7 Questions Every Planner Must Ask

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You may think you need to know the answers all the time, but in reality, knowing the right questions to ask is more important. There is so much information and knowledge in the world right now, that in order to filter it to get the information you need, you must ask the right questions. Here are 7 questions that are critical for urban planners.

Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.

-Tony Robbins

Who are we Serving?

This question is straight forward to begin to understand who you are serving and who the stakeholders are in the planning process. Your belief in who you are serving is critical in planning because it shapes who you will engage with in the public process. If you believe you’re serving motorists on a transportation project, you will ignore the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists. This question can be followed by who am I missing?

What’s the Community’s Story/History?

Understanding a community’s past experiences and their history is essential in understanding their perception of life and bias. Better understanding your community will lead to better outcomes to serve them. This question is particularly important when you have a different background and experiences compared to the community. For example, I grew up in a middle-income privileged family. I am half Hispanic and half White and if I work in a poor, African American community, I will have different experiences and perceptions about government.

What are my Biases and Perceptions about this Community and project?

This question has us look inward and become aware of what our belief of the community or project. For example, do I think this community is crime-ridden and too poor function on its own? Or that it’s a lower-income community that has survived many past bad planning decisions? The two different mindsets will lead to drastic differences in how you treat the residents and the decisions you make.

How do my Biases and Perceptions conflict with those of the Community?

Once you’re aware of the community’s story/history and your own biases and perceptions, take it a step further to see how they may conflict. This will bring you clarity as to why conflict arises during a public engagement process by understanding how you think differently than the community or stakeholders you are working with. This clarity sets you up to mitigate those conflicts and turn them into productive conversations.

That’s an interesting thought/argument, what process did you go through to reach that conclusion?

Planners work with diverse groups of people: engineers, architects, elected officials, citizens, etc, and therefore, work with different opinions and ways of thinking. This diversity can create great outcomes if conflict of those opinions and ways of thinking are managed effectively. This question sparks curiosity and seeks to understand where the other person is coming from, rather than argue why they are wrong. They may have different information or knowledge than you do. It’s important your attitude reflects curiosity and not to prove the other person wrong because otherwise, they will become defensive and uncooperative.

What are we missing?

Planners deal with challenging and complex problems. Affordable housing, homelessness, poor transportation infrastructure, and many more. We often choose a solution to a problem when we don’t have a firm understanding of the problem itself. We rely on handbooks, guidelines, and case studies to fit our problems in a box. This rarely results in excellent results. So ask “What am I missing?” when you are stuck, and unsure how to solve a problem, and ask it when you develop a solution too quickly, without really understanding the problem.

Why does this problem exist? (repeat 5 times)

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, developed the “5 Why” technique that asks “why” 5 times to find the root of a problem, to avoid only fixing symptoms. “This elementary and often effective approach to problem-solving promotes deep thinking through questioning, and can be adapted quickly and applied to most problems.”

Wrap up

Don’t let your ego think you need to know the answers all the time. This leads to mistrust, poor relationships, and bad plans. Ask questions to find the answers and for self-reflection. Start with these:

1.Who are we serving?

2. What’s the community’s story/history?

3. What are my biases and perceptions about this community and project?

4. How do my biases and perceptions conflict with those of the community?

5. That’s an interesting thought/argument, what process did you go through to reach that conclusion?

6. What are we missing?

7. Why does this problem exist? (repeat 5 times)