work journal

How to work through hard topics together

July 21, 2023

Flip charts, some covered in sticky notes and others blank, stretched across the long wall in the conference room, wrapping around a corner and then jumping the entry door.

Hand drawn posters showing the goals and agreements that were our group's compass hung on another wall.

It was visual proof of the group's hard work and the evolution of their thinking.

I took a deep breath. It was the morning before the third session I led with leaders from the Big Sky Resort Area District, or Resort Tax, during June and July of 2023.

We convened a group of 12 leaders representing diverse stakeholder groups to discuss a fraught topic in Big Sky: Incorporating this community of 3,000 full-time residents as a municipality.

Incorporation has been divisive for decades — so much so, the group couldn't touch it on day one. Nevertheless, they were willing to listen and work, and slowly, they began to build trust.

As I awaited their arrival, I could pinpoint the moment right there on the wall where they had reframed their way of thinking and emerged from the crux.

I took a sip of water. Everything was ready. I'd rearranged the tables into a U shape before hanging the flip charts and posters, then laid a sharpie, a block of sticky notes and strips of voting dots neatly in front of every chair. My laptop was plugged into the AV system.

This last day was when we'd cement all their work. We'd finalize a plan, develop key messaging, and maybe even enjoy ourselves a bit. They'd sure earned it. When things got hard, they leaned into the process, agreements and tools we'd agreed on. Now, they were on their way to becoming a team.

“The workshops allowed me to hear everyone’s view and take it in," said Sarah Blechta, who chairs the resort tax board and was a key collaborator with me on this engagement. "Very rarely are you in a place where you have all the different opinions, and you all get to share them. Usually, one person is overpowering the whole thing. But if you’re just looking at it from one perspective, you’re not getting the whole picture.”

All 12 of them are now working together to drive a rigorous, unconstrained incorporation study that considers options, pros, cons and impacts.

This, you might say, is when the real work starts. But without this initial stage, which Sarah called "step .5"—and without everyone coming to the table open to learning—the real work couldn't even begin.
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