Jedi Mind Tricks for Urban Planning Leaders

This post is not about how to deceive others in getting your new transit line, road widening, or bike lane. This post is how to change YOUR OWN mindset to be more effective in accomplishing your goals and contributing to your community.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

-Marcus Aurelius

Be curious, not furious. When you meet opposition from the public, elected officials, or engineers, be aware of the emotions that come up and switch your mindset from being upset, to genuinely curious about why that person is opposing your initiative, project, or idea. Sometimes you may just be misinterpreting what the other person is saying and clarification can help. You may even find out you both are saying the same thing, just using different language! Other times they may actually be opposing it and it’s critical you understanding why because it is an opportunity for your initiative, project, or plan to evolve and improve. This takes powerful listening skills and thoughtful questions in order to really understand the person’s perception and understanding.

They’re calling your baby ugly. It can be extremely challenging to take critical feedback of our own project, plan, idea, or initiative. As Urban planning leaders, we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into our projects and see it as our baby. We may have created it, put in hours to develop it, refined it, and started all over again to make it “perfect”. We get emotionally tied to its success (or failure) because we know that emotion creates motivation and progress. So when someone gives us critical, yet honest feedback, we may perceive it as a threat to our own ability, lack of understanding, or just downright cruel. Since this project is like our baby, we must protect it at all costs, and defend. However, if you can’t receive feedback in a constructive manner, learn from it, and respond constructively, then you don’t grow and your idea, project, or plan doesn’t improve.

Focus on the message, not the delivery. One strategy to better receive feedback is to focus on the message of the provider rather than the technique they provide it. For example, I was completing a slide deck for a bridge rehabilitation project to be presented to elected officials and I asked my boss for tips on effectively delivering material to elected officials. Instead of giving me general tips (what I was looking for) he dove into the details of the presentation and began providing specific feedback on specific words and content. At first, I was frustrated because he didn’t answer my question in a delivery I wanted, such as “here are the 5 general tips when presenting to elected officials”. However, I remembered to focus on the message he was sending, rather than focus on how he was delivering it, and realized he did gave me a general tip. Remove technical jargon from the presentation! When someone may seem to be upset when providing you feedback, try to really listen to what they are saying, rather than how they are saying it.

Check out my post 5 Tips to Brief Elected Officials on your Project for more info!

Focus on what you can control. I was recently introduced to Stoicism, a philosophy dating back to the 3rd century BC that focuses on self-control and to accept the world around, even if its painful. As a planner, it is difficult to know what will come next, and therefore uncertainty provides a challenging environment to know where to put your resources and time. Therefore, focus on improving and growing yourself, since this is the one thing you can control.

Successfully Planning for Uncertainty

Envisioning the future for cities and making decisions to help your city thrive in the face of uncertainty is challenging and painful for some. Planners may wonder, at what rate will sea levels rise? Will there be a recession this year? Will Transportation Network Carriers (TNCs) be a dominant force in transportation? Will millenials stay in cities as they grow up and have families, or move to suburbs like their parents? These uncertainties make it challenging for planning organizations to know where to invest their resources, and for planners to know what skills and knowledge they should gain to grow their careers. Uncertainty can cause fear, anxiety, and doubt, which may lead to organizations and people trying to control as much as possible or give up and say, we will wait until the future happens. However, both strategies are barely handling uncertainty and can cause immense costs financially and socially.

The problem isn’t uncertainty itself. The problem is our rejection of it.

From: 5 Tools for Thriving in Uncertainty

There are two types of uncertainty, internal and external. Internal uncertainty is within yourself, or within an organization. Am I doing the right things and making the right decisions? Am I on the right career path? Does the organization have the right skills and resources to help their cities thrive? Can I reach my goal? Basically, it can be doubt about who you are and what you are doing. External uncertainty is how the world is changing and all the possibilities that exist. For example, whether a Republican or Democrat will be elected, or will a devastating earthquake erupt? Will walkability be a norm, or will we continue our autocentric ways?

So how can urban planning leaders successfully plan cities in uncertainty?

Change your mindset. This is the most important. Change what you think about uncertainty. “The problem isn’t uncertainty itself. The problem is our rejection of it.” Certainty may actually deprives us of developing sustainable and livable communities because it oversimplifies the complexity of the world. A sexy light rail system will not be successful everywhere in every situation. Uncertainty brings challenge and pain in our lives, yet it brings the most growth, fulfillment, and joy. Rather than running from the challenge, embrace it. Know that in those uncertain moments, especially the ones that are the most painful, you are growing the most and great opportunities are forthcoming.

Uncertainty brings challenge and pain in our lives, yet it brings the most growth, fulfillment, and joy.

Focus on Internal Uncertainty. There are many things in this world that are out of our control. That’s why I am a big believer in focusing within myself in situations of uncertainty and challenge. Focusing on what we can control (ourselves), rather than what we cannot (the world), brings better decision-making to better our cities and peace within ourselves. This doesn’t mean to not be aware of the outside world, just don’t dwell on what’s wrong with it or try to control it. Prepare for uncertainties by being adaptive, developing skills, and being emotionally intelligent. Focusing on yourself can be very difficult, especially when everything around you feels like chaos. Kyle Eschenroeder, describes the Triad of Control as a tool to help. Where “you simply distinguish, in any given situation, whether you have total control, no control, or some control. Then, focus on what is in your control with your whole being.”

Experiment. Reflect. LEARN. Repeat. Successful businesses and communities are running more low-cost experiments to gain results for learning, rather than develop elaborate plans that may not work and cost a lot of money. For example, Tactical Urbanism has become an international movement that uses flexible, low-cost, and short-term projects to advance long-term goals related to street safety, public space, and multi-modalism. It’s something you can control directly and see if it functions well with the community. Learning is a key ingredient here to understand what works, what doesn’t, and to adapt to situations efficiently and effectively.

Temporary Bus Platform on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, CA

Learn Emotional Intelligence. This strategy may not seem relevant, however it has really changed my life in being able to handle uncertainties. I have learned how to pinpoint the anger, fear, and/or vulnerability when uncertainty is present. Learning how to deal with emotions helps the brain focus on solutions, rather than focusing on the uncertainty itself. You can actually use those negative emotions as power to find solutions. Our emotions drive our behavior, and sometimes we don’t even realize it!

Develop Scenarios. Organizations are now using scenarios of the future to drive decision-making and be prepared for what could be ahead. MTC, the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, created three scenarios of what the Bay Area future could be. They created regional forecasts in areas of jobs, housing, population, travel needs, and funding for transportation improvements to help drive decision-making for uncertainties.

SPUR, also created a comprehensive future scenarios report that lays out potential futures in the economy, housing, transportation, and physical form. The looked at uncertainties the region does not have control of, and outcomes that will be shaped by choices. “It is a way of understanding choices, chains of events, alternatives and possible outcomes to support better decision-making in the face of a future with great uncertainty.” Check out my links page for more info.

So embrace uncertainty, and see the opportunity it can bring for your city. Prepare for uncertainty by focusing on yourself, experimenting and then learning, gaining emotional intelligence, and using strategic planning scenarios.