Building a Car, Here is the Key

What can we do to create effective environments to solve multi-stakeholder problems?

Porsche lineup at Dominion Raceway, Thornburg, VA, USA. IMAGE CREDIT: Laurel Haak CC-BY-4.0
Photo Credit: Laurel Haak

As a consultant charged with helping a variety of organizations figure out how to drive and measure impact, I see my job as figuring out what kind of conveyance an organization needs to do its work.

At its heart, social entrepreneurship is a team-building journey. For me, there is not much more fun than a zoomy red race car, so I like to imagine this initial team-building work as co-designing a car. I think through many of the same kinds of questions I would grapple with if I was building that red car in my mind:

  • How big does it need to be?
  • How fast does it go?
  • What kind of energy will it be powered by?
  • How far does it need to go on one tank?
  • Does it need to pick up passengers on the way?
  • How comfortable do the passengers want to be?

Maybe this idea resonates with me because I come from a family of engineers and gear heads. Simply put, cars are in my DNA. Some kids had pictures of teen idols plastered all over the bedroom walls, mine was covered in a poster of a Porsche 911 with a whale tale. Seriously!

When I think through the challenges inherent in building a car, I am reminded of the usual roadblocks that can prevent start-ups from building sustainable organizations. After all, when you set off on a car journey, you can never be sure of what roadblock you may encounter — whether it’s a bridge that’s out of commission for repair or an overdue need to change your oil. You can’t prepare for every eventuality; but what you can do is make sure you have a roadmap, a good toolkit, and a positive attitude when you encounter challenges.

One is uncertainty: the inability to think long term because there are pressing needs in the short term. This is a big problem. If we don’t have a vision for the future, it is hard to find the paths to get there.

For me and many entrepreneurs, I suspect, we are actually drawn to some degree of uncertainty. We thrive in such an environment to the point that operating in uncertainty becomes one of our core strengths.

It’s certainly been true for me throughout a career that has been stepped in uncertainty. I love to problem solve, dream up options, and build teams to test them. We cannot get to a desired future without some sort of plan — and also a track to test our design. We need to be creative, to accept failure and learn from it, and cultivate the resilience to try again.

But many organizations are simply not set up to succeed in this type of environment, despite the fact that life itself is successive waves of uncertainty.

Coping with Uncertainty

So what can we do to create effective environments to solve multi-stakeholder problems?

Foundational to this work, above all, is mutual respect.

Organizations that practice mutual respect build spaces that are conducive to effective problem solving by engaging and encouraging diverse perspectives, whether it’s from a person with domain knowledge, someone who has studied a given problem for years, or someone who has lived experience with a given problem. It is the job of another type of person to map out stakeholder groups and invite them to join in solving a problem, and yet another person to facilitate conversations and build trust among these groups.

All of these kinds of expertise are invaluable; just as it requires a variety of perspectives to develop a new car concept. Given a room full of experts with different perspectives, understandings, and approaches, there will be some work to do to establish agreement. We need to establish a shared language, develop guiding questions, and identify tangible actions for next steps.

Shared Language. A key approach to establishing a collaboration is posing hypotheses. This allows us to start with questions rather than categorical statements. Hypotheses can be used to explore the challenge at hand. What are the goals of the collaboration? How will we work together? How will we share the results? While these agreements form the foundation for the group work, they can also be revisited and evolved over the course of the work.

Guiding Questions. Once we establish what we want to achieve — and how — we can start to dig into the situational context for the core problem. Here we can use guiding questions: What are the dimensions and components of the problem space? What factors define the problem space, such as resource constraints, legal or policy frameworks, political dynamics, power relationships, connectedness and interdependence, levels of trust, culture, health, economics? The facilitator focuses on encouraging participation and harvesting ideas for perhaps the most important element….actions.

Actions. With the context as background, the group can start to establish its scope and approach to problem solving. Here, the group builds on the harvesting work to refine what it wants to achieve and what it can achieve and starts to prioritize actions. Important here is repositioning from designing the “ideal” solution to identifying what is practically possible for the group to achieve, and establishing an iterative approach toward possible futures.

This process creates mutual trust and understanding as well as shared commitment. It builds collaboration and through it new communities.

This journey requires a significant investment of time and energy. And when it can feel overwhelming, I return to that simple idea of building a car — a shared space for a group to journey together through a problem space.

Once they have the keys, the group can decide where and when to go. They can reverse or speed through. In short — they take control of the trip.

Interested in learning more? Here is a short video.

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L Haak

L Haak

I am passionate about trust-building to foster communities. My practice areas are digital infrastructure and identity, decision frameworks, and product strategy