A Creative Solution for a Wicked Problem

ARTICLE | Mar 1, 2016

Where: Wyoming, OH. A community of 8,400 residents with a consistent history of excellence in public services.

Problem:  An ailing and underutilized community center.  The cost of renovation seems difficult to justify, and selling or demolishing the property would cause a heated dispute among long-term residents who have memories and traditions revolving around the property.  Similar issues have caused serious uprisings and even lawsuits within this community.

Brilliance:  City Manager Lynn Tetley suggests using this “wicked problem” as a solution for enriching the relationship between local government and residents. 

Objectives: Find insights about what the residents would like to do with the property; understand how much they are willing to invest; identify community values; and replace potential complaints with positive rumors about how the local government is handling the situation.

Strategy:  Innovation consultant David Eyman is contracted by the city to design a process that fulfills these objectives and shifts the residents’ relationship with their local government away from an “us-versus-them” situation.  An eight-session community engagement initiative is implemented. The process, called, “MeWeUs Thinking: Moving Attitudes from Me to We to Us”  comprises elements of Design Thinking, Appreciative Inquiry, and civic engagement techniques.

Process: MeWeUs Thinking is a framework that includes customized ideation and  brainstorming techniques in which participants are invited to dream big and contribute possibilities for the future. Participants rapidly see that they are the cause of the future, and that local government is willing to work hand-in-hand with the community. Typically, residents complain about what’s not being done, causing tension between residents and civil servants. The MeWeUs process invokes positive public involvement that creates a productive process that leads to win-win solutions.

Residents typically enter a civic input session in the Me-thinking mode where they want something done to accommodate their own personal wishes.  During the sessions, the participants begin to see how the outcomes affect everyone, and their comments become sympathetic to others.  Even the ideas they offer begin to reflect a change in attitude.  By the last round of brainstorming the ideas are mostly “Us-thinking,” which leads to mutually beneficial solutions. 

Toward the end of each session, a point-counterpoint summary is read aloud.  Participants understood how “sticky” the situation really was, and how the decision could affect quality of life for all residents. They were given a gold star sticker and asked to put the star on a continuum ranging from selling off the property (no cost) to completely replacing the property (which included a tax levy).  The outcome was shocking in that almost all residents sided with a significant expenditure even though the expectation had been that residents would argue about spending even a penny for this property.  With this response, we learned that residents placed traditions and expectations of lifestyle at the top of their priority list. 


Outcomes:  The data (including more than 2,000 ideas from 155 residents) were sorted, analyzed, and synthesized into useable insights.  For this project, we turned the data into a series of questions that defined the soul of the community.  Further, we made a recommendation to City Council on how the residents feel the building should be managed. 

Most importantly, this process yielded much more than insights into how we might manage an issue.  Outcomes from an initiative like this help change the relationship of residents with local government and spread positive rumors throughout the community instead of unproductive criticism.  In shifting from Me-thinking to Us-thinking, residents become clear about the complexities of local government and how they might be part of the solution.

As it turns out, and as often happens in this process, the final solution was similar to what Council would have suggested, but without the uproar that typically results from a mandate without community involvement.  This process effectively saved the community the potential financial and relationship fallout of a decree.

Send an email to eyman@eymancreative.com for a free overview and process guideline of MeWeUs Thinking to use in your community.

David Eyman, M.Sc., is an innovation and creativity consultant who uses the transformative power of creativity to build communities of action.  Mr. Eyman serves the public, private, and non-profit sectors by designing innovation strategies, facilitating culture change, implementing design thinking processes, or leading creativity workshops.  Mr. Eyman is a frequent contributor and adjunct professor at several Universities including the University of Cincinnati, Miami of Ohio, Northern Kentucky University, and others. With a 20+ year history in Industrial Design and product invention, Mr. Eyman understands how creativity can impact our lives.  His present mission is to use the creative process to support the betterment of all people.  He holds a B. S. in Industrial Design from the University of Cincinnati school of D.A.A.P. and a Master of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State.  Learn more at www.eymancreative.com

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