Why community involvement requires a structured approach, even when we’re seeking new ideas

One of my ongoing frustrations within the public engagement practice of the Wise Economy Workshop is the assumption in some corners that good public engagement means letting people recommend or promote any idea they want.  Free from the bounds of real-world constraints, we let them spin their wildest ideas….and then, when they find out that the recommendations didn’t include their ideas, they accuse us of “not listening,” while we roll our eyes and mutter about how “unrealistic” the public is.

In my presentations, I often refer to this as the Santa Claus approach (“I’ve been a good girl this year.  I want a pony….and a rocket launcher… and a Ferrari…”)  A current client of mine has taken to calling an event with this kind of participation the Rainbows and Unicorns Summit.

Like most things that don’t work as we intended, the root of the problem is in how we structured the engagemetn, because that’s what set the stage for what we did.   Teachers and business coaches know that generating effective creative ideas requires working within a structure.  People need a realistic context, real-world sides on the box, if they are going to create something that is both new and useful.

If you don’t believe me, try this exercise at your next staff meeting or coffee klaatch:

Step #1: Ask people to list a number of ways in which they can use a brick. They can use

a brick
What can _you_ do with this?

it anywhere, anytime –there are no restrictions. Give them about a minute. Typical answers will involve using it as a paperweight, a door stop, or a weapon.

Step #2:Identify a specific place or context (e.g.,  in the kitchen, in a park, your kid’s room) and ask the same people to list all of the ways they could use a brick in that place. For example, if “a kitchen” is the context, people may find uses like heating it up to make paninis, flattening a lump of dough, or using it as a trivet.

Step #3: Ask the group which approach – #1 (unbounded) or #2 (connecting to something ) – yielded more creative solutions.

As Stephen Shapiro, the source of this exercise wrote, “Nearly 90% of audiences choose the second way.   In fact, when we take the time to evaluate the uses, there is indeed much greater divergence when using the second method. The first approach tends to yield a lot of common solutions.”

So we generate more creative ideas, and more directly useable ideas, when we ask people to think about solutions within a realistic content than when we just throw the doors open for ideas.   That means that if we want to honor and respect the time that our residents and business operators and others are giving us when we ask them to participate, we need to stop putting them in situations where all they can come up with are Santa Claus lists.  We own them, and ourselves, a better way than that.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *