Planning vs. Doing?

July 11, 2012 Leave a comment

It often emerges as a core tension in our complex multi-stakeholder change work.  It’s embodied in comments such as, “Let’s stop all this talking and start doing something!”  Or, “I’m not a big process person, I just want to get to action.”

In the New England Regional Food Summit two weeks ago, speaker Rich Pirog raised the importance of trying to find, in an ongoing fashion, a balance between process and action.  This he has learned from doing many years of building regional food networks in the Midwest. It is certainly the case that we can over-talk, over-think and over-process together, driving one another crazy and/or from the room.  And we can also jump blindly, prematurely, and harmfully to action.

So how do we strike an artful balance and keep differently oriented people in the game?  A few thoughts:

  • Avoid being purely analytical, linear and convergent in your approach.  Traditional problem-solving is often oriented towards finding the single best solution and then implementing it.  In a complex world, there is not necessarily one best answer.  Therefore, if we spend all of our time planning and searching for the silver bullet, we may waste our energies.  The invitation is to be more iterative (design, test, reflect, tweak) and engage in prototyping and experimentation.
  • Differentiate between where you need to collaborate and where you need to cooperate.  Multi-stakeholder change work does mean always needing to move in lock-step on everything.  For some things it may make sense to slow down and bring people to consensus (around a collective vision, shared values, the underlying problem/s).  For other things, it may make more sense for people to engage in “parallel play,” trying out different options that may align with their specific skills, interests and expertise.  For an interesting take on this, check out Harold Jarche’s post on cooperation and collaboration in social networks.
  • Check your assumptions about what d0es and what does not constitute “doing.”  We have found that trust and relationship-building are absolutely critical to long-term success and sustainability in collaborative change work.  Where some people just see talking, others see the building of social capital and glue.  Even better to be explicit about this!  As we like to say in Whole Measures, the course we offer with the Center for Whole Communities, “We are what we measure.”  What we pay attention to grows.  I’ve taken to doing an informal evaluation after certain network building meetings by asking participants: “How may people met someone they did not know before?”  “How many people learned something about the (food system/education system/public health system) that they did not know before?”  “How many people plan on following up with a contact made here outside of this meeting?”  “How many people are leaving this meeting with new ideas to try out?”

How about you?  How have you navigated the planning/doing yin-yang of social change?

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