Paddling on One Side of the Canoe?


We all have our tried and true, especially when we’re stressed. There’s a tendency to fall back on what we know has worked in the past. It’s not unlike cooking. When I’m busy or rushed, it’s the tried and true recipes I fall back on.

Yet, if we want to go in a different direction, relying on our old recipes is the equivalent of only paddling on one side of the canoe. Not only will we have difficulty getting to a new place, it sometimes results in us travelling in circles.

Doing things the way we’ve always done them doesn’t necessarily make them the best choice for responding to today’s complex challenges. Even if there is a willingness to challenge our sacred assumptions, the truth is that it often takes a lot to get us to try something new. Paddling on both sides of the canoe makes that easier.

One way we do that is to challenge our assumptions. The importance of challenging our assumptions surfaced recently during a discussion about community priorities. The collective assumption of participants seemed to be that priorities would be determined by majority vote. 

It reminded me of a workshop I took part in a number of years ago that made me realize how important it was to challenge our assumptions and remain open and receptive to doing things differently. After all, if we’re serious about wanting different results in our lives, businesses, organizations, and communities, we’re going to have to apply new strategies and new ways of determining where we could best focus our energies.

This particular workshop was based on the introduction of a tool designed for public health practitioners working with communities. After our individual introductions, we were all asked to answer the question, “What are the top 3 things your group/agency/ organization thinks will be most effective to help people be healthy in your community?

As one might imagine, the answers were very diverse and included such responses as more walking trails and recreation facilities, after-hour and weekend use of schools, family activities, greater awareness of the importance of good nutrition, financial subsidies for low income families, safe transportation, affordable housing, political leadership, community meeting spaces etc.

All of the answers served to educate those in attendance of the complexity of what it takes to be a healthy community and the impact of the physical, economic, socio-cultural, and political environments. Subsequently, all of the answers from the participants were organized within these four environments and four groups were formed to brainstorm specific strategies.

After all of the brainstormed ideas were captured within the groups, we were individually asked to score each idea for its (1) importance and (2) changeability (meaning how easy we thought it would be to make that change a reality).  Individual answers within the group were then added and averaged to determine our top five priorities.
Sounds like a great process, right?

While it definitely had its merits, what we saw happen within our group was that quantifying and averaging our responses meant we also averaged out a lot of what was innovative or difficult to achieve. We ended up with a list of top priorities that were best described as ‘same old, same old’. Speaking for myself, I can say there wasn’t anything on that list that spoke to me or inspired me to assist with its implementation.

Upon reflection, we realized that by averaging, we had ignored the polarized items where one person may have ranked something low and another ranked it high. Instead of discussing the reasons for the disparity, the averaging meant it landed in the middle of the pack and was therefore ignored because on the surface it didn’t appear to be a priority.

Instead, we realized those polarized items could have been key areas for discussion. It also became clear that a third area for scoring called “potential impact” might have helped to raise some of items to the top. Even though they would have been difficult to achieve, they would have had a significant, and broad reaching impact.

In my experience, polarization occurs for two reasons. Either it’s a really innovative idea that is ahead of its time and needs more explanation and exploration, or there are differing perceptions and experiences at play that, if shared, could ensure a clearer understanding of why it should be a priority, as well as make it easier or more feasible to implement.

We were also worried that the entire process didn’t allow us to consider the assets that might already exist within the community and how they could be levered or augmented. Nor did it take into consideration our respective, individual passions and how they could ultimately assist in something being driven forward.

While we pointed out our concerns, time pressures meant the instructor needed to move us to the next step where all four groups would vote and prioritize from among one another’s top five in order to determine a focus for moving forward. However, given our concerns, and to her credit, the instructor suggested each group add one wild card from among their strategies that didn’t make it to their top five.

Once the dust settled and the votes were tabulated, the top two ended up being from among the four wild cards – one focused on indigenous communities and the other on ‘good food boxes’ that would provide families with healthy, locally grown foods. The other three were maximizing the use of current facilities, creating opportunities for equipment exchange, and cooking classes.

So what does this tell us?

I think it’s a lot about changing how we measure. The health sector in particular works from a science and fact-based model that stresses objectivity. And yet, if we are to be honest, measuring and averaging often means (1) we don’t discuss the tough stuff, (2) ignore what we may know intuitively, or (3) dismiss the innovation that often sits on the fringes.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t measure. I get that what we count, quantify, measure, and evaluate influences public policy, decision-making, and investment.  What I am saying is that we may need to rethink our old ways of measuring especially our propensity to want to use numbers.
Our drive to find new solutions might instead mean we need to validate and provide room for deep, intense, messy, and ultimately meaningful, conversations and exchanges that can’t be quantified by numbers.  After all, as the pundits have quoted over the years, “If you always do what you always do, you’ll always get, what you always get”. 

Not sure about you, but from where I’m sitting, that’s just not good enough.

Posted on 09-30-22

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