Ken Riley: How do you clean up a wicked mess? (opinion)
Tribune Guest Column
Too often, as Judith Stern once observed, experience is a comb that life gives you after you lose your hair. Retreats can be good or bad, and occasionally they can turn a bit ugly.
The Board of the Tahoe Prosperity Center (TPC) held a retreat on Sept. 16 at Moe’s Original Bar B Que in Tahoe City (great BBQ – thank you, Moe’s). In this case, we spent most of our Friday searching for our organization’s comb and it was all good. TPC is a young organization, which was formed from the 2010 Lake Tahoe Prosperity Plan — and we still, fortunately, have all our metaphorical hair.
Our executive director, Heidi Hill Drum, invited Bill Mueller, who is the CEO of Valley Vision out of Sacramento to lead our yearly retreat and allow us to learn from our much more experienced peer.
Valley Vision was founded in 1994 as a reaction to the Sacramento area’s concern of the impact of military base closings. Valley Vision has grown from a single staff person organization to a $1.5-million per year organization that is composed of 15 full-time staff. In comparison TPC currently has one part-time and two full-time employees and a 2016 budget of $150,000.
Like TPC, Valley Vision is a triple bottom line organization (financial, social, and environmental) and works with the many business, government and social entities to make things happen that require a convening organization to reach consensus. Bill told us that our organizations are best suited to tackle “wicked messes.” Wicked messes can often be defined in 15 or more ways, have wide constituencies and can only be dealt with on a coalition basis. They also are rarely, if ever, solved with one big solution; and Bill advised us to be wary of anyone who proposes such a solution.
Bill additionally advised us that our organizations are better off engaging stakeholders than performing outreach. We need to listen to these participants, look for points of agreement and help build consensus. Once a consensus develops we can then drive action.
One might think that organizations such as ours lack power and authority. After all, we can’t force anyone to do anything. Not according to Bill, whose job description must include management philosophy. Bill told us about the four orders of power — powerless; having power that you don’t know how to wield; wielding power by blunt force; and the fourth and highest level, power through servant leadership.
One of my mentors in my business life excelled at servant leadership power. He would spend as much time as necessary to make people own an idea or a course of action. I learned that people who own their ideas also execute their ideas. Interesting that in the 1970s he emigrated from Russia where the government owned everything.
While Bill was talking it occurred to me that Tahoe needs to avoid making excuses. Benjamin Franklin said that, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Yes, a basin that has the TRPA, two states, a city and five county governments among other interested organizations is challenging. I spent a very frustrating five years working with one city, Los Angeles, to widen the 405 freeway. I think I can make a good case that barriers to progress aren’t driven by the number of entities involved, but by the lack of motivation of the people involved and the inability of those people to work toward the greater good.
Virtually everyone in Tahoe is aligned in most ways. The natural beauty attracts us and we are all committed to protect the basin. We live here and want this to be a community where people, including families, can live and prosper. We understand that tourism has and will continue to be vital to our economy and we are proud to share Tahoe.
Tahoe Prosperity Center was formed to address these exact types of wicked messes. Our workforce initiative is identifying some of them such as affordable housing. We are the only organization coordinating efforts to expand cell phone coverage and high speed broadband for our communities — definitely not a simple fix. We look forward to serving the basin in tackling future wicked messes. Thank you, Bill Mueller, for bringing your box of combs to our retreat.
Ken Riley, Tahoe Prosperity Center Board Chair, worked in the construction industry beginning as a field engineer and advancing to senior manager. He worked with the Kiewit Corporation, one of the largest privately held construction and mining companies in North America, and had direct executive oversight of the $1 billion I-405 “Carmageddon” project located in Southern California. Riley earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of California-Berkeley in 1985. Riley lives at Lake Tahoe where he is an avid water and snow skier. He also enjoys golf, backpacking and mountaineering.