Breakdowns to Breakthroughs #3

The “Problem” with People

Call it the conundrum of plans. We believe we need them. A good plan can seem like a detailed map of where we want to go. And then we embark on the project we planned and encounter features that aren’t on the map. We might become lost and quit, or we soldier on, ignoring or trampling anything we hadn’t foreseen.

In community work, probably nothing disrupts plans more than people. The people planning the work; the people doing the work; the people meant to benefit from the work; the people observing the work. Even plans that account for all these different people are subject to failure because it’s impossible to account for an unpredictability that seems innately human. Maybe failure is the wrong word for what happens when a plan doesn’t lead to the outcome it intended.

As we’re learning, “community” is not, as it’s easy to assume from our vantage, a monolithic, homogeneous construct. If it were, maybe plans would accurately account for everything that happens when projects are undertaken. Within a “community” people have private agendas – needs and wants that shape behavior; that is, they are human. When plans expose this human factor we think it’s not failure but progress.


Here are three examples of projects in Wellville that are evolving to address these nitty-gritty realities – the inevitable “stuff” of working with other people:

  • In Spartanburg, SC, a community engagement initiative bumps up against barriers dividing residents from the local leaders promoting “resident engagement.” Not only do we, the national Wellville team, have to forge trusting relationships with residents, we have to recognize and offer guidance to our local partners who need to do the same.
  • In North Hartford, CT, development plans for a vacated factory building hit unanticipated challenges when the organization slated to use part of the space for a health clinic has a change of heart. Rather than rushing to find a new tenant, the team is askingwhat prompted the change of heart – and how to avoid similar breakdowns – while considering new possibilities to make best use of the space.
  • And in Lake County, CA, senior leaders from the two health systems serving the region are finding it necessary to take a strategic approach to exploring how best to work together to establish a structure to support community-based initiatives that would have county-wide impact.

Planning tends to be a technical exercise. But we’re seeing that this exercise yields better results when it’s accompanied by simple allowances for the social and emotional needs – the “human factor” – of the people who will be doing and be affected by the work.