Bringing US together to move FORWARD

In a recent blog post public innovator Rich Harwood lays out three recommendations for improving governance in the wake of the US government shutdown ( His findings are based on the feedback he’s gotten from speaking to citizens across the United States about the meaning of the shutdown and the possibilities that it opens up for getting our country back on track.

Across the board, Harwood heard people express frustration with the current state of affairs.

”Enough is enough! We can’t go on like this anymore,”

is a quote he heard repeated in venues across the country. But what, if anything, can our leaders do to translate our frustration and uncertainty into concrete action that pulls us together?

Harwood recommends 3 key steps:

1)     Focus public discussion on people’s shared aspirations for moving the country forward. Continuing the endless debates about our ills and who is to blame will only produce more finger-pointing, acrimony and divisiveness. Our shared aspirations tell us what we hold in common and serve as the foundation for moving forward. In my recent work with a Hartford, Conn. neighborhood, for example, people there said they want a safer, more connected community. That had implications for how neighbors and police need to work together to combat crime and create more visible gathering places where people can come together and build a stronger community.
2)    Name the (often taboo) issues that contribute to the impasse. Some progress has been made on this front, with people from all sides of the political debate saying that entitlement programs must be revamped. But in the impasse stage, it’s easy to mistake agreement on a topic that requires our collective attention with a clear understanding of what people feel is genuinely at issue, and a consensus about what to do. In my work for several years in Flint, Mich., for instance, people at first said the need for jobs was foremost on their minds. But when given the opportunity to dig deeper, people said they feared the community was losing its children due to poor parenting and a lack of community support.  They also said they were afraid to come out from their homes because of crime and mistrust, and that the community was not taking responsibility for moving itself forward. These were the underlying issues people wanted to address.
3) Find actions that set a new direction and build confidence.  Time and again the president and some congressional leaders have sought a “grand bargain” on budget issues only for it to fall apart in the eleventh hour; perhaps another try will yield different results. But the fact is that moving through the impasse stage (to the next stage, called “Catalytic”) will not come from any single action. Positive movement is, instead, the result of a collection of actions over time that demonstrate there is a new path to take and that grows renewed trust, relationships and confidence.

I appreciate Harwood’s wisdom on this from his own experience working with groups. I believe there is a lot to be gained from some collaborative visioning work, like the kind that Adam Kahane describes in his book Solving Tough Problems. Kahane was part of a team that worked with the newly formed South African government after the end of apartheid.

Around the world, people watched this group and its outcome with suspense. These leaders from all reaches of the political spectrum could easily derail their country in a number of different ways. As Kahane tells it, the process of bringing that group together to tell stories about what could happen and what they wanted to happen helped them to see past their difference and focus on what they could do to keep South Africa moving forward.

I would love to hear Harwood and Kahane’s thoughts on the best way to get American leaders to engage in scenario planning.  My guess is that the most important leaders to engage might not be elected officials. My own experience with conflict resolution and group process work is that the US has lots of experienced practitioners.  My hope is that we can find ways to empower them and create the space for them to help us refocus on what’s important and move forward towards our shared future.