Asking the First Question for Change

I find that there are five fundamental approaches to how people approach solving wicked social problems and pursuing social change. They are distinguished by the first question each of them asks when thinking about possible solutions and approaches.

I was reading a profile of a Harwood Institute Public Innovator that crystallized this idea for me. It concerned a relatively circumscribed problem (not the scope or scale of reducing global HIV incidence or childhood obesity) where, even in those circumstances, the differences in approach become clear.

Wheelchair-access-gravel-park-pathThe problem was how to improve the narrow, gravel walking path near a church so that it was more accessible for people who used the path while pushing their spouses who had had a stroke in a wheelchair. When the college advisor who was leading the project was asked how he came up with the idea, he said it was a project to improve the lives of these caregivers.

The Harwood Institute teaches an idea of ‘turned outward’ – a straightforward approach that fits easily into a social marketing model. Turned outward techniques involve ‘working with your community to find out what people truly want – not just assuming or thinking you know what people and communities want.’ So far, so good.

So our public innovator asked the advisor how confident he was that a more accessible walking path was what caregivers wanted. Well, he had walked the path himself and had seen first-hand how difficult it would be for someone who was trying to push a wheelchair on it. But ‘No,’ he had not asked any caregivers about the idea.

The innovator’s suggestion was to hold a few small discussion groups with caregivers of people who had suffered a stroke and, as you might expect, the responses to his idea were a deafening ‘not interested.’ There were more important jobs-to-be-done in caring for a spouse who had had a stroke such as better transportation for stroke patients, training in one-on-one caregiving and accessing respite care facilities with short-term accommodations for people with special needs.

Even though the walking path project had already been funded, the advisor had the courage to shift course (or ‘pivot’ if you like). Instead, he and his students used the funding to set up free courses for issues the caregivers said they wanted help with: how to modify their homes to make them easier to navigate, ways of safely moving stroke victims into and out of their wheelchairs, fall prevention and self-care tips. Jobs that were much higher on their priority list. These courses have now become an ongoing program in that community.

The story illustrates how different change agents approach the same problem, and what can happen when the first question is changed. A technocratic ‘planner’ would take the plan selected by the advisor and ask the question: ‘I have identified a problem that I think is important and has a solution I can implement, what do I do next?’ And gone ahead with fixing the path.

Another more top-down, autocratic approach would be: ‘I have identified a problem, how do I make people fix it (by, for example, threatening a lawsuit or fines against the church if the path isn’t made compliant with ADA Standards for Accessible Design)?’

A planner using a third method, let’s call it the ‘educational’ or ‘informational’ one, would be asking: ‘What can we do to inform caregivers of alternative paths to use when pushing a wheelchair to the church?’ Or warn them of the risks of using the path when pushing a wheelchair.

Another popular strategy, empowerment, poses the solution option a bit differently: ’How can we empower these caregivers to demand that the path be made wheelchair accessible?’ The corollary of this one is an advocacy model that asks: ‘How do we organize the community to seek justice for these patients and their families (justice in this case being equal access to the path)?’

Each of these solution types – technocratic, autocratic, informational or empowerment – have their merits in specific circumstances. But what each type of solution often ASSUMES is that the ‘fixers’ understand the problem and have the correct solution, whether it is based on theory, evidence-based practices (science) or ideology.

A ‘searcher,’ our turned outward public innovator (or people-focused social marketer), asks a different question: ‘I think I have identified a problem, I wonder what the people affected by it think about it and its possible solutions?’ It’s a position of both humility (we don’t presume to have the ‘right’ fix for, or even understanding of, the problem) and honor for the people affected by the problem (we value what they think and feel about a problem and possible solutions to it). And when we practice being a searcher what often times happens is that ‘our’ problem is not the ‘problem’ people want help solving. We pivot, and start providing value to people – not ‘solutions.’ Sometimes that value is through the questions we ask – not by instantly rolling out a 12-step protocol for change.

As I write in the first chapter of Social Marketing and Social Change:

Whatever your level of experience, this book is for …searchers: you want to understand what the reality is for people who experience a particular problem, find out what they demand rather than only what can be supplied, and discover things that work. You see adapting solutions to local conditions as more important than applying global blueprints, and you value people’s satisfaction with the offered solution, not how well crafted the plan was and whether it received all the necessary resources. Most of all, you have a bottom-line philosophy that you want to experience results that make you feel your life has been well lived. You have a hunger for doing something creative, amazing—something that will make a difference and perhaps change the world— and for being able to enjoy your work and someday look back and say, “Yes, I did that!”

Call it ‘turned outward’ or ‘people-focused,’ what matters in solving any type of social problem, gravel paths and supporting caregivers of people with strokes or screen time and preventing childhood obesity, is whether you ask the first question: is this the problem or job people really want my help with? And then whether you are ready to listen to their side of the story.

Image from http://www.ndspro.com/articles/water-blogged/

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