The art of looking ahead and laying track in reverse.
Information may be a tool, but it is our vision that makes us and our organizations powerful agents for change, or so I learned from Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder of Creating Our Future, a community benefit organization for community and non-profit organizations who gave a must-see talk at TEDx Tucson late last year.
As Gottlieb explains it, we tend to define our work in terms of what we don’t want, instead of framing what vision we are working toward.
We live in a society that has become quite skilled at generating sophisticated analyses that describe the troubled state of our world, our environment, our collective health—in great detail. I know, for example, that at the very least 287 industrial chemicals are detectable in umbilical cord blood. Or that at least 25% of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing for gas are potential carcinogens or mutagens. Reports like this come out daily. And it is easy, at least for me, to become mired in the minutiae of such details, to become myopic, to lose the long view, to lose a clear sense of my place, my purpose.
Determining our next steps based on detailed analyses of our current circumstances may only succeed in psychologically triggering fear and all the defense mechanisms that rush to our aid, and in effectively cutting ourselves off from our creative reserves, from the best selves we can bring to bear on whatever of these issues most calls us. Yet, this is what most of us–what most organizations–do when setting plans and goals and action steps.
Instead, the most important question we should be asking, Gottlieb says, is this: what kind of world do we really want? Followed by this one: what is the path to get there?
She suggests that there is great value from separating, even momentary, from the day-to-day details, and to look ahead, look far into the future. What kind of world do you want to create? Then, once you describe the world you want, lay track in reverse, from that future vision back to where you are now.
Change-making doesn’t have to be hard, slow, reactive, or incremental, observes Gottlieb. By focusing on the vision and planning in reverse, change-making can become proactive, joyful, and graceful. It can unfold so fast we can barely keep pace.
At the outset, even Gottlieb claims she was incredulous—how can this be? Popular knowledge tells us that change is hard and slow, at best. But her own life experience working with community groups and non-profits has generated enough counter-examples to affirm, at least for her, the efficacy of this visionary model.
Strategic planning, the traditional way that organizations set goals, was born on the battlefields of Ancient Greece, she explains. It is, by design, about taking stock of current circumstances and winning battles. Strategic planning, at its best, can only ever achieve short-term gains.
What Gottlieb invites is a process whereby we “reverse engineer” our path from a shared vision of our future. From there, we can create a practical series of steps that draw us towards that vision.
Here’s what really struck me: Gottlieb reminds that we already have all the skills we need to do this. Every time we travel by plane, for example, we invoke this skill. We start with what time our plane leaves and work backward. We figure in time for traffic, ticketing, security, until we arrive at what time we need to leave the house.
This same process lies at the heart of the process Gottlieb suggests, whether we do this for ourselves or for the communities and organizations with which we are aligned.
When the details drag us down, she says, lift your gaze.
By Rebecca Altman