A Big Mess

There were three stories in the Oregonian newspaper that caught my eye this week.  The first was a story about the impact of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk and leaving a mess that needs to be cleaned up.  There is a debate about police powers related to this issue.  The second story announced that the grocery chain Trader Joe’s have decided not to build a new store on derelict land in North Portland because of local opposition.  A small group of local residents are concerned about gentrification of their neighborhood and as a result of the resistance, Trader Joe’s has cancelled their plans stating they will only go where they can build a partnership with the local community.  The third story outlined the pressure to raise the minimum wage and highlighted the disparity between the minimum and the average CEO pay per hour.  Buried away in the article was a comment that a family of four on minimum wage would be below the established poverty line.  To me that is the real story not the comparison to others.

Anyhow, I was going to dig further into these issues but I realized they are all examples of really big messy problems for which there isn’t a simple solution, at least one we haven’t arrived at yet.  The stories also illustrated the polarization of opinions and perspectives around these fundamental problems we face.  It is obvious to me we aren’t aligned on the problems, let alone the solutions and our current polarized opinions are not going to move us forward any time soon.

Perhaps by serendipity, I have been reading an excellent book called “The Innovators Way” by Robert Dunham and Peter Denning.  Don’t be fooled by its title, this book is about a while lot more than innovation as we typically describe it.  It provided insight about how we solve those big intractable problems that the authors called a big mess or a wicked problem.  I found their perspective enlightening given my observations above:

  • “We don’t listen and learn well:  Few people appreciate the full complexity of the mess.  Most see only their parts and think of other groups as obstructionists”
  • “We need to question the paradigm:  The Paradigm is the belief system in which everyone is operating.  The existence of a mess is strong evidence that the paradigm is not able to resolve the problem, and may in fact be the cause……Looking outside the paradigm is quite difficult because most stakeholders don’t know what ‘outside’ looks like”

They describe the need to develop a “we” in order to better understand the problem.  This requires collaboration.  “Collaboration does not mean consensus.  Consensus means to make a minimally disagreeable compromise that may be unsatisfying to many but not so bad as to provoke serious opposition……Collaboration is a practice of creating new observers and new possible actions together, in a mood of commitment to take care of the concerns of all parties as best possible…..It means they design a solution that recognizes [all of] their concerns and it often leads to a redefinition of everyone’s concerns.”

So long as we continue talking past each other from our opposing sides I don’t see much opportunity to solving the big messes we face.  As Einstein described, doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result is insanity.

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