Had an interesting conversation about the problem tree activity with some people who are using it in the context of a migrant worker organizing project. As part of a series of monthly worker assemblies, they are facilitating a three part problem tree activity -- one session for generating the leaves, another for the branches/trunk, a third for the roots. Where to go after that is not settled, it seems, but they seem to be thinking of some kind of discussion of solutions.
The organizes are giving the problem tree activity time to develop, instead of rushing to get it all done in one session. This gives everyone time to reflect on the steps and the content that is generated and allows them to prepare and rethink. How much more effective many activities would be if they were given this kind of time.
As they described their use of the tree to this point (they have done the leaves), several good facilitation questions came up:
- what to do when people propose immediate problems that are more like general causes (for example -- discrimination)?
- what to do when people start moving to the next step?
- what to do when people bring up things they want -- solutions or remedies?
- what to do about people who are eager to share about their problems?
- what makes for a good strong leaf in the problem tree?
They also had some good answers:
- a "parking lot" for items that fit better on the trunk or even the roots, or for items that speak to solutions
- a good leaf is something that is specific and concrete and leads to a why? (and probably more whys after that, see ten levels of why)
- making a separate space in the agenda for sharing, so that people can tell their stories without throwing the discussion off schedule/track
They also identified one of the virtues of the problem tree: it turns a brainstorm or a discussion into a physical object that everyone can see and to which everyone can refer. (This reminds me of Jacotot/Ranciere's emphasis on the common object of study as the basis for verifying mutual understanding.)
They talked about various ways the final tree could be used -- as a kind of reference to assess the degree to which various campaigns or initiatives meet their needs, as a standard by which to measure progress made, as a starting point for "how-to" questions they could address in workshops or literature (e.g. what to do if stopped by the police).
But for me the two most interesting questions were:
- How to connect the problem tree process to existing campaigns?
- What is realistic, who determines that, how?
To me these get to the basic question: what is the problem tree for, or, since there could be many uses, why are you using it?
They said the problem tree is generating other discussions about existing campaigns and priorities; that's a nice side effect. The problem tree is done in a context, in this case, the context of an organization that is already engaged in a spiral of reflection and action. So instead of something to be done before action can take place, this strategic reflection takes place alongside the existing process of thinking, planning, acting, but at a certain distance, which is important. You need to step back in order to think about where you are going.
I think it is important to give the problem tree its space, a space for thoughtful, reflective, and open-ended discussion in which ideas are made physical and shared. The idea is to facilitate reflection that goes from immediate, pressing problems, to broad and deep understandings and questions. (It seems to become more abstract as you move to the roots, but at each step people are actually specifying and concretizing.) That reflection creates s shared space within which it becomes possible for a group to identify common goals that are deep and unifying, goals that can orient work over the longer run. No need to try to tie it to action at this point.
So, I would say enjoy the positive energy about existing campaigns but don't try to bridge these two very different discussions. Once you go from root problems to long-term goals (maybe as roots of a "solution tree", or maybe using a different metaphor -- stars?), you can move to a strategic planning process: the what, why, who, where, when, with whom... (See Alforja's Camino Lógico)... That discussion then makes it possible to look at existing and proposed campaigns and assess them in terms of this common strategy.
But the question that most intrigued me came up in the form of a reference to what is realistic -- as in, someone might look at the problem tree and propose a solution that is unrealistic. Interestingly, in this imagined scenario the person proposing a solution is a worker and the person judging how realistic it is is a staff person. Someone who knows what is realistic and what isn't.
I have seen a similar dynamic before in a workers center where, over the course of a three-day workshop, workers moved from the problem tree to an action plan centered on a campaign to change labor law in NY State to provide for no firing without just cause, i.e. the abolition of "at will" employment. (The "at will" doctrine is the foundation of US labor law.)
At the time, I was just there to support the facilitators because I had helped design some of the plan, and I thought to myself that this result showed that the group -- including the facilitators -- had jumped too quickly from root problems to solutions, proposing a campaign that I thought was unrealistic. I may have been right about the technical question, but the question of what is realistic and who determines that stuck with me.
Hearing the conversation the other day about this migrant workers problem tree I saw the problem from a different angle: the problem tree was being seen as a means to an organizing end with the end having already been defined, framed, strategized by the organizers, at least to some extent. This is not a problem of top-down functioning. The organizers came up with their strategy and their sense of what is realistic through their own experiences and a process of constant and sincere interaction with the people being organized. But still, there seemed to be a separation between organizers and organized, between those who know what's realistic and those who don't. This is a really interesting problem. How to undo the natural tendency for those most active, most involved, to develop into leaders and the new people into followers?
It made me realize that the purpose of the problem tree -- the reason for using it that appeals to me -- is to democratize the process of goal setting and strategic planning. Strategy is normally the domain of the leaders, often of just one or two people. An activity like the problem tree can be used to "bring people along," to build a bridge between their experiences, needs, desires and the strategy of the organization, or it can be used to return everyone to the same footing, (re)articulating their needs, etc, and collectively (re)defining goals and (re)building a strategy. All of those (re)s reflect the fact that some people come to the process with a strategy in hand and need to be ready to re-make it, to reinvent the wheel. Those elements of the strategy that are vital and valid will likely survive the reinvention.
A strategy is only valid to the degree it can be regenerated, otherwise we end up working within a framework that doesn't match our current situation, prisoners of a strategy we inherit or to which we have been recruited.
We all need to be able to determine what is realistic, just like we all need to determine what is enough, what is necessary, what is ideal. The problem tree can be a good tool for this democratic purpose.