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Adaptive skills and design thinking work in tandem to address news desert

by: Sally Duros |

When the Incourage Community Foundation began working with community to impart new ways of listening, talking and interacting, the initial goal was to encourage a culture ripe for self-organizing and collective action. But the foundation’s work quickly evolved to incorporate design thinking as an entre to resident-centered information and news.

Incourage team members believe early funding from Ford Foundation to encourage adaptive skills and current funding from the Knight Foundation to apply design thinking are increasing the impact of their work with residents in Wisconsin Rapids. In a way, adaptive skills plowed the ground and fully aerated it so the current human-centered design approach  can better take root and transform the people and the culture of the place where they work and live.

“I have a bias. I believe that you cannot be authentic in community and do anything around human centered design and not be in relationship with people.  To be in relationship with people requires emotional intelligence and adaptive skills,” says Kelly Ryan, Incourage President and CEO.  

The chicken and the egg

A distressed economy coupled with newsrooms moving online creates a kind of chicken and the egg dilemma for a community foundation, such as Incourage, seeking solutions to address the “Information needs of a community in a Democracy,” the subject of the Knight Commission report that informs funding of the Community Challenge grants.

It’s hard to know where to start.

For Incourage, the solution began squarely with residents as the depth of community disengagement became visible with a shattered economy in the year 2000. 

Incourage's town of Wisconsin Rapids was the smallest city in the United States to be home to a Fortune 500 company.  When the paper company was sold and the headquarters moved to Finland in 2000, Incourage had to find a new way to operate. Within 4 years, by 2005, 40% of total employment in the region had disappeared.

“We needed to think about how we were going to help this community shape a new economy that was wholly different from manufacturing and industrial age. People were crying for jobs,” says Ryan. “What we recognized was that jobs would not happen without addressing the fundamental culture of dependency and entitlement in the community and a fair degree of insularity that came along with being a one company town. These conditions do not foster innovation and risk tolerance.  We really needed to focus on changing behavior.“

To facilitate that culture change and foster new leadership, Incourage received funding from the Ford Foundation to work with the firm, Ki Thoughtbridge to engender  “adaptive skills” among residents in 2004-2005.   

Skills that lead to trust

Adaptive Skills are necessary when neither the problem nor the solution is clear, Says Heather McKellips, who is an adaptive skills trainer and project manager with Incourage. First, those who have the problem must be firmly engaged in crafting solutions. Then, they must sharpen skills that will enhance their ability to lead change.

These skills include the ability to:

  • actively listen;
  • manage conflict;
  • identify common goals;
  • move toward decisions;
  • take action.

The better the adaptive skills, the greater the trust. With greater trust, relationships deepen among individuals, organizations and community. And with deeper relationships, new culture can be born.

Incourage began working with adaptive skills well before they applied for their first Knight Community Information Challenge grant in 2008.  But they weren’t long into their culture work before they realized that information was critical to transformative change.

Creating demand for information

“We learned that you have to work on the demand side of the equation, not just supply,” Ryan says. For Incourage, the question became: “How do we nurture the demand for information in the community? “

One way to get started is to build something big together. In this case, it was The Tribune building project. After ten years of learning adaptive skills, residents were more trusting and better prepared to discuss, problem solve and lead the planning and design process for the community center.

In the community foundation world, resident engagement can mean a continuum of approaches. Some think of it as an arbitrary dynamic that happens along the way.  Other approaches include using time-tested methods of convening, where the foundation puts forth a strawman proposal that is refined iteratively among community, foundation and civic leaders.

Incourage did not want to lead the Tribune Building project with a strawman or other tactic. The foundation was OK with not knowing the answers. And they  expected the solutions to start when the people spoke, not before.

“We put our residents in the center of everything we do. So we start with them. You can only really start with them when you have a true relationship with them and let them drive,”  says McKellips. “We’d say, “We have no idea what is going in this building and they would say ‘You really do. You’re just not including us.’  We’d say, ‘No we really don't.’”

The resident centered process

While fund raising continues for the Tribune Building’s capital program, McKellips has begun working with residents on the communications strategy.  

As one of Knight’s deep dive grantees, Incourage is using a  $250,000 Knight Community Information Challenge grant focused on Engaged Communities to address the tricky interplay between a community and its appetite for information.  

“Phase one and phase two were all about the building itself. Now we are in the connection phase,” says McKellips. “What we have are networked groups of people who are still wanting to be a part of this and still inform more decisions. There’s this kind of convergence. What we want to foster is the flow of information inside and outside the building.”

With partner firm Concordia, Incourage is facilitating a resident-centered conversation to develop a strategy that will facilitate the flow of news and information through community networks.

An important part of this phase is to share and spread lessons about the resident-centered process with other organizations.

Sally Duros

Sally Duros is an independent journalist and digital communications strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. She also
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