October 17th, 2012

“I Was Thinking the Same Thing”


After six months of meetings and phone calls throughout this first phase of the Delta Dialogues, how much shared understanding is there?

The late September Dialogues meeting offered a test of just that question, in the form of an extended exercise.

When participants in the Delta Dialogues arrived at the Delta Conservancy’s offices in West Sacramento, eight easels were standing around the room, with big blank sheets of paper on each. Soon, representatives of eight different interests — fish and recreation, water users, agriculture, Delta levees, state/federal water agencies, state/federal regulatory agencies, NGOs/environmental, and local government — were asked to pick a board and make two lists. First, name your top three needs in a plan for the Delta that includes conveyance. Second, name your three biggest concerns.

After they’d done this, the different interests were asked to look at each other’s boards. Then, they affixed stickers of different colors to the needs and concerns of others. A green dot was placed next to concerns or needs that they had predicted. A red dot showed that they hadn’t expected that interest to have that need or concern. A blue dot conveyed a lack of understanding.

As each interest read and discussed and posted stickers next to the needs and concerns of others, the room filled with the smiles of expectations met — and some pleasant surprises. They understood each other in most cases. And, when the expressed concerns and needs of others were different than they expected, the surprise lay in the fact that there was so much agreement.

“It was refreshing,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, once the exercise was over. “Others are thinking the way I’m thinking.”

“We found out that we may have said things differently,” said Dick Pool, representing the commercial and recreational fishing industries, “but we were saying the same thing.”

After that, John Cain of American Rivers deadpanned: “I was thinking the same thing.”

The most surprising need, expressed by state and federal water agencies, was their need for the least disruptive solutions in the Delta that enhance the Delta “as a place” with a strong economic, agriculture, recreation and other things. The stakeholders present also were surprised by water users’ expressed need that a conveyance system be compatible with existing activities and ecosystem functions, including fishing and farming.

Surveying the room, facilitator Kristin Cobble whispered to her colleagues, Eugene Kim and Jeff Conklin, “We have a lot of shared understanding here.”

The demonstration of shared understanding and the detailed discussion that began during the exercise and continued through the meeting left some participants saying it was the strongest meeting so far. Several indicated that they wanted to move into more detailed conversations around what one called “shared solutions.”

In the afternoon, the discussion jumped between specifics and broader conversation about how to move forward with the conversation in the most productive way. Conklin drafted a jagged line on a graph — “like a seismograph,” he noted — to explain the chaotic, difficult sorts of conversation that go into the weeds, but are in fact the way that human beings talk when they learn and address wicked problems.

Such a jagged line is different than the traditional problem-solving process of gathering and analyzing data and focusing on a problem for a long time before formulating a solution. That may sound good or simple, but problem-solving doesn’t work like that, Conklin said. What really should happen in efforts to address complex problems is that participants go back and forth between the problem and potential solutions over and over again in a process that, if mapped, looks like the jagged line.

Some participants said they thought the group got along well enough that they could take the jagged path by addressing more difficult issues and even courting disagreement.

The September meeting also included a new addition to the dialogues: Tom Zuckerman. A Delta landowner who has had a variety of different roles, Zuckerman had been identified as a leader in the Delta in one of the monthly phone calls that have been part of the process. He said he had “been through lots of processes. I’m getting old with a limited amount of energy and time.” He said he wanted to “watch and listen” to the meeting before signing on.

The final meeting of this first phase of the Dialogues is scheduled for October 26.