Community Holds the Key

 Graphic: Trevor Melton

Graphic: Trevor Melton


As a society, we rarely use community-based collaboration to unlock potential. At best, we try to “manage” communities. More often, we “deal” with them. Too often, we “ignore” them. We simply haven’t had reliable models to help complexcommunities evolve constructively. So, understandably, we default to what we know. 

Releasing potential in “living systems” is inherently messy. And leaders don’t likemesses. Bringing diverse people together to design a future is risky. And most leaders don’t like risk. And giving decision-making power to a community of people captured in a static system—well, precious few leaders will do that!

Once established, systems preserve themselves with rules of control. Entropy ensures they fall back on old ways of thinking and decision-making. Leaders fear empowering communities to unlock their own potential will deliver chaos, not efficiency—even as their present systems deliver results they don’t want. 

So we remain stuck. We remain stuck in legacy systems, essentially out of touch with their communities. We remain stuck in a one-sided conversation in which a single-leader decides. When there are transparent ways to proceed, we remain stuck with suspicions of backroom horse trading. In a world of unprecedented connectivity we remain stuck in closed systems out of sync with high complexity.

Too often, we design our future using reductionist zero-sum games. Our legal and political systems shortchange complexity. In the legal system, casino verdicts reduce massive complexity to win or lose. To combat the reductionism, people use mediation rather than litigation to solve complex disputes.

When politics reduces issues to a PowerPoint deck, 140 twitter characters and a power broker calling the shots, there is no way to deal with the many variables. Prime Minister Cameron failed miserably when he reduced the Brexit issue to a “simple up or down vote.” The issue was too complex for a simple solution—and he lost the vote. Our friend Tyl van Toorn persuasively argues:

The traditional model doesn’t allow for more than two stakeholders to effectively contextualize all the relevant variables into a set of viable solutions, let alone 25 competing interests at once. Top-down decision-making results in slowed economies, widened social divisions, paralyzed governments, and leads to friction which people increasingly reject.

In the past three decades, collaborative work has evolved to create reliable and scalable models. This work replaces, for instance, the single-issue negotiation process in law and politics. It designs a better outcome by incorporating the collective genius of interdisciplinary groups that create models far more capable
than existing precedents. 

When it incorporates all points of view, collaborative work reduces risk. It anticipates most possible objections and problems before implementation. The partnerships that emerge make implementation far more likely because the co-designers share and own the new model. 

Twenty-first-century science mandates this approach—and refutes those who consider it Utopian fantasy.


Carter Andrews helps businesses and communities improve complex systems. He champions collaborative design that features strong participation by diverse participants. Download his paper Leadership for High-Complex Systems in Future Ready Nashville to dive into the world of complexity.