Making Your Job Easier: Using Whole-System Approaches to Involve the Community in Sustainable Planning and Development
Oleari, Kenoli, Public Management
As public servants, local government managers often face extreme--and conflicting--expectations from political leaders and their constituencies, staff members, unions, private and public interest groups, individual citizens, neighborhood organizations, and others. At the same time, a manager must provide a rational and effective framework for accomplishment of the agency's mission. The success or failure of government projects often hinges on constructive public involvement and meaningful community buy-in. This is particularly true in the planning process, in which stakes are high and the process is critical and challenging.
This article will provide an introduction to several approaches to large-group management designed to meet these kinds of complex demands. These approaches, known as "whole-system" approaches, use techniques that have proven successful in moving complex groups through visioning, planning, rapid change, and implementation while making allies of the conflicting voices and interests that managers deal with every day. These techniques, also known as "large- or whole-group interventions," have been used successfully in many sectors, including communities, non-profits, businesses, and others.
(To simplify' matters, this article uses the terms "community" and "organization"; however, the principles and techniques apply to all kinds of groups: businesses, government agencies, social groups, families, nonprofit or religious organizations, and communities in which people come together for organized activity.)
Whole-system approaches offer processes for engaging the myriad voices and interests shouting, and needing, to be heard. These procedures have been used in urban and rural settings and in many different countries and cultures. They work well both in polarized situations and in communities with histories of positive citizen involvement.
This article introduces the concepts that make whole-system approaches successful and compares them with a traditional planning process. The discussion focuses on Future Search, an approach that is particularly useful in community settings. It also provides an overview of two other popular whole-system techniques.
Learning to See the Whole Organization
Our understanding of how organizations work most effectively has changed dramatically during the past century. Largely, this shift has been from a hierarchical understanding to a view of the organization or community as a whole--a collaborative and interdependent unit. The shift has resulted from observations that engagement, rather than a command-and-control approach, greatly increases the likelihood of accomplishing desired results. This effect has been observed in many areas of organization development, including visioning, strategic planning, design, redesign, and implementation.
The shift of perspective toward whole organizations (or whole systems) has enabled the development of tools that engage all stakeholders in devising outcomes that are practical and sustainable. It relieves managers of the onerous task of solving scores of complex problems. Change throughout the organization becomes self-directed and self-motivated. Thus, the negative reactions that are often triggered by top-down decision making are minimized.
A handful of successful methods have been developed for engaging the complex relationships that characterize organizations. These approaches have achieved widespread application and reached their maturity during the past decade.
Businesses have been the first to embrace the whole-system concept. To remain competitive, businesses need to respond to change in ways that can be implemented quickly throughout an organization and that can be sustained.
A growing number of communities also are using these techniques successfully. Whole-system approaches have been used in communities as diverse as those in South Africa and Nigeria and those found among Eskimos in northern Canada. …