Board Biz: Tackling Problems Without Clear Solutions


Last week, I read a very interesting article by Sue Shellenbarger in the February 24, 2016 edition of the Wall Street Journal about how to tackle problems that may have no clear solutions.

Although the article was about a course being taught to engineering students at Northwestern University, I read it and thought it contained good lessons for communities like Rancho Santa Fe.

Difficult problems seldom have clear solutions and yet solutions are worth pursuing for the benefits they may bring to individuals or organizations.

Interestingly, the article pointed out that those trying to solve the problem may themselves benefit from the process itself–if the process is truly one that leads to empathy, collaboration, teamwork, brainstorming, humility and resiliency.

Ms. Shellenbarger provided a list of strategies that experts consider useful and necessary when tackling the “unsolvable.” The strategies she listed were:

  1. Listen to and understand the people you are trying to help.
  2. Be open to alternative ways of thinking.
  3. Get help from others.
  4. Try many ideas, even strange-sounding ones.
  5. Adopt an entrepreneurial attitude.
  6. Accept the inevitable failures.
  7. Try and try again.

Over the past year, members of the RSFA board and its committees have struggled to find solutions to several very difficult issues, all of which we have written about in this paper many times. The most notable questions we have tackled are:

  • How can we improve cell coverage throughout the Covenant?
  • How can establish high speed Internet throughout the Covenant?
  • How can we build a financially viable health club and pool for our residents?
  • How can we restore vibrancy to our Village?

As I look over our list of problems and compare each one to Ms. Shellenbarger’s list, I believe that our teams of staff and volunteers have–perhaps unconsciously–been adhering to the suggested strategies.

Each one of these issues has required hours of time listening to Covenant members’ concerns, researching alternatives, contracting with the best outside consultants, working with representatives of the County, brainstorming and seeking help from all quarters.

From my perspective, an entrepreneurial attitude and teamwork have been hallmarks of every project. Board members, committee volunteers and staff have collaborated every step of the way; each respecting the knowledge of the others and challenging old ideas when necessary to try to find the best way forward.

For one example of “Try and try again,” this Board tried to be proactive in moving the County forward in addressing the traffic issue along the Del Dios Corridor. Because the County’s solution of roundabouts seemed very far off and the traffic impact on neighbors along the corridor seemed to be increasingly problematic, the Board attempted to “solve” the problem by recommending stoplights to the County.

After listening to a great deal of input from members who asked for a vote of all the community, the Board sent the question of roundabouts versus stoplights to a community survey. Ultimately, the members expressed their desire for roundabouts by an overwhelming majority.

The Board then sent the results from the members to the County and directed the County to take action. After years of Boards’ refusing to resolve the issue of roundabouts versus stoplights and “kicking the can down the road,” members were finally allowed to weigh in by voting on a Board-proposed solution and the Board took a stand with the County.

This Board learned an important lesson in the experience with roundabouts. Perhaps if the entire community had been provided the opportunity to weigh in on the roundabouts 10-15 years ago and if past Boards had taken action, we would have had solutions in place by now to address our traffic problems.

This Board is determined neither to delay nor kick any cans down the road with respect to finding solutions to our difficult challenges. We will give our best efforts to finding solutions; when appropriate we will provide members an opportunity to vote on the proposals; and we will take action. We believe that a Board with this resolve is what our community wants.

As a Board, we will continue to be as informative and transparent as possible. Remember that some work of the committees and of the Board must be done in closed session as we deal with proprietary or privileged information. That said, we are all committed to making the facts available to you as soon as we are able to provide them on every project.

Take a look at Ms. Shellenbarger’s list of strategies again. It is not a bad guide to approaching anything difficult in life. It is a guide that should be embraced by everyone–on both sides of the controversial issues.

My hat is off to all the RSFA volunteers–especially my fellow Board members–and staff who have engaged in such open-minded and forward-thinking strategies as they work to make the Covenant community a better place for all of us.