Community Engagement Strategies: A Lesson from Apollo 13

Community engagement strategies“Houston, we have a crisis.” –Crew of Apollo 13

Actually the Apollo 13 crew had a PROBLEM as well as a crisis. Have you ever noticed that people tend to define a problem by its solution? “The problem is … we need a stoplight at this intersection!” “The problem is … airlines have to stop charging baggage fees to cut down on the time it takes to go through security.”

In the beginning, there is a problem, or a conflict, a challenge, or an issue. Ask yourselves – Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve? What is the central issue that is behind the angry voices, the desire to change, or the misunderstandings?

On that long list of community engagement strategies, clearly defining the problem is one of the first and perhaps most significant step. You may think there is only one correct answer to the problem and you have it! There is never only one possible right answer to a problem. The ultimate decision must address the needs and interests of all those who have a stake in the outcome. Lack of a robust understanding of the central issue or agreement on the problem that needs to be addressed stymies the decision-making process from the beginning.

Community Engagement Strategies: A Case Study from the West

In a rural western county of the U.S., ranchers were losing their sheep and lambs to coyotes. The ranchers were gearing up to lobby the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to legalize the use of a new chemical called 1084. The ranchers felt it was a promising way to kill the coyotes. The ranchers believed the problem was “how do we legalize 1084?” The state wildlife agency sympathized with the ranchers. However, they had concerns about the negative impacts of 1084 on the ecosystem. They said the problem was “how do we kill the coyotes.” The local environmental groups were outraged at the proposal and saw coyotes as an important part of the natural environment. They believed the problem was “how do we save the lambs?”

Voila! All could agree on the problem: how do we save the lambs? Together, they can now begin to explore a full range of possible solutions.

Ask yourselves:

  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • How do we frame the problem so it doesn’t bias the answer?
  • How do we state the problem so that it leaves open a full range of possibilities to create an answer that no one might have even thought of?

Unless we answer these questions clearly, and unless all of the key players reach a basic agreement about the nature and extent of the problem, it will be virtually impossible to find a consensus on the solution. If we aren’t all solving the same problem, we sure as heck won’t find much common ground on answers.

First Steps to Creating Community Engagement Strategies

Before any progress can be made on defining a process for solving a problem, two things are necessary when laying out the most effective community engagement strategies:

  1. A shared understanding of the problem. This requires that all perspectives and issues be understood, that stakeholders work together to understand and be understood, and that shared perspectives be identified.
  2. A clearly written statement. It needs to be written in such a way as not to include a solution, and to encourage multiple creative solutions to be generated.

What’s obvious to you as the decision maker is not obvious to those who come from different perspectives. When you let go of the one and only “correct” answer, a collision of possibilities occurs, resulting in a better and more sustainable decision.