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Post-election Reflection: How to do it Better Next Time

by Milenko Matanovic

I yearn for leaders who are collaborators.

In an election, I wait for one candidate to say to another, “That’s an interesting insight—I want to think about it.” Or “That is a different perspective—I never thought about that angle.” Or, “Maybe if we combine our ideas, we might do more good.”

Collaboration must become society’s norm. Why? Because we live in a complex world, yet we act as if someone’s individual expertise or ideology can provide all the answers. The present moment calls for “system leaders” who understand that we require each other’s insights to fully comprehend the needs of our society and its diverse peoples, as well as the entire planet we inhabit.

Instead, there has been a celebration of close-mindedness and endlessly repeated fixed ideas, without being examined and verified. Boasting, blaming, accusations, objections, and insults are the signature of the political process.

During every election I think that, surely, such conduct represents the last gasp of an outdated, dysfunctional system.

Once again, I am proven wrong.

Oddly, I’ve been dreaming lately of derailed trains and traffic accidents and fires in the corners of buildings. These dreams are similar to those I had as a young man in former Yugoslavia, a country where the demagogues were heroes and those with talent and insights and honesty were marginalized. It did not end well there.

I am angry with us collectively. I am angry that we do not demand better from our political leaders, and I am frustrated that we tolerate the vast gap between what we profess and what we do. I confess I have worrisome thoughts when people, in thinking about the future, see only to the ends of their personal agendas, lacking the courage to change. Stating what we do not want does not constitute a vision.

Deep down, democracy rests on the premise that we can collectively discover the optimal direction for our community, state, or country. Our job is to study different ideas and select the ones that will lead to success. This is both a privilege and responsibility. The privilege is that we get to participate and our insights and judgments matter. The responsibility is to do our homework, to determine for ourselves an image of the future (that must be much more than a list of complaints) and then empower the proposals that lead to it.

I know that this is possible.

Along with my colleagues I have convened hundreds of community meetings developing shared plans for the future of towns, neighborhoods, schools, organizations, and governments. I’ve worked with thousands of volunteers to build more than 50 gathering places, each one an opportunity to practice collaboration.

My conclusion is that together we are capable of extraordinary achievements as long as we agree to a common code of conduct. For example:

  • Turn listening into an active tool for discovery, rather than a passive period prior to speaking.
  • Reject the culture and tactics of blame.
  • Be positive; identifying everything that can go wrong does not encourage creativity.
  • Everyone participates and no one dominates.
  • Be tough on ideas while being gentle on people (instead of vilifying the person while leaving the idea itself largely unexamined).
  • Look for solutions with multiple uses. The best ideas solve more than one problem at a time.
  • Be willing to change our thinking in light of new information.
  • Confront internal contradictions and claim responsibility for our role in a problem, i.e. traffic jams: if you’re in one, you are part of the problem.
  • To simply object is not enough; propose something better instead.

Such ground rules are demanding, but they are necessary for success. When combined with encouraging thoughtfulness and creativity, these ground rules give community participants the experience of how collaboration works. To constructively enter the fray and generate new ideas requires trust in shared discovery. Here we find, amazingly, that together we know more. Together, we accomplish what no separate individual or group can.

My wish is that we all become better at practicing such societal creativity because collaboration will only take hold when we demand it. The good news is that every staff or board meeting, every council or town meeting, is an opportunity to practice collaboration. When it’s more alive in us we will expect it from others. Then, collaboration will become normal.