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Trevor Hancock: Sailing safely through the winds of change

Last week, I described the pictures of a healthy community that people draw during a vision workshop.

Last week, I described the pictures of a healthy community that people draw during a vision workshop.

But while having a dream or a vision is all very well, a vision without a plan is just daydreaming, and a plan without a vision is just tinkering with things, as a well-known planning aphorism puts it.

I agree with a famous planning theorist, Charles Lindblom — the champion of “muddling through” as the best approach to planning — that comprehensive strategic planning often does not work well, if at all. In part, this is because of what he called the “tragic discrepancy — big problem, small brain,” and in part because in periods of rapid change such as we are experiencing, most plans are already out of date by the time they are published. Circumstances change, and thus plans constantly have to be changed and adapted.

At the same time, I do not believe in the pure version of Lindblom’s “muddling through” strategy; what we need is what might be called “vision-directed muddling through” — not so much a master plan as a master process.

Whether we are trying to create change in a community, a workplace or any other setting, we need to have a very clear — and shared — vision of where we want to be and what it would look like if we achieve what we hope to achieve. But the process of getting from here to there is never a simple one, never amenable to simplistic and fixed plans. Rather it is a process of muddling through, taking advantage of every opportunity that gets us a step closer to our clearly defined goal.

As an occasional sailor, I find it useful to think of this process as analogous to sailing against the wind and through the reefs from one harbour to the next. The captains of power boats — and many planners, and those who employ them, think they are powerboat captains — can just open up the throttle and go in a straight line to their destination. Of course, they can end up in deep trouble if there is a mechanical failure or they run out of fuel.

But community-change agents, like sailors, have to take sensible precautions and follow simple rules. When sailing against the wind, it is necessary to tack back and forth. Sometimes we can sail a long way and yet make little progress toward our goal, and sometimes, the only way to get around a reef is to sail back the way we came.

When I ask communities if they have ever done this, they always crack up, because it so closely resembles their reality.

We must always be alert to shifts in the political winds. If it does shift (we call this an election), we will have to change our course completely. And if the wind gets too strong, we might have to run for a safe harbour and wait for the storm to die down; this is usually when we are evaluated and our funders decide we have done nothing.

On the other hand, the wind could die and we become becalmed — there is no energy in the community. While we can perhaps row a bit, generally we just have to wait for the wind to come back, for people in the community to find new energy to proceed. This means we must be prepared for the journey to take a lot longer than we thought it would. Again, community groups find all this familiar.

There are more analogies in this story; we need an experienced captain and crew, a team that works well together even in the roughest of storms. A good navigator is necessary, someone who knows where we are going and keeps their eye on the destination.

And, of course, if things get really nasty, the boat might start to sink. We need to make sure we have a life raft and some emergency rations.

But perhaps most important of all, we should remember that much of the point of sailing is to enjoy the trip, that we learn much from the process and that getting to our destination is an added bonus. So enjoy the trip!


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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