I want to return to a topic I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, and which keeps coming up in my travels across the country: the trap of becoming mechanistic in our public work. Last week, I was in Pittsburgh to talk with state directors and senior staff of the national organization Communities in Schools; this is an incredibly dedicated group of people working to make sure that all kids are prepared for their futures. For the last two days I have been in Portland.
CIS, like so many groups, is wrestling with how to scale up their ideas (thought not necessarily their organization) in order to expand and deepen their positive impact in the lives of children. And the pursuit of their dreams requires them to make a host of very difficult decisions and trade-offs.
In the past two weeks I have found myself talking about the need for those of us working in public life to understand just how mechanistic we have become in our efforts. Part of this dilemma is that the more we undertake, for instance, “strategic planning” exercises, the more removed we become from our work. We can get lost in going through the motions to produce the plan. Oftentimes we must embrace a new language of planning. We end up talking more about our plan than we do about the very essence of our work. This is never the intent of such planning, just the unintended consequence at times.
Indeed, at the end of such planning, we can feel comforted by our lists and charts and Power Point presentations; yet somehow we can miss the forest for the trees. We can miss truly figuring out the small number of actual levers that are necessary to bring about change; instead we target various activities, but just how strategic they are remains an open question. We can pretend to see our future targets for our work, but never really articulate any kind of rigorous notion of change. We can fail to hold a clear sense of the kinds of catalysts that are necessary to get change going and then to sustain it over time; instead, we have a collection of things we “DO.”.
What’s more, when it comes to taking action, our instincts can be to gather up “best practices,” “replicable” approaches, and various kinds of easy “plug and play” programs that can be used. On its own, there is nothing inherently wrong with such efforts; we need to determine how best to diffuse our work and produce positive results.
But what can happen along the way, often without us even taking notice, is that these initiatives come to exist outside the context of particular communities in which we live and/or do our work: We fail to understand the stage of a community’s development, its readiness for action, and its capacity to support action. We do not always understand how people in a community define their concerns, as opposed to how we or various experts define them. We do not adequately take into account a community’s norms and culture and how they shape the community, the narrative it tells about itself, the meaning and implications and possibilities for change, and the time frame in which that chance is to occur.
I wish to repeat here what I have been saying across the country: I believe we have become too “mechanistic” in our civic work – forging strategies and actions that may sound good, but may not make the difference we seek; instead, I believe we must move in two seemingly opposite directions at once.
- First, we must become more ruthlessly strategic. We must develop the sensibilities and practices that lead us to consider the types of points I mentioned in the paragraphs above. Otherwise we become activity happy and action deprived.
- Second, while we are being ruthlessly strategic, we must also work to engender authentic hope in ourselves, in our communities, and in our larger society. Without hope, people will not step forward or engage or even believe that change is possible. I cover this topic in-depth in my new book, Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back, which I urge you to take a look at. I believe we risk spending a great deal of time dreaming up new programs, or replicating old ones, without paying adequate attention to what it means and takes to generate authentic hope through the work we do – and to spread such hope.
For me, the challenge of becoming more ruthlessly strategic and engendering more authentic hope sits at the center of making progress on our collective concerns and dreams and to ignite a sense of possibility that progress is possible.