by Monte Roulier, co-founder and president of Community Initiatives
Several years ago, a community-based coalition leader from Tacoma, Washington shared, “we’ve tried hard but ultimately failed to engage multiple sectors and diverse partners. Our main goal and measure was framed around obesity…they simply didn’t see their work through this frame.”
No doubt the obesity frame is fraught with problems, but the Tacoma experience points to a larger conundrum. A more narrowly framed shared agenda and corresponding measures holds the potential for focused impact. It also poses the very real possibility of diluted collective commitment.
Tyler Norris, a longtime colleague and friend, is fond of promoting the idea of divergent goals and convergent strategies. A common example is found through communities pursuing convergent strategies aimed at walkable and bikeable communities (e.g. street design and multi-modal transportation systems). Not only do these strategies lead to more walking and biking, they can and are contributing to other (divergent) goals—such as safer neighborhoods, better health, less pollution, and a more desirable place to do business. In fact, communities, including Tacoma, have had much greater success securing the interest and participation of diverse stakeholders when they make room for a broader set of goals.
Conservation organizations and advocates also are increasingly seeing the benefit of a broader, divergent frame for their goals. Audubon has recently teamed up with cattle ranchers in Kansas, a partnership that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. Kansas happens to contain a vast swath of grasslands that serves as critical flyways for migrating birds. This grassland region is also home to several cattle ranches which were starting to threaten the sustainability of the grassland ecosystem.
Audubon was naturally interested in ways to protect this important flyway. Ranchers were interested in maximizing their productivity, the health of their land, as well as boosting their profit margin. Through substantive dialogue, the ranchers and Audubon developed a partnership around a convergent strategy: new land use practices that meet the different goals of both stakeholder groups. To incentivize change in practices, Audubon has been helping to promote the ranchers’ “bird friendly” products in key Kansas City, Chicago and Denver food markets—and at a premium price.
Adopting this divergent-convergent approach is only possible when we begin to understand the various languages and values used by different stakeholders, including different measures of success. This almost always requires new processes and more dialogue to arrive at and to pursue shared interests. I’ve recently witnessed a number of meetings where groups have assumed that coming up with one big goal and one or two measures is the best way to achieve impact. This may be true in some cases. I’ve not seen this to be the case for initiatives endeavoring to advance healthier, more equitable and sustainable communities.
The beauty of it is that the more we work together on shared strategies, the more we start to experience each other’s divergent goals as shared goals. Don’t be surprised if you see more cattle ranchers advocating for healthy flyways and conservationists leading the charge for healthy, local food systems!