Asking Questions about the Immediate Task and the Bigger Picture

Discussion paper on “THE IMMEDIATE TASK AND
BIGGER PICTURES”—originally written for a seminar on May 28, 1981 by Terry
Lunsford and John Bilorusky as part of WISR’s project on “Extending the
Teaching, Learning and Use of Action-Research Throughout the Community,” funded
by the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary
Education, 1980-83. (with updated edits, May 2011)

 

In most community organizations, the pressure of immediate needs is strong and continuing. We
learn to deal with a series of “crises,” often, with lulls between
them to catch our breath, and we may even establish a certain, half-conscious
rhythm of doing so, as a patterned work-style. Even if not, many of us can
become fairly satisfied, for a time, with the tasks of responding to needs,
ones which we think are important, and we become absorbed in this process to
the exclusion of seeing other ways and other dimensions of our jobs and community
improvements. Or even our lives. It’s a cliche, by now, to say that we need to
give ourselves chances, and occasionally the requirement, to look at the
longer-range view, the larger objectives we are working for, alternatives to
the ways we become used to following, This discussion paper will briefly
address some of the issues which that wise saying involves, and some ways that
an ongoing Action Research process can help us deal with them.

One reason that we get absorbed and set into immediate reactions to short-term
crises is, of course, that they are there. Some of them, we have to solve
because they spell survival or extinction for the enterprise. Others are less
immediate, but we may learn to treat them, too, as crises–having learned how to
handle crises, from having to do it. And what is a “crisis,” or more
broadly an immediate need that demands attention, is partly a matter of
definition–of priorities, of what is worth spending time on, of what really
counts in getting our most important jobs done, and keeping ourselves able to
do them. For similar reasons, it’s important to define reasonable breaks, and
rest from the press of meeting demands, as part of the job–to avoid what
people like to call “burnout,” visible and invisible. We may get
satisfied with our crisis-orientation because short-run, technical and concrete
problems are in some ways more manageable than the larger, long-range, more
diffuse ones. We are more sure that a short-range problem is a problem, and
what it means, and what to do about it. So those kinds of problems feel more
manageable, especially when we get good at solving them, and that’s a subtle
incentive to assume they are all that our community work is about. Probably,
however, it’s not.

 

An inquiry process, or an Action Research approach as one part of our community organization’s operation,
can be used as a focus for raising larger, long-range questions. That kind of
process, as we have been exploring it, involves periodic or ongoing
discussions, in an organization, of what it is all about, where it is in its
development, what it has learned from experience, how well it is meeting its
goals, how adequate those goals are, to addressing our deeper sense of purpose
and values–and a host of other questions that come up in a specific
organization when we start asking those mentioned. The issue of what larger and
long-range goals and values the organiza­tion is working toward is one such
possible question that the inquiry process can help us to address.

 

This can involve more than just doing a periodic evaluation of how well we are meeting stated
goa1s–a1though that is a pretty good idea for starting, as we’ve suggested. It’s
also more than doing something about performance, improving what we are
able to do in meeting the stated goals. It’s partly taking a look at the
goals themselves, and critiquing them by reference to larger values and deeply
felt commitments. But the “bigger picture” notion also involves
something more like taking a step backward, and getting a whole new angle on the
way we are looking at what we and others are doing–1ike lifting our eyes to
the horizon, checking our surroundings, seeing how we fit ecologically into the
rest of the world, so to speak. Sometimes, that can highlight new things in the
daily operations of our agency or group that nothing else shows us, and such new
insights can be powerful levers for working out new ways of doing things.

 

Often, we implicitly shy away from such “philosophic” issues as “What does it all add up
to? –fearing that the results will be incon­clusive, wandering conversations
and ruminations that serve only to encourage speech­making, and perhaps bring
up divisive issues that make working together harder. Those are real problems,
and they have to be dealt with. It’s important, for example, to encourage some
rules of relevance in the discussions, so people don’t see them as just aimless
discussions (in the 60s and 70s we called them “rap sessions) about any­thing
on their minds, but systematic considerations (by a staff, let’s say) of what larger
issues are impinging on our work. Again, getting beyond narrower, more clearly
and technically defined problems makes things a bit messier. But it doesn’t
have to be chaos. One way of keeping the discussion concrete, for example, is
by a discussion leader’s asking people to tell what leads them to believe or
argue what they are telling the group–what experiences have convinced them, and
what others can understand that might persuade them also. That often helps to
keep the discussion close to specific experiences, including shared ones that
several people may know about, instead of letting it fly off into the heights of
political or academic rhetoric that someone has learned somewhere. At the same
time, it can be important to let people have time and permission to grope for
ways to express themselves, because otherwise many half-formed, but creative
and insightful ideas may be lost to the group. And this can be especially true
when “bigger pictures” are being discussed.

 

Strains between “everyday life” and larger contexts

 

Whether we realize it or not, there are a lot of implicit strains, or tensions, or ambiguities in the
ways that our everyday actions and relationships fit into our larger
va1ues–and the bigger pictures of state, national, international, and other
kinds of scenes. For one thing, we may all be agreed on working in fairly
standard ways to help improve our community’s health care, let’s say, but we
may do so for very different motives and with concerns for different emphases
and agendas. Some of us want to help specific people, whom we see hurting. Some
may want to learn about how health care really works in a commun­ity, to change
the system for the better. Some may just want to work with other likeable
people in a “good cause,” to feed their family’s faces. Some may want
to build a model of better health care that other commun­ities can copy, and
change things on a larger scale. Some may be unclear about exactly what they
are most interested in. Some want to help this group more, some that group,
when resources are scarce. So, what our larger values are, how they are
connected to our work on an everyday basis, what are the priorities and what
are luxuries, what is possible and where our efforts can best be
spent–questions like these are always there somewhere, to be asked if we
decide to, and the answers are by no means clear in any specific group that is
working for community improvement. That’s partly why “formal
organizations,” like nonprofit corporations and public agencies, have
formally state goals and charts of organizational relationships and rules–so
all of those questions don’t have to be debated every time someone wants to do
some­thing. But the complexities don’t go away because the organization chart
says they do; they just change their form, and become implicit, sometimes
hidden, sometimes too much for the group to deal with. But, since we have to
deal with those ambiguities, anyway, we can at least turn them to our
advantage, some of the time. Ambiguity gives us openness, freedom, opportunity
to change. And looking at the bigger pictures can be a way to bring that
freedom into play, to see new possibilities where we were stuck in a rut,
before; to change the informal consensus (and the state of our
disagreements) by which we get our daily work done. By agreeing to an informal
shift of efforts from one of our stated goals to another, for examp1e–1et’s
say, spending less time on doing things for people, and more on helping them
learn how to do things for themselves, in a self-sustaining way–we can sometimes
change our whole relationship to some larger issues in the society, and refresh
our feelings about the way we work, in the process.

One of the issues that comes up again and again in organizations trying to improve
communities is whether our short-range efforts to meet local needs are really
“band-aids” for gaping wounds. Are we doing much to help people when
we just help them solve their oncoming crises, but leave them with the same
pattern of crises to be solved? Is some of our work actually obscuring
the problems that underlie the crises, by helping somewhat just at the crisis
point, and making crises seem manageable? Would some other expenditure of our
energies and efforts be a better way of making things better for more people,
over the long run? When we ask these questions in the abstract, they raise all
kinds of worries and possible problems; we can always shake our own confidence
by thinking of what we are not doing. But looking carefully and thoughtfully at
our specific activities, and figuring out how they fit into bigger
pictures, can help to get beyond those scares, and give us some answers that we
can live with, at least until we get better ones. For example, we may want to
ask whether our ways of helping people make them less or more able to help
themselves, thereafter. We may want to ask whether we are changing anything
about the social relationships between people, the “social
structures” and processes that shape their troubles and the solutions
avai1able–or are we only helping at the edge, on the worst crises that those
processes keep producing? Or: How can we get better facts about the results of
our work, which would bear on those specific questions? How can we identify the
things that could be changed, if we put our efforts into them (like
official decisions that could be made differently), and distinguish
these from facts that we aren’t going to change (like the coming of old age and
illness to all of us)? An inquiry process that focuses on such questions, and
follows them up with action to get better facts and shift priorities
deliberately, can make a big difference in the way a community organization
operates.

 

The dialectic in this process, between questioning and getting facts, between studying issues and
doing something about them, is an important element. In the same way, we can
develop a kind of dialectic connecting our attention . . .

 

Here’s another issue:  we need to be sure we aren’t hiring research
specialists who will want to take over the process, and convert it to their own
uses. But, if we get the right attitudes going, over a period of weeks, months,
or even longer, we’ll start to find that we have co-workers who are colleagues
in developing and doing Action Research as they do their other jobs. And that
can double the pleasure as well as get good work done.

 

Developing ongoing Action Research processes

Assuming that we get permission from others and a task group going, we’ll still want to
start small and try to show some tangible results in a fairly short time. It’s
usually best not to set out at first to settle all of the issues that have
needed study for a long time. Take one or two, at best, that are real and cared
about by people in the group, and try to do something modest and useful that
will advance the group’s knowledge about them. An easy example is the one mentioned
above: finding out who our clients or constituents are, from an analysis of
data we already have about them, perhaps in our files. Some in-depth interviewing
of a few clients or constituents, to see what their views of the organization
are, when someone takes time and really asks and listens to them, can open up
whole new perspectives for the staff and board, sometimes-­based not on a few
questions in a poll of a random sample, but simply on getting systematic ideas
and feelings and experiences from a few people. It won’t “prove”
anything, yet, but it will probably supply a lot of new information, and in a
systematic form, that the group didn’t have at its disposal before. Another,
more elaborate, but often very useful, way to start can be by interviewing
fairly syst­ematically a sampling of people from each of the major groups
involved in the agency: board, staff, sub-groups of staff (like direct-service
people and administration), ethnic sub-groups, clients, potential clients, involved
constituents and supporters, potential allies and so on. We might ask each of
them a few, simple questions: What do they think the organization’s goals are?
What do they think the goals ought to be? What does the organization do best,
in their view? What would they like to see it do differently? What are their
priorities, the things they would like to see emphasized, with the limited
resources at hand? What else would they like to tell us about the place that
stands out in their mind? If we ask questions like that to a pretty good
sprinkling of the involved and influential people in the agency’s main
sub-groups, we’ll already have an immense amount of informa­tion that most
places don’t have about themselves. We’ll know a lot that most outside
evaluations don’t even begin to ask: What is this enterprise, in the
eyes of the people who run it, need it, care about it? We don’t have to ignore
the formally stated goals in the charter and the official memos; just don’t
emphasize them very much, but ask people what they think, and let them use the
official stuff if and when they want to.

 

Such systematic conversations can also get beyond the kinds of “popularity contests”
among goals that some community groups get trapped into. We’re not interested
just in how many people “vote” for which goals and which priorities, at a
particular time. We might instead try to get a set of reasoned pictures of the
whole organiza­tion and its operations, as each of many people sees it, so we
can build a kind of composite picture, or mosaic, that shows who thinks what,
and why, and where the overlaps are, and what issues need more exploration by
research or group discussions. If there are major divisions within the group on
some major issues, we may want to prepare a description of that, giving the
majority and minority positions, maybe with their variations within those
groups, and show by specific examples what difference it appears to make, depending
on which view is adopted. Such a report could become an important discussion
paper for later staff meetings, and for community forums–not the definitive
last word on the subject, but a major contribution of facts, ideas, and
analysis to help the group, and the community, advance its thinking, and iron
out its differences where that’s appropriate. No matter what the result, if we
keep such documents within the collective files–the “organizational memory”
that we talked about–we will have provided for future members of the
organization a valuable, real, historical account of the group’s life and
thought, which can be a good basis for the next generation’s own set of
decisions and discussions of these same issues.

 

We often talk about not accepting static goal-statements as given, and evaluating everything simplistically
in terms of them. It’s important, we believe, to evaluate goals as well as to
evaluate other things by reference to goals. It may take some time to get an
attitude like this accepted within our organization or community or group,
especially because many of our community agencies and groups feel like they are
doing pretty well if they get one clear, accepted statement of goals all
written out nicely, and people may not want to shake up the whole thing
by re-examining those goals periodically. Nevertheless, this action-research
approach is transformative and potentially more useful in addressing both immediate
tasks and bigger pictures, by emphasizing what people think are the
goals, and what should be the goals, and their priorities, can help to provide
a way around this kind of generalized fear. It can help to show the group what
some people call the “operational goals” of the group: what it is
really working for, as opposed to what its formal statements say. At least, it
can open up that subject for a discussion by the staff and community
participants–and not necessarily in an argumentative way. It’s a fairly
well-known fact that organizations generally move away from their formal goals
in the process of operating, ­because the goals compete with each other, and
because we find out things in the process of working with people that we didn’t
know when we wrote the goals out at first, because people differ in which goals
they think should come first, or maybe just because people get involved in
helping others or in working for change and forget to worry about whether it
fits into one of the pre-established goal-categories in some formal document,
somewhere. All of those are natural, typical processes of people working
cooperatively for things they believe in. So the group needn’t feel embattled,
within itself or against the outside, if there is some slippage that shows up
when we do critical questioning and inquiry–research–of this kind. The
organization is not just its written statements; it is a living, changing,
work-and-doing entity, which needs to know about its changes from time to time,
to keep figuring out which directions it wants to go in.

 

As a part of this, recognizing that different people stand in different relationships to the
organization is just common sense, and also doesn’t have to threaten the working
harmony of the group. The existing decision-making structure doesn’t have to
change because a mosaic of viewpoints is presented for discus­sion, or even for
final decision in the ways the group usually makes decisions. But this kind of
socially grounded information about the thoughtful views of many varied
participants, at different “levels” and from different experiences,
can supply richness and a realistic kind of knowledge about what is going on.
It can encourage more open, participative decision-making processes, and it can
help whatever decisions are made to be better grounded in the social realities
that exist.

When our organization has a mechanism for collective looks at where we are and where
we’re going, we can make plans and change them in a much more fluid, dynamic
manner than we can if a few people decide and then have to communicate the
decisions, why they were made, why it’s a good idea to go along with them,
etc., to everyone else. Big plans, and big decisions, that is.  On the little ones, we usually accept someone’s
authority just to get on with it. But, again, Action Research can be useful to
keep the plans and decisions that are made–collectively or from the top-­accountable
to some facts about what their consequences are. It could even get to the point
that our organization or group just routinely and regularly works out policies
for a period of so many months, to try out a specific way of operating, and at
the same time expects naturally to set up an inquiry process that will check
out its effectiveness, its costs, what people think of it, etc.–whatever
issues the group thinks are important in testing out its practice.

But that elaborate and systematic a way of using Action Research is more of a
possibility than a probability, in most community organizations and groups. And
it doesn’t have to get to that for inquiry processes to have their place in our
group’s ways of operating. Most of all, we should seriously consider fitting
Action Research into our setting so it becomes a useful tool for the
organization in serving its community and working for larger, longer-term
change, as well.  In this way, the process of action-and-inquiry can feel useful, on the basis of
experience, to the people involved in initiating the actions—be they services
and/or change efforts.  And, the process may come to feel engaging and meaningful to others in the community whom we
hope will benefit from our efforts.  How best to do that, we’ll probably learn
through experimenting—through some trial and error.

 

SUGGESTED EXERCISE/ACTIVITY, FOR LEARNING AND ACTION:  As an exercise for ourselves and an aid to future seminar discussions, each of us might think about how we would try to build inquiry into some group, organization, or community with which we are currently involved and committed–or one in which we have worked in the past.  Then, we might also try to imagine what the
best approaches would be, what problems we might hit, how we would try to get around them, and so on. Mulling over such questions, and talking with others
about them, is a good way to start.

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