that persist in one spot after rain. Another knows about the farmer who used to tend the land decades ago.
It is indeed a beautiful thing that all that caring and passion exists in our neighborhoods and communities. I’ve learned, though, that too much passion is counterproductive when the proponents promote an all or nothing scenario that makes multiple victories impossible.
I attended a meeting where the topic was an expansion of a public building. Some participants zeroed in on the loss of two mature trees that provided much pleasure to them and was frequented by many birds. It was a legitimate concern. However, they presented their objection as if the loss would be the end of the civilization. It became an all or nothing proposition. In zeroing in on two trees, these activists forgot that every month hundreds of trees die or are cut down and that the city is doing it’s best to replace each with two new ones.
At the same meeting, architectural purists complained about the proposed addition that used contemporary style and material, different from the historical form of the main building. They used this as an argument against the project, but, in their single focus, forgot to mention successful precedents where the combination of styles strengthened the project, for example, the glass pyramid outside the historic Louvre Palace.
In transpersonal psychology, “sub-personalities” are personas of the overall personality, which have a life of their own—beliefs, thoughts, feelings, intentions and agendas. One portion of us takes over the entire identity. For some reason, this form of possession plays itself out often at public meetings. Perhaps it is magnified by the modeling we see with some national leaders who are misleading us all by their inability to embrace anything outside of their thinking. Many more people now feel empowered to argue a single position while disregarding other, equally important ones. My colleagues who work for government tell me that it is getting worse.
Passion, when disconnected from other views, isolates and separates. Creativity thrives when we can connect the dots.
So what can be done to use our passions in ways that connect and lead to multiple victories? When discussing dangerous traffic, we should ask the participants to address the problem from different perspectives: that of a driver, transit rider, pedestrian, or bicyclist—to drive on others’ tires (ha-ha). Such an approach opens the ways to understand the interactive nature of traffic. It helps us know that the win for one modality at the exclusion of others is not the way to go. After all, the bicyclist in me might win, but the driver may get frustrated. Such an approach is not suitable for traffic or mental health, pushing the solution farther down the field.
Similarly, we can find multiple victories between new development and environmental concerns. Using the previously mentioned expansion, people come up with solutions: the new addition has a terrace with a greenhouse; we plant new trees on the adjacent land; collected rain from the new roof is channeled to the new trees; turn the fallen trees into furniture for the new addition. All such creative solutions are only possible when we start connecting the dots between different passions present at the meeting.
I would even argue that all creativity starts the moment we allow new insights into our awareness and when we appreciate another point of view. A lucky participant then realizes that, while competent in a slice of knowledge, they may be utterly ignorant about others. Then they can shift their focus from battling others to working with them. This is where collective creativity starts, and it leads to multiple victories where the project can meet several complementary goals.
Read the fifth installment in the series, “Reject the Practices and Tactics of Blame,” here.