Ground Rules Deep Dive #9: Do Your Homework and Know the Problem
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.
A public meeting is called to discuss a proposed community park. The organizers put a lot of work into the project already: they studied the site’s possibilities, ordinances, and regulations that they must work around, the mandate connected to the money that funds the project, the water supply that will be needed, the neighborhood demographics, and so on. They need community input to make it work for all.
The invitation to the meeting must include a brief overview of the project and what the goal is. Is the meeting’s purpose to invite ideas, or is it to inform? The invitation should include the link to more critical technical details of the project and should be included for those seeking more understanding. Some people will read this, but most will not.
That is why the organizers need to prepare a presentation that helps the participants understand the project: its goals, funding, timeline, key players, etc. This presentation must be succinct enough that people are not overwhelmed with information, but it must cover all the elements that will help people become productive with their input. At Pomegranate, we recommend a presentation last no longer than 15 minutes, with five minutes for Q&A so people may ask for clarification or more information. The goal here is that the presentation doesn’t waste time, leaving plenty for the participants to share their ideas.
The challenge is that the presentation should be informative and inspirational—it should explain the reasons why the project matters and why it is essential. It is like making a poem, reducing lots of information into a well-crafted summary. It needs to be succinct, so people do not lose focus, and the presenters need to be prepared to answer any additional questions people may have about the details. If the presentation is too long and too technical, a significant percentage of invited people will lose interest. To craft just the right presentation is an art. Homework is required.
Every community struggles with how to include diverse people, those who are traditionally less likely to participate. If meetings are too technical and lengthy, those less accustomed to public meetings will feel lost and less likely to engage in the future. Every community also has individuals with discretionary time and energy who are willing to spend many meetings to pursue their agenda. They will outlast others with less available time. If we are committed to engage all sectors of the community, community processes should only last a few meetings.
For this to work, we replace the length and number of meetings with their quality. They must be run well. And for that, preparation is needed. The goal is to provide precise information for people to become creative with the question about their ideas for the project. It is crucial that all the details are clarified:
- The funding and its restrictions
- Project timeline to show what preceded and what will follow
- The key players and their roles
- Project criteria: what is possible and not possible
- How the input will be used and integrated
- What will happen next
- The questions the participants will be asked to answer
If this context setting is not done right, people will not be able to offer their best ideas because their brain cells will continue to be occupied with the basics.
Presenting project background with clarity will send a signal that the organizers mean business and that people’s ideas matter. Meeting attendees will notice such integrity and respond in kind, rewarding the meeting by offering constructive, realistic, and future-oriented ideas.
Read the eighth installment in the series, “Listen Willingly to New Information and Allow it to Change Your Mind” here.