October, 2010

The Ethics of Asking

Tonight I’m going to Guesthouse to ask a group of homeless men to talk to me about how the shelter system is working for them.  This is the kind of thing I do pretty frequently in my work.  Listening to consumers makes for better programs, systems, and results.  I like to think that the work I do begins and ends with real people but the fact of the matter is that agency directors, funders, government officials often hold more sway because they are more consistently present and control the resources.

More and more, doing focus groups like this bothers me.  And here’s why.  I feel like we often use the stories of poor people to advance our own agendas.  Tonight, I’ll be giving focus group participants $10 gift cards.  And for the gift cards, I want these men to give me their stories so I can create an analysis of the shelter system.  Because I’m well intentioned and reasonably skilled, I’ll represent their stories well.  I won’t twist or bend their truth or leave out the stories that don’t confirm my already pretty well-formed notions of how the shelter system could improve. 

But I probably will tell one man’s story over and over.  It’ll be the person whose personal narrative struck me particularly hard.  Or maybe the person I think that audiences will most readily relate to.  And in turn, people who hear the story will repeat it.  Maybe it’ll be like that telephone game kids play at camp.  What will end up being the final story told?  Will it get completely distorted in its reiteration?

The real ethical issue is that by asking people what needs to change, you lead them to believe you are in the position to make those changes.  If that’s not true, the focus group question is, “Just for curiosity’s sake (and because someone is paying me to do this), how could the homeless services system work better for you?”  In essence, I’m asking these men to trust me with their stories and then, later, asking the powers that be to trust that I am telling the stories accurately and drawing the right conclusions.

Anyway, this is starting to feel like exploitation.  So I thought that one way to make it better is to bring one of the ‘powers that be’ with me.  At least then, in addition to gathering data, there can be a Speak Truth to Power opportunity.  So that’s my plan.  I think it’s a better strategy but we’ll see.  I’ll report back later.

Survey Day!

Today was about as much fun as planning can get – neighborhood survey to gather data for the Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area Plan that we are developing for the City of Sheboygan’s southside neighborhood. Great fall day.  A bunch of volunteers – including the mayor of Sheboygan, the police chief, and a couple of alderpersons.  Terrific and great looking survey instrument (thanks to the Urban Institute and Tessera Design).  Here – take a look:  SheboyganSurvey2010    Serious donuts – and I mean, high time donuts with icing, sprinkles and no apologies.  Volunteers hitting the pavement for 3 hours and coming back with data and STORIES.

  • About the house with no foundation being held up by who knows what kind of wood framing;
  • About the lady who answered the door in her nightgown smoking a cigarette whose husband just died but yes, she’d participate in the survey anyway;
  • About the man roasting hot peppers over a grill so he could make salsa later;
  • About the woman who invited the surveyors to come back for lunch;
  • About the neighbors on one side of the street complaining bitterly about neighborhood teens; and those on the other side thinking they were no problem at all;
  • About people being pretty unhappy with a lot of things in their lives but liking where they were living and intending to stay.

Best of all was the surveyors sitting around afterward yakking about what they’d heard from residents.  Swapping stories, comparing their findings.  It was easy to see they’d had fun.  They liked getting the straight scoop from people.  It got me jazzed for the next step – getting the data analyzed and ready for the Stakeholder Group to digest and use to develop the NRSA plan.  Real data – fresh from the street.  Damn.  What could possibly be better to launch a planning process.  Heaven.

Plus SHEBOYGAN BRATS.  We asked for the best place for brats and we were sent to Brachman’s and, oh my goodness, they were incredible. 

Good day, great people, terrific data.  And insanely good brats.   Not so bad for a Saturday in October.

Bring It

I wish I had a printer in my car. And maybe a voice activated word processing system that allowed me to create documents while I was driving.  Sometimes, because I’m pressed for time and sometimes just to dare myself — I’ll wait for the drive to a meeting to figure out what I’m going to do once there.  This dare double dare game creates a certain level of fear and adrenaline that kind of rivets my attention on the topic at hand….maybe the way planning way ahead doesn’t. 

This is a confession and a risky one at that.  After all, who wants to hire a strategic planning consultant who is ginning it up in the car on the way to the strategic planning session?  My husband dubbed this practice “Just In Time Consulting.”  You know how good manufacturers will control their inventory and have supplies ready ‘just in time’ to create products on demand?  A lot of inventory laying around is bad for business. So smart manufacturing is lean.  Very lean.  Me, too.  At least with regard to business. 🙂

My translation of that is that over-planning and over-analyzing makes you weak, nervous and cautious.  I don’t want to script a group’s every move.  I think a set of key, core-hitting questions will generate greatness in a group of smart, committed people.  My job is to focus and ask, ratchet it up, focus and ask, ratchet again, and then let people see what they’ve created.  Midwife!  That’s the term.

This is what’s in the midwife’s trunk.  Paper, markers, my trusty painter’s tape, my sticky wall and post-its. And oh, a couple of signs about the 10-Year Plan just in case.  And in the driver’s seat?  Just me.

Look Smart Be Smart

Making written things beautiful makes them more useful.  Why? Because practically everyone is drawn toward beauty – a lovely person, a glorious sunset, a brilliantly colored butterfly. Making a written product beautiful is fundamentally welcoming because it sends the message that I, as the writer, value your opinion of what I’ve done so much that I want to make it as accessible, inviting, and understandable as possible.

I’ve always been fond of good graphics and have tried to make all my products look clean and sharp.  But it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve understood the utility of using graphic design to facilitate understanding and decision-making.  Why?  Tyra Baumler’s company, Tessera Design.

Time after time, Tyra’s work has been transformative for a written product that I’ve developed.  It’s not just about making it pretty – although Tyra’s work often makes things pretty– it’s about making important information approachable.  There’s no better example that the overnight turnaround on this logic model for Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division’s sweeping effort to integrate substance abuse and mental health services at all levels into a Comprehensive, Continuous, Integrated System of Care.  I wrote about this process in an earlier post entitled, “Hello.  Can I Come In.”

Take a look at how Tyra turned a hum-drum, standard issue, 5-column logic model into an electric and inspiring depiction of the launch of this important integrated services effort.  CCISCModel 9-29

Here’s how it helped people understand and invest in this process:

  • It made people proud to be associated with the effort — this included staff and Steering Committee members.
  • It sent the message to Steering Committee members that the County was serious about the system transformation.
  • It facilitated discussion of key elements of the project – long term goals, long term outcomes, and what needs to get done this year.
  • It put the project’s explanation (including the CCISC principles on the backside) on one page that could be used to recruit new stakeholders, educate policymakers, and inform consumers.
  • It made the process look real and promising and possible.

It’s not just about graphic design skills — although Tyra’s are truly exceptional.  It’s also about having a keen interest and a deep commitment to using art to invite and explain.  Tyra’s work has that intangible quality, that ability to bridge what sometimes are impossible chasms between people and what they want to achieve.