Experience: A Bigger Picture
Years ago, I was facilitating a group with people from business, non-profits, city/county government, universities, and local citizens. They were at loggerheads about how and even whether to move ahead with a large housing development. For months, they discussed plans, criteria, and new technologies that could allow the project to move ahead. However, it still was not enough. At the point of impasse, the head of the environmental group called a meeting of the various leaders from each interested group. She explained that we needed, a “bigger view” to solve the problem or we were going to get nowhere.
At the time, I was working at the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The agency was a world leader in natural resource management and was at the cutting edge of how to deal with very complex challenges. In the 1990s, the agency published a way of seeing the big picture called “Integrated Ecosystem Management” or IEM for short. IEM helped to draw a new map that included ALL of the natural resource factors, including ecological, social/economic, and institutional/legal. The project group decided that using this larger view was worth a try.
In the coming weeks, the parties united in trying to name then satisfy conditions in all three spheres. What ended up happening was remarkable: the project began to satisfy each group, trust started to form, friendships were created, and leaders in the City and County got bragging rights. Because we saw a bigger picture, we found a way through the impasse.
Relevance: Boundary Conditions
Complex challenges are very messy at the ground level. They are often met with back and forth fighting, right-wrong thinking, blaming, and worse. Drawing the boundary around a challenge to “include” each need and perspective allows what looks messy and intractable to become more of a wellhead of possibility. In the science of complexity, they call this a “surface.” Surfaces create boundaries around the system you are bringing into the frame of reference. You can think of this like choosing the altitude you fly. 5,000 feet will look different than 50,000 feet! The altitude determines what you can see and even reference in the system you are working with.
Practice: Map Your Altitude
When starting a project or any complex challenge, try out these steps:
- LISTEN FIRST: Take time to really listen to the needs and priorities of ALL of the people at the table.
- MAP IT: Draw a new map of the system that takes into account ALL of these needs and priorities. This can be valuable for ALL the parties to do together with large pieces of paper and icons/pictures. Have a good time with this.
- UP or DOWN: Play with elevating the view of the system by moving it a step or two higher to include or take out various parts of the system. For instance, what would happen if you include exercise initiatives in a transport plan? What about all wellness aspects?
- SOLVE IT: Experiment with solutions that meet multiple needs using your new “map” and altitude. Don’t get stuck creating the perfect solution. Keep iterating and seeing how to solve the challenges from this new vantage point. Now you have a BIGGER PICTURE.