By Doug Easterling
How can collaborative groups move past their divisions and find solutions that advance their shared notions of what would be good for the community?
Complex problems – such as how to expand access to high-quality health care, how to reduce poverty, how to remedy racial disparities in educational attainment and economic opportunity, and how to promote economic development while at the same time protecting natural resources – can’t be solved with technical remedies or within a narrow mindset. They require the sort of multi-disciplinary, nuanced analysis that can only be achieved by engaging a variety of stakeholders in a co-creative process.
Bringing together stakeholders with diverse perspectives allows for a comprehensive analysis of complex problems, but this also raises the risk of a divisive process. Especially when the defining problem involves contentious issues such as economic structures, health behavior and land use, participants are likely to bring differing notions of what constitutes a “good” solution.
Disagreements over values can stymie the group’s efforts to generate a collective solution, even when there exist options that everyone agrees would improve conditions in the community. From a game theory perspective, different participants have different pay-off functions for the possible alternatives, which makes it hard to agree on the solution. If the group doesn’t arrive at a shared solution, nothing changes in the community. For most problems there are solutions that everyone agrees are better than the status quo, but these solutions emerge only if the group works cooperatively to co-create them. How does a group with disparate views move into a position where co-creation is possible?
The first step for the group is to locate shared values and common interests. While this step seems obvious, it is too often not carried out. Collaborative groups typically begin by identifying participants’ personal and organizational interests regarding the issue at hand, but they don’t supplement that step by developing a shared assessment of the overall community’s interests regarding the issue.
The Community Heart and Soul Model
One potentially valuable tool is the Community Heart & Soul model, which the Orton Family Foundation (2015) developed as a means of helping towns and small cities gain community-wide alignment around “what matters most.” The premise behind Heart & Soul is that even if residents have differing opinions on many topics, they should be able to agree on a core set of things that make their community special and that need to be preserved and promoted. By defining what about their community “matters most,” residents are able to provide direction to elected officials, agencies and other groups that engage in policymaking, planning and problem-solving.
The Heart & Soul model allows a community to identify shared interests by having residents share their personal stories. A locally based project team deploys volunteers to interview residents about the positive and negative experiences they have had living in the community, as well as what they do and don’t like about the community. Stories are also collected through radio programming, story-telling booths, neighborhood gatherings and community-wide forums. The goal is to hear from at least 10% of the population through one mechanism or another. In addition, the project team explicitly seeks stories from residents from all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.
The stories gathered through the Heart & Soul process are shared widely via websites, radio, written reports and open forums. The goal here is for residents to gain a broader, richer sense of who lives in the community and to build an appreciation for the diversity of people and experiences that exist there. At the same time, there is an expectation that in sharing their stories with one another, residents will come to recognize that they share much in common, especially with regard to what they want the community to become.
Another major step in the Heart & Soul process is to distill the personal stories into a set of shared values. The local project team compiles and analyzes the stories and other information to identify recurrent themes. Those themes are vetted and refined in community forums, and eventually become the basis for a set of Heart & Soul Statements. This set of statements describes what the community (as a whole) values with regard to topics such as the geographic setting, natural resources, the economic base, services, the arts, families, children, diversity, traditions and the feel of the community.
Does it work?
In 2014 I led a team of researchers at Wake Forest University that evaluated the Heart & Soul process within the first nine communities that implemented the model. Our evaluation found that each community was able to identify a set of things that matter most to local residents — across demographic and ideological divisions. The level of specificity was greater in some Heart & Soul statements than in others, but all communities came out of the process with greater awareness of their common interests.
How might it work for collaborative problem-solving groups?
The Heart & Soul process has the potential to deliver comparable benefits to collaborative problem-solving groups. Having participants share their stories can bring the group together around a collective view of what is good for the community. Distilling those stories into themes can point to specific goals that should be advanced by the group’s problem-solving efforts.
Sharing stories and distilling commonalities is unlikely to completely eliminate the values conflicts that arise when a group is grappling with a complex, contentious issue. But this process can lift up and reinforce the places where participants are on the same page. This in turn can help the group move beyond its differences and bring out the best in one another, which ultimately is how co-creation happens.
To find out more:
Orton Family Foundation. (2015). Community Heart & Soul Field Guide. 2nd Edition. Online: https://icma.org/sites/default/files/308829_Community-Heart-Soul-Field-Guide-2nd-edition.pdf (PDF 6MB)
Biography: Doug Easterling PhD is a Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and served as department chair from 2005-2015. His research and consulting focus on community-based approaches to improving health and quality of life, with a special emphasis on the work of foundations. He has served as an evaluator, strategic advisor, learning coach and facilitator for more than 20 national, state, and local foundations. From 1992-1999 he served as the Director of Research and Evaluation at The Colorado Trust, where he oversaw the foundation’s evaluation of a series of community-based initiatives. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).
This blog post is one of a series developed in preparation for the second meeting in January 2017 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).