People show up, in support of each other, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. This happens every day, everywhere.
Sometimes, to take on really audacious issues, we need other people. In many cases like this, someone often says, “They won’t come talk with us.” Agreeing, someone else says, “Even if they do show up, they will not agree with us.” Someone else then chimes in, “Even if they agree with us, there is no way they will be able to do anything about it with us.” The invitation is dead on arrival. I hear some version of this at the beginning of almost all “multi-stakeholder” processes. And, so far, in over two decades of attempts, it has never been true. People will show up, agree, and act together. It depends on the invitation.
I see the invitation as an issue of differentiating and integrating the “we”–what we share and why we work together. Here is a recent example from my work in health. What we share–a passion and deep commitment to healthy community. Why we work together here now–to address the disparities in health outcomes in vulnerable communities.
Technically, we can differentiate between a higher-order, overall purpose (the ends) and an immediate, local purpose (the means). The higher-order purpose, our deeper shared purpose, provides the context for what we see, the field of our Yes! I find that when we get clear on the deeper purpose that we share, what we really care about, then the invitation gains a life of its own. I often hear from folks coming together, often for the first time, “I didn’t know, after all these years, that you cared about this too.” It seems that we tend to observe the intermediate goals of others and assume their deeper purpose, which it turns out we usually get wrong.
The immediate, local purpose provides the specific within the general–the specific game within the rules of the game. This is the problem we are coming together to address, within a bigger opportunity envelope, the game we are going to play in the sandbox. When we can agree on the sandbox, and we can agree on how the immediate, local purpose connects to the higher-order purpose of the sandbox, we can begin to play together.
This distinction between what we share, described with the higher-order purpose, and what we come together to do, described with the immediate, local purpose helps us delineate the general from the specific, any game we might play together from this game we are agreeing to play right now.
What does this look like in practice? In our work in Guatemala, everyone wanted a healthy, safe Guatemala. We worked together on understanding the dynamics of generating self-determination for every Guatemalan. In Vermont, everyone wanted sovereignty for Vermonters in deciding their own energy future. We worked together on how to realize a 90%-renewable-energy portfolio across electricity, heating, transportation, and efficiency in the next generation. For Food Solutions New England, everyone wanted an equitable, healthy food system. We worked together on how to get half of the food consumed in New England being produced in New England, a 5x shift. In the World Green Building Council, everyone wanted to redefine access to healthy buildings. We worked on the dynamics of experiencing regenerative buildings for everyone everywhere every day. In our organization Vibrancy, we want a world where everyone has more vibrant experiences every day, achieving better results every day. We are working together to figure out how to leverage everyone’s capacity to do that, starting with our own research and services.
There are many processes available for exploring these two “we” questions. One that frames how I work with the question of “what we share” acknowledges a hierarchy of values in a conversation. We each have means to the ends we want to achieve. We each have values that guide these means and ends. Many of these values, means, and ends overlap with those of other people. Approaches to values hierarchies structure these overlaps, showing what is common in what we want, either along the way to an ends or the ends itself.
For framing the question of “why we work together,” I often work with the behavior over time graph to determine what problem behavior we want to understand and shift. In mapping out this behavior over time, we begin to see the dynamics that generate that behavior, leading us to insights into the dynamics needed to shift that behavior. I use these insights to see how the interactions of whose perspectives influence both the current and desired behaviors, and how shifts in the interactions of these perspectives might lead to the desired behaviors. This lets me know who needs to be in the exploration and how I can invite them to work on a problem together, which is why we work together.
I find that people will show up, in support of each other, to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. It can happen every day, everywhere. It is an agreement. The invitation to an agreement is a choice.