Wise people and Wise communities make conscious choices, rather than letting circumstances make the choices for them. As people, we all allow some decisions to get made by default — last week I could not decide whether it was worth my time to attend an event, and I was frankly relieved when I discovered that the deadline to register had passed. Circumstances made the decision for me. For little things with marginal benefits, the occasional decision-that-I-don’t-have-to-make-because-life-made-it-for-me can be a welcome break from the constant load of responsibility.
But what happens when we do this with regard to an important decision? What happens to most people who drift through their careers or their relationships without making conscious choices about where to invest their time, or which responsibilities to put first? Most of us know, at least intellectually, that there are important points in our lives where we have to make a conscious choice, and where if we don’t make a conscious choice, chances are we will regret it later.
But in our communities, our organizations and our political bodies, we allow circumstances to make decisions for us more often than any of us want to admit. We don’t come to agreement over whether a proposed development is a good idea (probably because we don’t have a shared vision of what our community should look like), and we secretly hope that the developer will give up, because then it will be Not My Fault. Or we know that our community is facing some big issues down the road – aging populations, aging buildings, aging roads – and we know in our guts that if we don’t do something, we will be in deep trouble sooner or later. But the tradeoffs are unpleasant, we don’t automatically agree on what we need to do, we have to find the money to do whatever needs to be done. Too many times, we let it go… until Next Year, the Next Budget, the Next Administration. Which easily turns into the Next and the Next and the Next. That’s a short-term benefit to us because it makes today easier, and it keeps us from having to change the way we do things today, and who knows, maybe some sugar daddy will come along while we are procrastinating and solve it all for us. But probably not.
In failing to act, we have abdicated the opportunity to take control of our future – to do what is in our power to position ourselves for future success. We have also lost the opportunity to define for ourselves how our community should be, rather than letting the winds of fate blow us into something we didn’t want. A few communities take this initiative, but too many communities drift through their big decisions – at least until drifting, not thinking ahead and not anticipating unintended consequences puts the community into crisis.
Here is the deep challenge in this: we cannot assume that we can just snap our fingers and transform our communities from drifters into Destiny Commanders. As I say ad nauseum¸ if it were easy, you would have done it already.
In my writings here, I often speak of communities as though they were one person, and as though a “community” had one completely shared set of goals and objectives. We all know that’s not really the case. Because communities are complex, and in most cases more complex today than ever, our ability to develop a community-wide shared vision of the future and a shared understanding of the community’s needs and priorities has far outstripped our intuitive or common sense ability to do that. When we had much smaller and simpler communities – and when we only cared what a tiny fraction of the community’s residents thought – it was a relatively easy proposition to make democratic, or at least supposedly democratic, decisions. That’s why we have public deliberation processes based on the idea of the classical debate – if everyone shares the same fundamental perspective, then you have a shared base of understanding and mutual respect that enables rational debate and evaluation of potential alternatives. If you are all fundamentally the same, then you have a shared language in place to work from.
You don’t have to watch CNN, or your local cable broadcast of a public hearing, for very long to see that this isn’t the case anymore. People who come to the podium, or write the letters, or protest on the street, come from more fundamentally different backgrounds, perspectives, and priorities than we have ever had before. Obviously that’s essential and necessary – a government that only listens to a quarter or less of its residents is no democracy at all.
But regardless of your spot on the political spectrum, it’s clear that this process isn’t working well, either at many local levels or higher up the chain. And this dysfunctional process leaves us drifting… it robs us of the capacity we need to make the important decisions, and it does so at a time when the decisions are probably as critical as they have been in generations.
The aggravating piece is that there is most definitely a way to fix this. Larger businesses with diverse workforces and complex product issues figured out more than 20 years ago that they could not simply rely on common sense, seat-of-the-pants assumptions and whatever social skills people learned in elementary school to enable them to do the increasingly complex work that the companies needed. If you are in a cutting-edge car factory or a leading pharmaceutical firm today, managers and staff receive training in specific, step-by-step methods for enabling constructive conversations, managing teams of diverse people, setting priorities and making group decisions. Debates happen, disagreements occur, some people do better than others, but the overall process is designed to make it possible to make complex decisions involving a large number of people and move the company’s objectives forward. And it’s not rocket science — an hour grazing on www.hbr.com will give you a good taste of how this generally works.
But how ridiculously little of this knowledge has found its way into our government and community decision-making processes? It’s no wonder that so many communities are drifting…. We are using 19th century tools to deal with a 21st century world, hanging onto our ball-peen hammer when the nail gun is sitting in an open box across the room. With the complexity and increasing urgency of the big challenges facing our communities today, we have to start using the tools that will work and make the conscious decisions that will help us build our communities’ futures.