Archives for category: community

A family member sent me this note recently:

I’ve seen a man on the street the last few days that has intrigued me. I finally talked to him a bit this morning outside my office building. Since I’m in the middle of . . . yet another downsizing, I’ve been thinking a lot about the jobless, wondering how they will make it.

The man on the street has created a little business for himself that I think is quite creative. [O]ur office is a few doors down from Roseland. Beyonce is the attraction this week with four concerts. There are lines around the block. I’m not sure if these are the actual ticket holders or if they are waiting to buy tickets, but either way, they are out there for hours. Some come with all manner of items to comfort themselves in the long wait; others have nothing.

My street man comes along on his bike with about eight canvas folding chairs at a time. All look new and are in their own neat little bags. He sells lots of them to those people waiting in line. Quite creative, I thought. (I wonder if he has a deal with Roseland to hit their trash everyday where many must be discarded?) He is very well-spoken and otherwise looks like a young executive getting in some time on his bike.

Made me feel better to see this.

It makes me feel better, too.

My friends and colleagues who follow me on Facebook or Twitter might have noticed lately that I have been traveling all over the country, moderating focus groups. Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Billings MT, Detroit, and more. Before I ever started working with focus groups, I sort of knew what they were, but they were also a bit of a mystery. I thought it might be interesting for those who have never been a part of a focus group to know how they work.

I am by no means a focus group “expert.” Many people know a great deal more than I do and are more skilled at moderating groups. I learned everything I know from two mentors and friends who are acknowledged experts in this field: John Doble, and Rich Harwood. I have been privileged to work with each of them, and have learned so much.

In this article, I am talking about “official” focus groups — a group of about ten people, recruited according to specific criteria, convened in a setting (usually a focus group facility) where they can be recorded, video taped, and observed. In my experience, lots of organizations convene groups of people to talk about something, and they often call them “focus groups.” I will not quibble with the label, but in this article I am referring to the more formal version. At the right is a photo of a typical focus group facility, taken from the observation room. You are looking through the one way glass into the room where people gather. The moderator (me) sits in the seat closest to the mirror, the one with the black back.

What do you learn from a focus group?

You can learn a great deal about why people think the way they do from focus groups. You can not only learn their opinion, but you can press on various aspects of it to see how they react to trade offs or drawbacks. You can see how their views shift as they interact with other ideas, or think more deeply about initial thoughts. Focus groups are excellent for looking deeper into the why’s of public opinion.

Focus groups are not necessarily good for drawing conclusions about the broader population, however. One group is just ten people, and even if you convene a few, that is still not enough for a representative random sample. So, when reporting on what takes place in a focus group it is important to qualify your statements. You can really only talk about what you heard from the people in the groups.

Often, focus groups are used in conjunction with polls. A focus group can help researchers understand the arguments people use when they think about public issues, and then you can test those arguments in a poll to see how broadly those sentiments are shared. For instance, the other day in a focus group I was leading the conversation turned to parents who take their kids out of the local public schools and instead send them to private schools or to neighboring districts. One participant in the group was very angry at this phenomenon, and felt people were giving up on their communities. This became a bone of contention for a significant part of the session. But there is no way, just from e focus group, how many people in general feel this anger. Is it widespread, or is it more isolated? The only way to know that for sure is to test it in a poll.

How It Works

The focus group facility provides three main things: recruiting, a room, and recording.

Recruiting is perhaps the hardest part when you think about bringing people together. It is an important part of why organizations turn to focus group facilities. They have database of people who have agreed to participate in focus groups, and can also call random households to see if people are interested. You typically have the facility go through a “screener” with potential participants, asking demographic questions and any other things you want to make sure about. For instance, in a recent study we wanted to talk to rural people, and so I asked the facility to include people who live 25 miles or more from a major city. You can put together a group of parents of school age children, video gamers, or avid readers. You do this using the screener.

The room is important, too, but not as critical as you might think. you can hold a focus group conversation anywhere, but if you do it in a facility, it is set up for recording and observation. That is the main thing you get out of going to a facility. The focus group room has a one way mirror at one end, behind which observers can sit. There is usually a video camera in the ceiling, and microphones so there is good audio. I always open the session by making sure everyone knows they are being recorded and observed. They usually already know this, but it is important to be on the up and up. Typically, within five minutes people have forgotten about it.

When it comes to recording, I usually ask for a DVD video of the session and an audio file that I send off to be transcribed. I also take good notes as we go. The notes and the transcription are the most important, but sometimes I will be curious about what someone looked like when they were saying something so I will look at video. Most focus group facilities also have something called Focus Vision, which is a web based video system that allows people from all over to watch the focus group from their computers.

Moderator Tips

Here are some tips and tricks I have learned over the years from moderating and observing lots of focus groups:

Over-recruit. If you want nine or ten people in a focus group (which is a good amount), it is best to recruit more people than you need. I typically ask the facility to recruit twelve people, and usually at least eight show. If everyone shows, I send some home. That is not a problem, as everyone gets paid. Focus group participants are typically paid between $85 and $125, depending the market. (They also get dinner, usually a sandwich.) When deciding who to send home, I usually look for outliers. For example, in a recent group I wanted mostly people with some college or high school degrees. Two people were recruited who had graduate degrees. If they had both showed, I would have kept both, but just one showed. So I sent the other home because having just the one graduate degree person seemed to me a recipe to have someone dominate the conversation with their erudition, or for them to be cowed by being in an unfamiliar group. (I could very well have been wrong about what would really happen, but this was my thinking about what was likely or possible.) the focus group facility handles the pay-and-send part, so the moderator does not have to be the one to do that.

Where people sit sometimes matters. It is a funny thing, but people who sit at the far corners of the table are often quite forceful and sometimes obstreperous. People who sit in the near corners, right next to me, often seem interested in approval and tend to get curious about what I am writing and try to look at my papers. (For this reason, I always write my moderator guide by hand, so it is hard for others to read — I have very poor handwriting.)

It is important to keep a “sympathetic poker face.” by this I mean it is critical not to divulge my own feelings about what we are talking about — but at the same time you can’t be totally blank, as this tends to shut people down. People don’t like to talk to a robot. My main job in the conversation is to make sure people feel safe voicing their opinions and judgments, even if those are views that are in the minority. It is terribly hard to speak up in a group setting if you know (or fear) that everyone disagrees with you. My job is to make people feel like they are with someone who understands. That means that I often will hear and encourage someone to discuss something with which I disagree strongly.

Actively leading the conversation is important. There is always a moderator’s guide, which is usually a list of questions that we need to go through along with some possible probes as follow ups. But it’s not enough to stop there. People will often say one thing in one part of a conversation, and then later say something that is contradictory. If I am doing my job, I will point out such things and see if people can square those contradictions, or whether the issue is just a tension that people have to live with. For instance, if someone says, “we need better roads,” and later someone says “we spend too much on infrastructure we don’t need,” I will call people’s attention to that. I will say “Earlier we talked about the need for better roads, but now we are talking about spending less on infrastructure. Who can help me square these two ideas?”

Process notes right away. If I don’t write up my notes into a little one or two page memo-to-self within 24 hours, the work is lost. I always include quotes in those memos. No matter how good my notes are, I just can’t write down every passing thought. Those ideas are often important, and they dissipate after a day or so. Even if I am not going to share it with anyone, I always write up the notes from each focus group. This also makes it easier to write the overall report when all the groups are done — your main source is your memos, and you scan through the transcripts to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Trying to write a report from scratch, just using transcripts, is a nightmare.

I am writing this at the airport, between flights. There is a family nearby, with a toddler. He likes to wander around, clearly. The mother calls to him, “Stay where I can see you!”

It’s a parent’s nightmare: Losing your child because they wander off while playing.

I remember when I had my own epiphany about this. My children were playing on a large lawn that sloped away from where the adults were socializing. There were a number of kids, actually. We adults told the kids, “Stay where we can see you.” that’s when I realized: They have no way of knowing whether I can see them or not.

So I walked out to where the kids were playing, looking back to the adults. when the slope of the lawn made them invisible, I walked back toward them until they were in view again. Then I balled up a couple of sweatshirts and dropped them on the grass. “Don’t go past this line,” I told the kids.

That lesson has stuck with me in the professional world. In communications, we always talk about trying to adopt the perspective of whom we are trying to reach. But it is so, so hard. Something as simple as “stay where I can see you” is in fact put in exactly the opposite way.

Later, I figured out a less labor-intensive way of keeping the kids corralled. I would just say: “Make sure you can see me.” Just invert the statement and it makes sense (and makes my point a bit more neatly too).

In the day to day world, how many people are we communicating backwards to?

I am sitting in a speech by a former state delegate of Virginia, speaking at an evening session of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership’s Candidate Training Program. She’s talking about the qualities of leaders.

She identified three statements that can help any leader foster better relations, better understanding, and better results. That is, foster great civility.

These statements are:

Why do you think the way you do?

I don’t understand what you just said.

I think you might have misunderstood me.

These are things I plan to remember.

I am traveling today, so rather than post a lengthy article, I’d instead like to point you to a friend’s piece from earlier this year.

One of my favorite thinkers on public life (and a good friend and colleague), John Creighton, wrote a wide-ranging essay as the new year turned about the mood of America. He suggests that, in addition to some of the long-standing core concerns that Americans express for security, control, and meaning — we add “balance.”

John makes an excellent case and I urge you to read his entire thoughtful article.

Here’s an excerpt:

The first three qualities – security, control and meaning – tend to develop as a package.  As a person establishes personal and financial security, she also gains a sense of control over her life.  We have expression to reinforce the importance people place on security and control – for instance, “Everyone is a king in his own home.”  Public policy often reinforces these values, too. . . .

In many ways, Americans have come full circle since World War II.  We have enjoyed riches and opportunities unprecedented in history.  Yet, at the end of a long run, we crave the same things people have always wanted: security, control (freedom) and meaning, now, leavened with a healthy dose of balance.

What’s different is that we must learn to achieve these lifestyle aspirations in a context unknown to our parents and grandparents.  The structures of work, learning, socializing and many other aspects of daily life that defined the lives of generations of Americans are quickly fading away.

Time, geography, and social norms, for instance, once forced healthy limits upon our consumption. Now it is possible to instantly satisfy nearly any legitimate need and frivolous whim at any time – 24/7/365 (a set of numbers seldom if ever used in this way until the rise of the internet).  The ability to gain instant gratification will not go away.  Instead, we must learn to strike balance in our lives with temptation lurking on our shoulder, incessantly whispering in our ear.

Thanks for an important contribution, John.

Photo by Flickr user "S†e"

The tragic events in Arizona may well be a turning point. Many are calling for changes in policies, and many of these changes may well make sense. Many are also calling for a scaling back of the vitriolic political rhetoric that has marked public life these days. There is much blame being directed at political leaders on the right who use a nostalgic, hyper-patriotic, libertarian kind of language that includes repeated references to the Founders, and to Revolution, and veiled (and not-so-veiled) insinuations that it’s time for violence.

Now, like many, I don’t like that kind of rhetoric. I find it damaging. And it may be the case that it contributes to the kind of climate where the shooting in Tucson could take place (though I believe there is no valid way to test that hypothesis, as instinctively true as it may feel).

But many of the responses I have heard to the Arizona rampage seem equally intemperate. The call from many on the left is for a crackdown on these leaders, for them to be held accountable.

I don’t think the best way to reduce the vitriol in public life is to get mad.

The best way to reduce the level of vitriol is for individuals (me, you, friends, family, colleagues) to stop tolerating it from our peers.

For me to tell an enemy, “Quit that inflammatory talk,” will fall on deaf ears. The divide between us will only be further hardened. No, instead, what I ought to do is demand better behavior from the people who agree with me. We listen to like-minded people, and set our norms that way. When I am in a meeting and someone starts getting mad, and it gets over the top, I need to rush to the defense of moderation.

Indeed, I need to quit thinking there are enemies in public life. Because an enemy is someone I want to kill. There are opponents, detractors, people I disagree with, and others who are misguided. But there are no “enemies.”

We can’t demand better behavior from the other side. It won’t work. We can practice rhetorical nonviolence, right here and right now, with those in our immediate circle.

My favorite example of nonviolence in the day-to-day was provided by none other than Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in a seminar I had the good fortune to attend some time ago. I wrote a piece spurred by that experience here, but here is the salient portion for our purposes:

“Turn to your neighbor,” Arun Ghandi told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.” I was at a global conference at Kennesaw State University, where Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson was giving the keynote. Mr. Gandhi is a potent speaker in his own right. “Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.” There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people struggled in what looked like a cross-cultural arm-wrestling contest. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.

After a decent interval, Mr. Ghandi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly. How many of you asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?” Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question. “See how violence seeps into everything we do? I did not ask you to attack your neighbor, only to get their diamond.”

Photo by Flickr user Paco Seoane

Early in my career as an independent consultant, I began writing specifically to be published in the mainstream press. I began pitching various pieces to op-ed editors. Of all the news outlets, the one I really wanted to write for was The Christian Science Monitor. I thought there was the best fit between overall editorial vibe and my own brand of thinking.

I had pitched other people’s op-eds before, as a part of my job, but this was the first time I was really trying to get my own work published. And I wasn’t writing in order to further an organization’s goals — just to express myself. Clara Germani, who edited the op-ed page,  picked up one of my early pieces. (Here it is.)

Over the next few years, The Monitor published a number of my pieces, and Clara always made them better. I learned how important it is to have a good editor — who “gets” you as a writer, and who makes you into a better version of yourself.

My favorite story of my editorial relationship with Clara — and the only time we disagreed — happened when I wrote this piece. In it, I talk about having a political sign on my front yard ripped down. Clara wanted me to say who the sign was for in the piece. I held firm. She let me have my way which was very gracious of her. (No, I still won’t tell you who the sign was for.)

(Also, note that I had no special relationship with The Monitor. I occasionally submitted, they accepted occasionally.)

Thank you to Clara, for giving me my start in the op-ed world, and allowing me to say something I had always wanted to: “I’m an essayist.”

Here are all the pieces I wrote for the Monitor:

(Clara is now editor of The Christian Science Monitor’s weekly magazine.)

My cousin Jessica recently shared this quote from Mother Teresa:

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

It got me to thinking about the webs we create between one another — whether we mean to, or whether we recognize them, or not.

Think about all the ways you really belong to other people. Think about the effects your actions have on others. Think about how others depend on you. It can be bracing, and exhilerating, and terrifying.

Mother Teresa also said:

Unless a life is lived for others, it is not worthwhile.

Regardless of whether we want to be connected with others, we are, and we must be. I hope, at the end of my days, I will be able to believe I have lived a useful life.

Thank you, Jessica.

Photo: Flickr user 'Rain Rannu'

Yesterday I gave a presentation introducing a new discussion guide designed to help people deliberate over the issue of childhood drinking. I am happy to say the event went very well and there were a lot of people in attendance (more than 125, by my count).

Me outside my talk

Me outside my talk

I opened the talk with a discussion of wicked problems. Among many of my colleagues in the dialog and deliberation field, wicked problems are old hat and not very interesting. However, among more normal folks, the idea never fails to generate energy and very interesting “ah-ha!” moments as people ponder the implications.

That was what I saw yesterday, as people nodded their heads and their facial expressions betrayed discovery.

Ordinary Problems

A lot of problems in public life that communities face are technical in nature. How large should the dam be?  How do we plow snow most efficiently? How should we invest the City’s retirement funds? These are the kinds of problems that it is best to ask experts to address. They can tell us what the best, right answer is and then our political leaders can drive the appropriate solutions.

Other problems are educational in nature. Some people don’t know that they shouldn’t park on certain streets in snowy weather and plow operations get fouled up. Other people are not aware of the services available to them as low-income residents, so they do without things they need. These kinds of problems can also be solved in straightforward ways by getting more information out to the right people (not to say they are easy to solve, just straightforward).

Still other problems are just political problems, or engineering problems, or scientific problems.

Wicked Problems

Then there are wicked problems — these are often problems that beset communities over and over. Persistent poverty is a wicked problem. So is persistent crime. What we do about health care as a community (or nation) is a wicked problem.

Wicked problems were first formally defined and described by a pair of planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973:

Now that . . . relatively easy problems [like shelter clean water, and roads] have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn. . . . A growing sensitivity to the waves of repercussions that ripple through . . . systemic networks and to the value consequences of those repercussions has generated the recent reexamination of received values and the recent search for national goals. There seems to be a growing realization that a weak strut in the professional’s support system lies at the juncture where goal-formulation, problem-definition and equity issues meet. . . .

As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning – and especially those of policy or social planning – are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved – over and over again.)

What Wicked Problems Look Like

Rittel and Webber identify ten characteristics of wicked problems. That’s a lot of characteristics to keep in mind, and many are in fact corollaries of one another, so I tend to simplify it a bit.

Here are the key factors I usually talk about:

  • There is no agreement on the cause of the problem, or the cause is not clear
  • There is no definitive solution to the problem
  • Every solution has trade offs
  • Any solution will take multiple actors (e.g. community groups, individuals, and government)

It boils down to this: Wicked problems are so intractable because they involve conflicts between values and every solution has a downside.

For instance, one contemporary wicked problem is what to do about the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil. We don’t agree on the cause — is it radical Islam, is it porous borders, is it oppression of developed nations, or something else? There is no definitive solution — will jailing all potential terrorists do the trick, or deporting them, or how about educating people around the globe about the freedoms America represents? Every solution has trade offs — for example, if we drastically restrict air travel that may be effective but at the cost of curtailing our fundamental freedom of movement. And, any solution will take multiple actors — government can’t just do it themselves, not can individuals just be more watchful on their own.

Solving And Re-Solving Wicked Problems

We seem to be destined to solve and re-solve wicked problems, precisely because we have to re-strike a social covenant each time we face the problem. In the terrorism example, in 2001 we were willing to live with sudden dramatic travel restrictions in pursuit of security. Today, in 2010, our willingness to go along with that deal is not as wholehearted.

For communities (and nations) to face wicked problems, we simply must deliberate together and weigh the options.  This is not an educational question, but a deal-making question. We must decide together what deals we will strike. Otherwise, we will be faced with imposed solutions from leaders that have tepid support at best.

It has been my honor to work in various ways on exactly these kinds of questions over my career, exploring and articulating the values trade-offs inherent in difficult public problems. It is rewarding, and sometimes difficult, work. But it is work that we in communities will need to keep plugging away at.

The problems we solve today will be back later – not because we did a bad job solving them, but because circumstances change.

Because they are wicked problems.


By the way, here is the presentation I used at my talk, in case you are curious:

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

As you may know, the Marine Corps Marathon is coming up in October — October 25, to be exact. I plan to run in it again this year. I am excited! Last year I came very close to my goal (I finished at 4:13:58). This year I hope at least to beat last year’s time, with a stretch goal of cracking four hours.

As I did last year, I am once again running with the Organization for Autism Research charity team.

My friend, Annie Corr, has autism. Her parents, Nancy and Ed, have honored me by asking me to do very small things to support her once in a while. Little things like a drive to the caregiver’s, or staying over a few hours into the night when they need to be away. I have come to know Annie and she always makes me smile.

Donating to the Organization for Autism Research will help that organization make practical research available to the field, to improve the lives of all people with autism, like Annie.

If you are willing and interested, you can donate here at this page.

There is no lower limit. Last year friends and family helped me raise $1,770. Let’s beat that!!

I do understand that there are many causes. My cause may not be your cause. I understand that! So, please, do not feel any pressure with this. Simply give if you feel so moved.

If you are the head of an organization and interested in gift matching in return for sponsorship (you know, like if I wore a logo t-shirt during the race or something like that), please get in touch with me.