Tagged ‘community‘

Fix the Right Problem

When something terrible happens, we want to do something to prevent a recurrence.  A baby dies while sleeping with his mother and local officials and the public at large want to see a strategy presented that will keep such an awful thing from happening again.  The rate of HIV/AIDS increases among young gay African American men and a new program targeted at this group emerges.  This effort to jump in quickly to try to prevent another accident, another death, and more community sorrow is laudable but flawed.  Here’s why.

We can spend a lot of time and money trying to solve the wrong problem.  The diagnostic process is very abbreviated when a group of people want to see action right away.  “I don’t care what we do,” I’ve heard more than once.  We just need to have some action on this. Send the community a message that we’re going to do something about it.  No one wants another study group or task force, they’ll say.  Let’s just get moving!

My experience is that people hardly ever really know what needs to be done.  Faced with a disturbing community event or trend, say an 11-year old waving a gun around on a local playground or the smoking rate among young adults suddenly jumping several percentage points, the leadership, including the content experts, will assume that they know a) the origins of the problem; and b) how to fix it.  More over, they will have a sense of certainty that will push all alternative explanations and ideas into a very small corner. This is a mistake. In order to solve a problem, we need to understand its origins. 

For example, if we respond the the 11-year old with the gun by implementing yet another violence prevention curriculum, will that prevent other kids from bringing weapons to school?  No, it won’t, unless we spend the time figuring out why kids think it’s a good idea to bring a gun to school.  First of all, why is there a gun at home where the child can reach it?  Second, what was this child’s and most children’s thoughts when they bring guns to school?  Are they wanting to impress, joke around, scare somebody?  Are they being bullied?  (This is our very favorite explanation now.)  Are they the bullier?  Is the point of intervention the child?  Or is it the parent?  If we up the violence prevention curriculum and there is still a gun lying on the dresser at home, have we changed this child’s mindset?  I don’t know.

It is very possible to have wonderful programs with great outcomes that have little or no effect on a community problem.  It happens all the time.  It happens because program designers, funders, and implementers are often too sure of themselves and their solutions.  Even an evidence-based approach is no insurance that a program will have an impact on the community even if the program’s participants have positive outcomes.  For example, taking our gun example, after a violence prevention curriculum, 80% of students thought it was a bad idea to bring a gun to school. Is this success?  Community change?  Not if the young person is having this positive thought while gunshots are being heard down the street.

The tricky thing about program design – deciding what to do – is that it requires time, patience, diligence, and courage.  New questions need to be asked of different types of people living in different neighborhoods and having different reasons for what they do and think.  By assuming we know what to do and how to do it, we sacrifice real impact for speed and the illusion of change.  Time to try a different approach.

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10 Steps to Successful Collaboration

1.  Have one when you need one.  Is there a pressing need?  Is a collaborative effort the best way to respond?  If the cause is too small, people won’t participate for long.
2.  Start where you are.  Use what you have.  Do what you can.  Don’t wait for perfection.  Action creates action. Don’t underestimate the power of a group of committed, talented people.
3.  Remember that three people make a circle.  Three people/organizations can change how business is done. Each has to have the authority to commit agency resources.  Each has to be willing to invest time, money, and credibility.
4.  Come through on small things.  Return phone calls. Provide information.  Coordinate schedules. Be honest. Be fully present and participating. Work on your relationships with people – in and out of the collaborative.
5.  Meet with a purpose.  Set a clear goal. Bring your organization’s value to the collaborative. Organize meetings to move toward the goal. People’s time is precious. Focus on getting traction for the next step.  Keep records. Consolidate gains and move on.
6.  Share leadership.  Every member speaks.  Every member has homework. Every member invests something. Every member votes.
7.  Create meaningful products.  Products can be proposals, policies, resources, research.  Collaborative owns the product, not individual members.  Focus on win/win products. No organization should be put in a lesser position because of its decision to collaborate.
8.  Seize opportunities to grow.  Collaboration makes big projects possible. Consider less money, better odds on funding proposals.  Work with the group to  jump ‘out of the box.’ Make the collaborative the force to deal with on your issue.
9.  Welcome new people as equals.  Make newcomers into oldtimers by giving them important work to do. Be aware of core group/fringe group issues.  Explain, explain, explain and then listen, listen, listen.  What was isn’t what will be. New people bring new value to the group.
10.  Commit to shared outcomes.  The happiest marriages start in a ‘new house.’  Focus on the outcomes that really matter to the collaborative.  Invest in shared measurement and reporting.  Welcome the community’s reaction, criticism, support, and investment.

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