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  • Why should you plan your action?

  • How do you plan your action?

  • How do you implement your solution?

  • Evaluating what's happened

  • What can go wrong, and what to do about it

Many of us have seen this happen: we've been involved in a meeting where a problem is brought up, discussed, argued about, and finally, sometimes painfully, resolved. A solution is proposed, everyone agrees that it is acceptable - and then it gets lost down the road of forgetfulness or apathy, or wherever it is that good ideas often end up.

In previous sections in this chapter, we have looked carefully at each part of the problem-solving process. Now, in this last section of the chapter, it's time to pull all of this together and complete the work you may have started some time ago. In this section, we'll discuss how to take your solution from the "great idea" stage through planning the details, implementing what you have done, and figuring out if the process was effective. We'll conclude with some possible solutions to glitches that might come up while you are working.

Why should you plan your action?

So why is it so important to plan the details of your solution? Simply put, careful planning allows you to more effectively solve the problem with which you are grappling by giving you the framework on which the solution will hang.

  • Planning lets you be sure you have taken care of all of the details. After all of the work you have done, it can be a hassle, to say the very least, if a crucial detail has been forgotten --if nobody picked up a key to the dance hall you rented as part of a fundraiser, or you forget to pack dress shoes for your meeting in the Capitol with the governor.
  • Planning helps you save time, energy, and resources in the long run. We can't say it too many times -- planning pays.

Some solutions don't require a lot of planning; you decide, then you act, and then you're done. That's more likely for an individual facing a problem, however, than it is for a group. An individual might decide, for example, that he needs to improve his relationship with his supervisor, so he schedules an appointment to talk about their professional relationship. At the meeting, the two might discuss their individual views of how the relationship could improve, and agree to meet weekly to discuss the state of their project. In such a case, a written action plan would hardly be necessary.

With a group, however, the same problem is likely to be more complex. Consider the following situation:

Instead of two individuals, 20 people in an office are having problems working together. So they decide to do two things. They will hold a retreat to talk about their differences (there is too much for too many people to say, and too many hard feelings, to be covered during the meeting), and they will schedule a weekly meeting to keep communication clear and complete. Great, but where will the retreat take place? Who will lead it? Where will they get the money to pay for it?

And even the idea of meeting weekly is not without problems. Everyone in the office works a different schedule; some people can only work nights, others mornings, others weekends. When can they meet? Where can they meet? Should someone take notes? Who? What will be done with the notes after they are written?

Although the basic problem, communication, is the same, the greater number of people involved makes a written action plan much more of a necessity.

How do you plan your action?

So how do you go about planning your solution? The good news is that you've already had a lot of practice. By this point, even if your group started out as strangers, you've had time to get to know each other, become comfortable, and get familiar with the process in general. This level of comfort is going to help a lot to make the process proceed smoothly.

Planning your action simply involves asking the right questions, and writing down the answers in a logical form that everyone will read and understand.

First, however, you will want to brainstorm with the group to determine everything that needs to be done. Break down your solution into individual, doable parts, or "action steps."

In the fictional city of Bitam, the Coalition for the Hearing Impaired is particularly concerned with the low high school graduation rate of students with hearing problems. Although there is a sizable deaf population in town, there is not yet a school for the hearing impaired, and students are suffering. Upon careful consideration, group members decide to start a program at the school, Helping Hands. In it, top students will be paired with students with a hearing impairment to share their notes and act as peer tutors.

A few of the action steps that coalition members decided upon were:

  • Discuss the program with the principal and school board members to gather their support
  • Write a letter to hearing impaired students and their parents to inform them of the program
  • Recruit students to work with their hearing impaired peers
  • With the help of the school guidance office, pinpoint the students in need of help
  • Contact those students individually to become members of the program

When you have your own complete list of individual action steps in front of you, put every one of them through the same series of questions. Decide:

  • How much, or to what extent, will the action occur? For example, if you are going to hang posters to advertise a program, how many will you need to be effective?
  • Who will do the work? Will it be done by people at the meeting, or will you need to recruit others? How will that occur?
  • When will the step take place? How soon? A deadline for action can help participants focus and will almost certainly mobilize them more effectively than an "open-ended " due date.
  • What resources (money, time, et cetera) do you need? Where will you get them?
  • What will you do if something goes wrong? What's the backup plan?
  • Which step needs to happen first? Is there an order in which these actions should occur? Should things happen simultaneously? As soon as possible?

It's a good idea to write all of this down on a chart that can later be shared with the group.

If the problem you are working on is particularly large or complex, the group might decide to go through a longer action planning process, similar to what you might do to write a coalition's strategic plan.

How do you implement your solution?

Now, with your action steps in front of you, it's time to start the grunt work of implementing your plan! These are the last steps to take before you go to work:

  • Make sure, as you have been doing throughout the problem-solving process, that everyone is clear and in agreement about what's been decided. The facilitator might go down the chart you have written and say, "Steve and Kate, you're going to design some possible logos and show them to us at the next meeting, right?" Ask people for verbal agreement to make sure you are all in agreement about the next steps.

At this point, the facilitator should say what he plans to do as well. His follow up plan might be to send notes out to various group members reminding them when it is time for them to do the task they agreed to do.

  • The facilitator should ask for questions. Did anything come up that anyone's not clear about? Are there any new issues? Any areas of confusion?
  • Does everyone know how to contact other members if they need assistance or have questions about their assignments? Leaders in the group might want to make their phone numbers available, if they are not already.
  • Set another meeting date. This is an essential part of follow through. The next meeting can serve as an update, if the problem is not entirely taken care of. It can also serve as a time for celebration -- look at all of the work you've done already!

Evaluating what's happened

When you finish a meeting, sweep away the crumbs, and go home, an experienced facilitator will usually have some sense of how the meeting went. Was it a good meeting? Were people fully involved? Certainly, one way to measure this is by what has been accomplished. Did you define the problem? Come up with a workable solution?

It's also important, however, to understand how meeting participants feel when they leave the meeting. Were they happy with the process? Did they have a chance to explain their ideas? If members leave a meeting disgruntled, it's highly likely that they won't be coming back to future meetings, and they may not follow up on agreed upon tasks.

The facilitator can reduce the likelihood of this by asking group members to fill out a written evaluation before they leave. It doesn't have to be long, or complex; a few simply questions might do the trick. It also helps if the response sheets are anonymous; people are more likely to give their true opinions of what has happened, particularly if that opinion is negative or critical. The facilitator can follow up on the critique with a letter mailed out to all participants.

Of course, there's another kind of evaluation to be done: you can evaluate how well your solution is working to solve the problem. Depending on the problem, this may or may not be necessary. For example, if you are working on office communication, a few weeks of meetings should tell you whether or not communication has improved without any scientific study. If you are working on solving a larger problem, however, such as teen pregnancy, you will probably want to determine if your group's actions are truly effective. (For example, has the teen pregnancy rate has decreased in your community?).

What can go wrong, and what to do about it

Into every life, some rain must fall -- and for community organizers, the deluge often happens on the day of the community picnic.

Even if the facilitator has led an enthusiastic, dedicated group flawlessly through the problem-solving process, glitches still occur when it comes to putting the plans into practice. Here are some of the most common ones, and what you can do if they occur.

If you have this problem...try one of these possible solutions

The wrong person volunteers for the job

  • Suggest something else that person might be better suited for.
  • Ask a second person to work with them on the project.

No one volunteers for the job

  • Approach someone privately and ask him/her if they'd be willing to do it. This way, you don't put them on the spot in front of everyone.
  • Reevaluate the necessity and overall worth of the task. Is there a reason no one has volunteered?
  • Offer some sort of incentive (such as tickets to a concert) for doing the job.

Enthusiasm fails as members feel like the "real work" is done

  • Hold a party celebrating your accomplishments and serving as a "kick off" for the next steps.

The solution is taking too much time

  • Delegate duties to a greater number of people.
  • Switch leadership, giving people a chance to try something different and bringing a fresh perspective to the tasks.
  • Check to see if there are goals or jobs that can be eliminated or put off, allowing you to focus your energies on jobs that are more central to the solution.

The solution arouses community opposition

Stop and reevaluate what you are doing. There are several different paths you can choose here:

  • You can use the opposition as a rallying point, roll up your sleeves, and fight the good fight.
  • You can try to appease the opposition, either by further explanation of your project, by finding common ground, or by acquiescing on lesser points.
  • You can decide this is not a battle you wish to fight right now, and either put off the solution or choose a different one.

A seemingly new and better opportunity arises

  • Evaluate the pros and cons of changing to the new solution. What would you lose by switching midstream? What would you gain? If the pros outweigh the cons, go for it!
  • If you are uncertain about the probable outcome, ask for feedback from experts, local leaders, and/or those affected by the problem. What do they think?

The solution doesn't seem to be working

Ask yourself and coalition members the following questions:

  • Are you sure you have given it enough time?
  • Why isn't it working?
  • Can some parts of the plan be salvaged? Which ones? Could adapting the plan be enough to save it?
  • If you do decide to eventually abandon it, reconsider some of the solutions you had earlier rejected. Do they make more sense in light of current information?

In Summary

Solving problems is one of the most challenging aspects of working effectively with a group. It's also one of the most rewarding. Operating together, groups can overcome obstacles individuals have found insurmountable. As Margaret Mead reminded us, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Contributor 
Jenette Nagy
Chris Hampton

Print Resources

Avery, M., Auvine, B., Streibel, B., Weiss, L. (1981). Building united judgement: A handbook for consensus decision making. Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution.

Dale, D., and Mitiguy, N. Planning, for a change: A citizen's guide to creative planning and program development.

Dashiell, K.A. (1990). Managing meetings for collaboration and consensus. Honolulu, HI: Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu, Inc.

Interaction Associates (1987). Facilitator institute handbook. San Francisco, CA: Author.

Lawson, L.G., Donant, F.D., and Lawson, J.D. (1982). Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Meacham, W. (1980). Human development training manual. Austin, TX: Human Development Training.

Moore, C.M. (1987). Group techniques for idea building. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Morrison, E.K. (1994). Leadership skills: Developing volunteers for organizational success. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books.