JOE FLOWER'S CONVERSATION WITH DAVID CHRISLIP
ILLUSTRATION BY JULIA COLMENARESThis article appeared in:
How can you change something that you can't control? Many in the healthcare industry are convinced it is imperative that we find ways to make a difference in our communities. But even the smallest community is a complex dynamic that is not in our control--or anyone's, really. How can we find a lever and a place to stand to nurture change?
For nearly five years, David Chrislip of the National Civic League and Carl Larson of the University of Denver have studied this question, using a very pragmatic technique: They searched the country for communities that made significant positive changes, then called up the people involved and asked, "How did you do that?"
Their conclusions come through clearly in their book Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders Can Make a Difference (Jossey-Bass, 1994): If you want to make a difference in today's turbulent environment, you have to toss aside any ideas of hierarchical, command-and-control leadership, as well as any ideas of building coalitions to advocate particular solutions. Your leadership must be rooted in true collaboration.
We found a model of leadership
that was quite different
from the traditional one.
Chrislip has an MPA from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, but he is no mere theorist. Besides being a senior associate at the National Civic League, and the vice president of research and development at the American Leadership Forum, he co-founded one of the successes that he and Larson profile, the Denver Community Leadership Forum. He also teaches at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver, and has conducted leadership programs across the country and internationally.
I was intrigued by the patterns that Chrislip might have found while sifting through so many community successes, so I started our recent conversation by asking him what, really, he was looking for:
We looked at more than 50 cases of collaboration around the country in which communities had successfully worked on significant public issues. We wanted to tease out the principles involved: Why were those cases successful? And we wanted to find the principles of leadership in collaboration.
We hoped that these were not just flukes, that there were strategies that made a difference. The research showed that this was true, that citizens and civic leaders can make a difference, that there are actions one can take to bring together diverse people in a community in constructive ways. We found a model of leadership that was quite different from the traditional one. Making a difference in their community required a significant shift in the way these leaders behaved.
We focused on six exemplary cases, and did in-depth interviews with a number of the people involved. From these cases, we developed a hypothesis about what makes collaboration work, then tested that hypothesis against some 45 more cases.
The attitudes we found were similar to those discovered in the extensive research of the Kettering Foundation. They interviewed a large number of American citizens concerning their feelings about public life. The answers they got back were not what you might expect.
The image of the public that we get in the press is that people are apathetic, that they are so consumed with their own work and interests that they can't think about public life. But the vast majority of Americans, when asked, are not apathetic at all. They are angry and frustrated, because they can't find a way to make a difference. They feel cut out of the political process.
When collaboration works, people feel very differently about public life. One of our criteria for exemplary cases was results: They had to have tangible results or we weren't interested in the case. What surprised us was the many different and deeper kinds of results that came out of these cases. People felt empowered. Members of a successful collaboration would say, "Yes, we can make a difference. We now know some strategies for addressing public issues, and we know we can get some results." This surprised us.
When people collaborated, they began to say, "This worked here, it worked on our healthy communities initiative--now let's try it on economic development. Let's try it on this environmental issue, or on the problem of growth in our area."
At bottom, successful collaboration tends to build the "civic community"--it enhances the capacity of the community to deal with issues. It creates networks of trust and respect. It builds the skills of collaboration. It builds the strategies and experience you need to identify the appropriate people who must be involved. It creates norms of reciprocity, the feeling that "we are all in this together," that by collaborating we can achieve things that are simply not possible by traditional methods.
The collaborative premise says: If you bring the appropriate people together in constructive ways with good information, they will create authentic visions and strategies for addressing the shared concerns of the organization and community.
Each part of that premise is important. First you have to bring the appropriate people together. In our best cases, the definition of "appropriate people" was broadly inclusive. It included anyone who was affected by the issue, who had some power to take action on the issue or to block action, or even anyone who simply cared about the issue.
Second, you have to bring people together in constructive ways. If this group is so diverse, with such different perspectives and interests, the way they come together must be constructive. That's very different from simply bringing people together in a public hearing, throwing the issue on the table, and saying, "Have at it." The processes that we saw were quite consciously designed for dealing with people's different understandings of the issue, different levels of trust, and their different degrees of skill in working together.
Third, in order for a group to make good decisions they have to have good information. Experts are involved in the process, but they inform it, they don't drive it.
Some of the cases that we looked at had to do with environmental decisions that were technologically quite complex. People ask: Aren't these issues too complicated for the average citizen? How can people even get engaged with them?
Over and over we have seen that people can deal with these complexities. It is possible, if you take the time, to create a shared understanding of the issue.
For instance, the Clark Fork river basin in Montana is America's largest EPA Superfund clean-up site. The watershed has been substantially eroded and polluted by 100 years of copper smelting in the area. The river has arsenic in it, its banks have been deforested, and other sewage and industrial waste drains into it from towns along the river.
involved in the
but they inform it,
they don't drive it.
But a group called the Clark Fork Coalition was able to come together with a deep understanding of the chemical and environmental damage that had been done. The coalition brings together several Indian tribes, plus the citizens of a number of cities and communities along the banks of the river. They began to work with the EPA to choose the appropriate technical approaches that would most enhance the environment, yet be the least damaging to the land and the people who live there.
Our traditional models of leadership and change are not serving us well. The typical way in which we create change in communities is to form a group around a particular solution to a problem. For example, to solve the education problem, a coalition of citizens will gather around a "back to basics" point of view, or around some other particular type of school reform. Then they try to gather others to their cause and create a coalition that is large enough to overcome other coalitions that propose different solutions.
In Boulder, Colorado, we are having a significant fight over the school system, which several years ago changed its philosophy and did away with most of the programs for gifted children. The citizens felt that was a more democratic approach to schooling, that good teachers could help gifted children if classroom size were small enough and if the classes were experiential enough.
Now another part of the community wants more attention on gifted students. They formed a coalition around that idea and voted in two of seven school board members in the last election--not enough to change the direction of the school, but enough to disrupt it. They are continuing to organize for the next school elections, and there is a good chance that they will become the majority. If that happens, all the work for the last four or five years, some of it fairly significant and successful, will be undone.
The politics of advocacy--advocating one particular solution over another--has several consequences. One is that change may not be sustainable. If the new coalition wins, you can be sure that the other side is going to organize to turn them out in the next election. So we go back and forth, back and forth.
The vast majority
of Americans are angry
and frustrated because
they can't find a way to
make a difference.
Or we may have gridlock: No one can act.
Or if one side wins, and is able to maintain that power, it still leaves us divided, sometimes deeply divided. California's Proposition 187, dealing with illegal immigrants, may never stand under court challenges, but the very fact that it won left the state deeply divided, and California will be living with the consequences for a long time.
In many ways our culture is based on the politics of advocacy. If we are after some political change, the first thing we do is create a coalition around our side. In the collaborative process we see a very different premise about creating change.
When we began our research we also wanted to understand people's motivation. Why were people beginning to collaborate? We searched for the visionary leaders who, like Moses, were bringing people to the promised land of collaboration, telling their followers, "The traditional way is too destructive. It's leaving us too divided. We have got to do it in a different way." But we didn't find them.
For the most part we found that people were collaborating because the other ways were not working. They moved into collaboration grudgingly, as a last resort. People backed into the collaborative moment. They felt they didn't have any other choice.
Elected leaders play a different role in this kind of collaboration. Typically, they come out of the system that is based on advocacy, and they represent one side of it. In a sense, they were elected by the advocates of particular solutions that these particular elected leaders espoused. So the elected leaders themselves are polarized around different problem definitions and different solutions.
Ron Heifetz, whom you interviewed in a recent issue, talks about three problem types. Type one: The problem is clear and the solution is clear. Type two: The problem is clear but the solution is unclear. Type three: The problem is unclear and the solution is unclear--you know something is wrong but you are not exactly sure what it is. And there is certainly no agreement about the solution.
Virtually all complex public issues are type-three problems. Elected leaders, in order to get elected, cast problems as a type-one problem: "I know what the problem is and I know what the solution is." Their opposition also casts it as a type-one problem, but with a different problem definition and a different solution.
Of course, as soon as they get elected, they discover quickly that the issues are really type-three problems--and that they may not have enough power themselves to move ahead on these issues anyway, because of opposition from organized groups in the community.
Here and there, a few elected leaders are beginning to look at a different role, a role that attempts to use public office to create a much broader, much more inclusive representation of the civic will.
For instance, in the late Eighties, Denver had significant physical infrastructure problems. Bridges were falling down, parks were deteriorating, the city and county offices were not air-conditioned, working conditions were not productive or comfortable in the summer, and so on.
The city staff brought together different parts of the community, the neighborhoods, the business people, and others, to do an assessment, to say, "What are all our needs?" The total came to about $1 billion worth of physical infrastructure needs. Denver was just coming out of a recession. Federico Peña, the mayor at the time, had just barely won re-election, by 51 percent. It was a strong "no new taxes" environment. So Denver's ability to raise money to meet those needs was fairly small.
A shift occurs when
leaders see that their
institution doesn't have
the power to do
what it might want
to do alone.
Some of the civic leaders said, "We think that, under the best of circumstances, citizens might go for $200 million in bonds. And if we use the traditional politics of advocacy--where the neighborhood groups and the business groups and the developers are all after their own needs--we'll be lucky to get $20 million."
So the mayor said, "Look, we need a broad consensus." He brought in two civic leaders. One, Tim Sandos, was a Democrat, a young Hispanic activist who worked for a grocery chain. The other was a retired investment banker, a Republican named Harry Lewis.
Mayor Peña told them, "I can't do this. I don't have the credibility. The election was too close. Could you convene a broadly inclusive group of people across Denver, and help them work together constructively to agree on a set of priorities? Can we create enough consensus around $200 million worth of improvements that we can get the voters to pass the bond issues?"
He was especially clear about one thing. He said, "I am not going to suggest where this money needs to be spent. I'm going to leave that to the group." He was able to let go of solutions. "Because," he said, "if I begin to advocate particular things I will polarize the community around those ideas."
So Harry Lewis and Tim Sandos and a few other citizens pulled together a group of 92 people that was broadly reflective of the community. Over several months, in a process that was sometimes difficult and conflict-ridden, they came to a consensus on a set of recommendations.
In that process they were able to create what I would call "civic will." The consensus broadly reflected the whole community, rather than narrow parts of it.
Next, this group had to take its recommendations to the city council, which decides which bond issues go on the ballot. The council had paid lip service to supporting this process, but their first response was, "Thank you for your work, but this is really our responsibility, and we don't know whether we are going to accept these recommendations or not. We'll take a look at it and get back to you."
Over the next several weeks, Harry Lewis and Tim Sandos came back to the city council regularly, and in a quiet way said, "Do you know who this group is? This group is reflective of the broad community. These are the recommendations they came up with."
After a while, the city council began to recognize that this, in fact, was their constituency. After about six weeks of going back and forth, the city council approved the recommendations almost unanimously. They put them on the ballot as ten different bond issues, so that it wouldn't be an "all or nothing" vote. All ten passed, with margins of 60 to 70 percent, a higher margin than any bond issue in the past in Denver, raising a total of $242 million.
The press had played such a significant role in covering this process that there was really no need to campaign for the bond issues. The citizens already knew what was going on, had already been engaged in the process, had already known that their needs had been reflected in this.
If you can create the civic will, that broad reflection of what the community is after, the political will is going to follow.
A non-elected leader, a leader, for instance, of an institution within the community, can also play a powerful role in community change.
The first shift occurs in these leaders' minds when they see that their institution doesn't have the power to do what it might want to do alone. In order to move ahead, it will have to work with other institutions. That begins to suggest a different role for the leader: as a convener, as a catalyst, as a facilitator, as a sustainer of collaboration.
When we use the word "leader," the traditional assumption is that there are only a few who have the capacity to lead. The second shift in people's minds is when they begin to look not for a leader but for "leaders" in the plural. Because, in fact, many people have the capacity to lead in a collaborative way, to play that role of convener, catalyst, and sustainer of collaboration.
Like Mayor Peña in Denver, leaders of institutions often do not have the power or credibility to really make a difference in their community. But they do have enough influence to convene an initiating group--say, ten or 15 people--who collectively have the credibility and trust to bring a much larger group of people together, and that larger group can cause real change.
Regional councils of local governments, for instance, generally are only marginally effective because their members are all elected leaders of local governments, and they each bring their political baggage with them. The Atlanta Regional Commission has taken a different approach.
They have said, "We can't address these regional issues unless we collaborate. But we don't have the credibility to do it ourselves. However, we can serve as a catalyst to bring together an initiating group of civic leaders from various sectors and institutions of the community, and that group can begin to deal with some of the issues that we face as a region, especially transportation and environmental issues." As we speak, they are at the point of turning their planning work into action.
You can tell that you have been successful if you get results that are: (1) tangible and substantial, (2) systemic, not just symptomatic or reactive, and (3) sustainable.
When we set out to create change in a community, we need to evaluate the way we create that change as much as the content of the change. It may not be the decisions that we are making that are destroying or tearing us apart, but rather the way that we are making the decisions.
We generally have criteria around the content of an issue, but we rarely have criteria about the way we make the decision. Let me suggest four criteria that we might use.
First: Is our strategy likely to produce substantial, systemic, and sustainable results? If the answer to that is "no," then perhaps we need to look at another way of creating change.
Second: Is our strategy likely to bring people together in ways that heal rather than divide? I have mentioned California's Proposition 187, which certainly divided the state, and didn't heal it.
Third: Does our strategy engage citizens in the process, in new and deeply democratic ways?
Fourth: Will our strategy enhance the civic culture of the community or the region? Will it build the civic community? Will it make us stronger, more capable of dealing with future issues? Does it build trust among us? Does it build networks of reciprocity? Does it build the skills of collaboration?
Among the most significant benefits of the healthier communities movement, and the significant foundation and institutional support for it that has grown over the past few years, are not just the tangible results, which are important, but the intangibles. The way these efforts are set up often helps create the broad civic will and the skill in collaboration that will help heal and grow the community as a whole. l
These are the elements that David Chrislip and Carl Larson found in all successful community collaborations:
1. Good timing and clear need. Some stakeholders were ready to act with a sense of urgency.
2. Strong stakeholder groups. Well-organized, they could speak or act for those they represented.
3. Broad-based involvement. There were many participants, from several sectors.
4. Credibility and openness of process. Participants saw the process as credible, as fair (not tilted to any one group), as open (not excluding any important stakeholders), and as meaningful (making or influencing real decisions, not just rubber-stamping).
5. Commitment and/or involvement of high-level, visible leaders. Mayors, CEOs, city council members, and executive directors either attended or openly backed the process and gave decisionmaking power to their representatives.
6. Support or acquiescence of "established" authorities or powers. City councils, mayors, chambers of commerce, and the like agreed to implement the results of the collaboration--at least in part because they were involved from the start.
7. Ability to overcome mistrust and skepticism. The initial mistrust of the participants--of each other or of the process--decreased over time.
8. Strong leadership of the process. Leadership of the process, rather than of a particular point of view, included keeping everyone involved through difficult periods, acknowledging small successes, helping negotiate the hard points, and enforcing group norms.
9. Interim successes. Successes along the way built credibility and momentum, provided encouragement to the stakeholders, and helped keep them involved.
10. A shift to broader concerns. Through the process, people came to see how necessary it was that they focus on the needs of the whole community, not just of their particular constituency.
Phoenix Futures Forum: At the end of World War II, Phoenix ranked one hundred forty-eighth in population among American cities. By 1990 it ranked tenth. This explosive growth, traditionally managed behind the scenes with little citizen input, resulted in massive problems.
By 1986, Pat Murphy, publisher of the city's two newspapers, invited Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce to write a penetrating report on the state of the city. Both newspapers carried the "Peirce Report" as a special insert. This generated widespread attention and concern, and in 1988 Mayor Terry Goddard created the Phoenix Futures Forum, funded jointly by the city and private sources.
Over the next two years the PFF involved several thousand citizens in the task of envisioning the Phoenix of 2015, and the paths to that vision. The administration changed
in 1990, but the new mayor, Paul Johnson, was even more enthusiastic about the process, appointing citizen task forces to carry out the Forum's recommendations, and even re-structuring the city council's committees to work directly with the task forces.
The Baltimore Commonwealth: While Baltimore shrank, its economy decaying, its AIDS numbers among the worst in the nation, its illiteracy and school dropout rates between 50 and 60 percent, the prosperous fled to the suburbs.
BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development) was a mostly African-American, grassroots community-organizing group with a tough, confrontational style.
GBC (the Greater Baltimore Committee) represented the city's white-dominated business establishment. The two organizations were not friends. But in 1984 BUILD decided to cross that line and look for common ground with GBC, feeling the two organizations together would be strong enough to make change happen.
BUILD originally came demanding job guarantees and training. But the conversation shifted, until the two organizations found a strong common ground in their concern for education. Their agreement, running against strong currents within both organizations, was capped when GBC president Bob Keller came to the African-American side of town to address some 1,500 people at the Big Valley Baptist Church. By 1988, they had named their coalition the Baltimore Commonwealth and expanded it to include the mayor's office, several other government organizations, and the public schools.
Today the Baltimore Commonwealth boasts the country's strongest, most comprehensive package of incentives and assistance to help kids stay in school, get a diploma, get that crucial first job after school, and go on to college if they qualify. Their next goal: reforming the curriculum to better match the students' education to the changing needs of the economy.
The Newark Collaboration Group: Newark, New Jersey became known as "the incredible shrinking city": It was scarred by riots; its population dropped by 25 percent between 1968 and 1983; its neighborhood groups, advocacy groups, and downtown businesses were squabbling over turf; and major corporations were moving out.
In 1984, Prudential Insurance made a crucial decision: It would not move its headquarters out. But if it were staying, it would have to do something to change the city. It assigned a vice president named Alex Plinio to the job. He interviewed some 50 civic leaders over a period of months, asking whether anything could be done for Newark, and whether anyone had the energy and interest to do it.
The result was the Newark Collaboration Group: Civic leaders from all sectors that, in a series of facilitated meetings, began to set real goals, lay out paths to meet them, and decide who would take on responsibility for each goal. It was slow and contentious work at first, but by the early Nineties, the fruits were beginning to show.
In 1991, Newark won awards from the National Civic League as the "All American City" and from the U.S. Congress of Mayors as the "Most Livable City." The director of the New Community Corporation, founded by the collaboration group to revitalize the devastated Central Ward, won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. More than $2 billion has been invested in the downtown area. Newark has clearly turned a corner.
Citizens for Denver's Future: This successful effort to overcome turf fights and revitalize the city's infrastructure is described in detail in the interview.
Roanoke Vision: In 1964, the "powers that be" of Roanoke, Virginia, in a process with little public input, produced a plan for city renewal that resulted in the destruction of much of Roanoke's downtown. By the late Seventies the foolishness of this gutting of historic resources was evident to all concerned, and two collaborative projects sprang up to salvage the city.
Design '79 brought together business interests to rebuild the downtown; the Roanoke Neighborhood Partnership set out to reinvigorate the neighborhoods. Both efforts used the media and public workshops to get the public involved. By the mid-Eighties, it was clear that the whole 1964 plan had to be thrown out. Earl Reynolds, the city's planning director, pulled together a collaborative process that painted a vision of Roanoke's future, based solidly in the values of its residents.
American Leadership Forum: Unlike the other exemplary groups, the ALF is a nationwide effort. It works to create cadres of leaders within specific geographic areas by taking yearly "classes" of fellows through intensive leadership training that combines a six-day Outward Bound wilderness immersion with long-term joint projects. Yearly classes are convened in Houston, Hartford, Portland, Tacoma, and San Jose.