Archive for “March, 2012”

Simple Operating Instructions

When I was a child, my mother said to me, “Alan, life is about learning and growing. That’s what life is about. You can never stop learning and growing.”

Of course, back then, they were just words. I was little.

When I was 17, she said to me, “Alan, my parenting work is done. You see, your mind is like a garden. I’ve done what I could as far as planting the seeds of my values there, but so has television and mainstream culture. But now it is your garden. You get to choose what to keep and what to weed out. You get to choose what you harvest and whether you make a soup or a salad. But my work is done.”

My question is, “is wisdom something that can be passed on?”

It seems my mom had a lot of it, but it’s not wisdom if I believe it blindly. Something like life is about learning and growing is just words, until I make the truth of it mine. Until I live it.

One thing about the phrase “life is about learning and growing” is that everything flows from there. If life is about something more than learning and growing, we’d certainly find out through our continued learning and growing.

Very simple operating instructions.

What are you passing on? Can it pass the test of time? When do you let go and allow it to be the other person’s entirely?

When you hit bottom

What happens when you see yourself at the bottom of your game?

I don’t care if you’re at the top or the bottom.

You still have two directions to choose from.

And I don’t care how many times you fall off the horse.

All I care about is that you keep getting on the horse.

Perseverance is key.

A real life scenario, part 1

In yesterday’s post I suggested volunteering locally or running for local office.

Here’s a story from a time I did that, in which my high level of communication skills made a difference.

The scenario

I was appointed by our county government to serve on a committee creating a 20-year plan for the area in which I live. The other people on the committee represented a spectrum of values, viewpoints and perspectives.

We had had one meeting in which we established our internal “rules of business” which stated that we would arrive at decisions by consensus, with majority voting as a last resort backup.

However, we were not given a facilitator, and the Chair of the committee, who was in charge of facilitating, did not have any background or skills in group process. We did have a liaison from the county planning office who knew the existing code like the back of his hand, but who also was not a group-process person.

Besides revising and deciding what to incorporate from the previous plan – not a simple task in itself – the scope of work included all land-use policy, all infrastructure including roads and utilities, community and capital facilities (fire stations, community centers, libraries, etc.), as well as economics and jobs.

We were told that we would meet once per month, for two or three hours at a time, for five months (i.e. five meetings total) to complete our work. Everyone led busy lives, so there was little to no time to work on the plan outside of our meetings.

Various factors — the scope and complexity of the work, the 20-year planning horizon, the mix of perspectives and values in the group, the lack of a facilitator, and the fact that we had five meetings in which to accomplish this seemingly vast and complex task — left me feeling discouraged about a quality outcome.

During our second meeting, already with a full agenda, I decided to speak up.

What I said

I raised my hand out of order, and when called on, I said:

“When I notice the scope of the task we’re being asked to complete and the limited time we’re given in which to accomplish it, I feel discouraged with regard to achieving a quality outcome. I propose that we ask our county planning liaison to approach the County Council and request a year-long extension to accomplish our committee’s work. What I’d like right now is to see a show of hands of anyone on the committee who has a concern or objection about my proposal.”

What I did not say

I did not say:

– this is ridiculous (I had that judgment but was clear that it wouldn’t serve to share it)

– we’re set up for failure from the beginning (I did think this)

– who made the decision for us to do this in five meetings? They need their head checked!

– I did not complain, judge anyone, or make anybody wrong.

Breaking down what I said

Notice that what I said had four components: an observation, a feeling, a need (or value), and a request.

Observation: “When I notice the scope of the task we’re being asked to complete and the limited time we’re given in which to accomplish it” (just the facts);

Feeling: “I feel discouraged” (this helped people connect to where I was coming from emotionally, and was a way of making myself vulnerable in a positive way by being authentic);

Need/Value: “a quality outcome” (something to which people could relate);

Then I made a proposal and followed it up with a request. This is a key distinction, because in many meetings people throw out a proposal, and wait to see others’ reactions. But a request is actionable in this moment. So we have to follow up our proposals with something that the group can do right now.

Request: “What I’d like right now is to see a show of hands of anyone on the committee who has a concern or objection about my proposal.” It’s not enough to know what information we’re wanting. It helps everyone if we know how we’re wanting it as well (in this case via a show of hands).

Key points about my request

I did not leave it open to discussion right away. I asked for a show of hands so that I could get a quick read on the group.

And I did not ask to know who supported my proposal, and this is a key point. I asked to see concerns and objections, because that would tell me who to address.

What happened

After I spoke four people raised their hands. There was some discussion along with clarifying questions. We did not easily reach consensus, the decision went to a vote, the committee voted in favor of my proposal, and County Council granted us a generous time extension. Suffice it to say that in the ensuing months our committee was thorough enough to come out with a product of much higher quality than if we had just accepted the conditions that had been given to us.

I knew that in our committee’s work I wouldn’t be able to effectively advocate for everything I really wanted, so I went in with three priorities: (1) all local communities linked via bike lanes or bike trails, both for recreation as well as alternative transportation, (2) the creation of a local park as a focal point for community-building (something my rural community currently lacks entirely), and (3) an emphasis on local community economic development. At the end, out of 57 action items, the three priorities I came in with were in the top 10.

(As of this writing the document is still making its way through the regulatory maze. But once it makes it through it will still be a better document than if we had simply acted like we had no choice with regard to the timeframe we were given. This ability to not simply take as given what we are told is a key mindset. Bureaucracies don’t make decisions. People make decisions.)

Something to consider

Please consider volunteering in your local community or running for local office.

I’ve got some great stories from when I chaired the sustainability committee for the local Economic Development Association and when I served on the citizens’ advisory committee for the update of the 20-year plan for our area