5 foresight steps for dealing with community resistance to change

by John Mahaffie on March 7, 2017

MainStreetNovelI recently met a couple who are leaders in their small Southern US town. They are not elected leaders. They are self-driven change makers. They are working hard and spending their own money to improve the town. They have planted thousands of flowers and created a festival to build town pride and draw visitors. They are planning new spaces for incubating creativity and businesses.

Their efforts reminded me of Carol Milford, the heroine in Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. She wanted to bring culture and sophistication to her adopted town. Like Carol Milford, my friends face tradition-minded, suspicious townspeople who don't understand their motives or vision for the community.

They are working for a better future for everyone, so why the pushback?

It's likely a combination of things. People are unsure or suspicious of the changes. Their instinct is it's better to have what you know than to chance it on unclear and outlandish new ideas. They don't know or share the vision of the couple who are leading change. So what do my friends need to do?

5 ways foresight can help

  1. Sell their vision better. This means bringing clarity to their ideas about change and their motivations for pressing for it. They do so while respecting and celebrating the town's legacies, and the people who are a part of those. Appreciative inquiry is a technique for working with groups that starts with acknowledging strengths and positive legacies. It offers a starting point for a community (or organization) seeking to move forward cooperatively.
  2. Join with stakeholders to explore a positive future. This means not claiming to have all the answers. Instead, invite community members to help forge plans. Community members with the strongest sense of "ownership" of the town should be allies, not opponents. Giving them participation in the process preserves their ownership. Some thoughts on dealing with people whose thinking is stuck in the present (or past) are here: "When only you see the future." Also, "difficult history" may be part of what my friends face in their town. See: "How to break free of difficult history."
  3. Start the conversation by sharing assumptions about the future. Have participants in visioning meetings share their thoughts on "In 2027, I believe that ______________" . That view is at least 10 years in the future. Why? because that will help people jump past their immediate concerns and "today" objections. Probing this question does two things. 1). It gets the juices flowing, getting everyone's head in the future. 2). It surfaces assumptions about the future that we all carry and operate on whether we've told each other them or not. Sometimes the inability to move forward will be rooted in unexamined assumptions about the future. See: "In 20xx I believe that ________"
  4. Do some unencumbered thinking. With stakeholders, explore the question: "What would we build today if none of this existed?" You don't do this because you plan to blot out everything and start over. This discussion allows people to imagine things not from the perspective of rigid, existing barriers that would make it hard to acheive them, but rather, from the point of view of what would be best. See also: "The clean slate scenario".  
  5. Build a clear vision of a desired future. Create 10- or 20-year views into the future. These scenarios could include stories about "what if we don't change" as well as views of positive futures. You can develop these scenarios with people from across the community. The scenarios will bring out clear and vivid images of the future. An artist's renderings of the future can further showcase the new ideas and enourage feedback. See also: "Why we need scenarios to be ready for the future".

Entering into processes like this is scary. But my new friends show only signs of excitement about it. They will make an even greater difference going forward, armed with some of the tools of foresight.

If you are working in a community or organization with these sorts of challenges, I can help you develop and lead a process to get further, more smoothly. Let me know if I can help: jbmahaffie@leadingfuturists.biz and 202-271-0444.

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Jennifer Jarratt (@jenjarratt) March 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm

John, I like your suggestions for foresight and they meet the case. I just wanted to add that community leaders might consider Elise Boulding's "200 Year Present," idea. That is, encouraging people to map and consider their own family history and past in the community, to the present day, then go on to discuss their own future lives in the community and the future lives of their children and grandchildren. I think it might help ground people when the future seems to be all about change.

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