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)

The Infinite Mindset: Lessons from Simon Sinek

As I rolled into the final week of my first semester in the Urban and Regional Planning Masters program at CU Denver, I felt unmotivated, uninspired, and dispassionate. The show ‘Goliath’ was more appealing to me than working to finish this semester with good grades. Even washing dishes was an adequate distraction.

This bothered me. So, I took time to reflect on why I was unmotivated and I learned two valuable lessons that apply to city leaders, planners, designers, and advocates:

  1. I was playing with a finite mindset in an infinite game, and

  2. I was disconnected and unaligned to my higher purpose.

Finite Mindset in an Infinite Game

In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek describes a “finite mindset in an infinite game” as trying to “win” in a game where there are no agreed upon rules, players, time, or metrics that define what “winning” means. Finite games, like football, have a specified time, agreed upon rules, specified teams, and clarity that whoever has the most points at the end of regulation (the agreed upon time), wins. “There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.” However, planning and design is an infinite game because “the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint.

This misalignment results in planners, designers, city leaders, and advocates to focus on short-term thinking, playing as if they need to “win” the bid, or “beat” congestion. An infinite mindset works towards a vision where people have equal access to where they need to go and financial opportunity to live their best lives.

I was too focused on the short-term outcome of receiving a 4.0 gpa, rather than learning how to best serve communities. This led to a drastic decrease in my motivation and passion, leaving me wondering why I am working this hard.

A finite mindset causes us to compare ourselves to others, rather than being better than who we were yesterday and focus on a mission to serve others. I wanted to receive a 4.0 gpa because my younger sister did in her graduate program. This led me astray to why I was putting my time, energy, and money into my graduate program: to improve our cities to be sustainable and livable places.

If we believe trust, cooperation and innovation matter to the long-term prospects of our organizations, then we have only one choice–to learn how to play with an infinite mindset.

-Simon Sinek

Many cities replicate what other cities have because they believe they need the same thing. For example, many city leaders wanted to copy Portland’s light rail system because they thought the systems would magically boost their economy, reduce congestion, or create a “livable place”. Cincinatti did just that, but with drastic differences in success compared to Portland. Cincinatti’s finite mindset led to half the predicted ridership, operational issues, and budget deficits. With an infinite mindset, Cincinatti would have focused on providing affordable access to desitinations, and realized that light rail wasn’t the best solution to reach that goal.

Cincinnati light rail. Source: DilemmaX.com

Planning and Design are an infinite game because planners and designers are never quite done making our communities a better place. There will always be change in business, culture, government, and the physical spaces we live in. The sooner planners, designers, city leaders, and planning advocates realize they are in an infinite game, the better prepared they are for any situation.

Connect to a Higher Purpose

My intention to receiving all A’s in my classes was a worthy goal, but it lacked the intent to learn and grow for a purpose larger than myself. This intention led to dispassionate work, working to only get a surface level high, rather than deep emotions such as joy and passion in what I’m learning and working on. That’s why I have changed my mission to reflect the values Simon Sinek decribes in The Infinite Game.

Cities and planning organizations also have this problem. Most city websites have no mission, purpose, or vision statement they are working towards. It’s also rare for planning departments to have an inspiring mission. For example, the Los Angeles Planning Department’s “About Me” page starts with: “Los Angeles City Planning reviews project applications, processing entitlements, and approvals to ensure that future decisions about development are aligned with the City’s land use policies and proposed land use regulations.” This sounds more like a task, not a purpose to live by or a mission to work towards.

Connection to a higher purpose, mission, or “just cause” as Simon Sinek describes, is critical to living with an infinite mindset. It must be “for something, inclusive, service oriented, resilient, and idealistic.” Once you have a higher purpose, don’t let it only be for show. Align your actions, words, and thoughts to that higher purpose because otherwise, it’s an empty jumble of words put together nicely. Make it your foundation!

Breaking it Down

My experience in my final week of my first semester taught me how my previous mindset was incapable of leading a fulfilling life worth living. Therefore, I must:

1. Live with an infinite mindset because city planning and design is an infinite game.

2. Align my thoughts, actions, and words with my higher purpose.

And I leave you with this call to action:

Connect to a higher purpose and align your actions, words, and thoughts to that purpose.

Success! You're on the list.

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.