Commentary and conversations about life in Richmond, Indiana

Community Life

Debriefing the past

Was it a good decision to build a new county jail, and to put it right next to the gorge?

Was the creation of the Uptown Innovation Center a good investment?

Did the way that one neighborhood’s traffic flow was redesigned actually help with reducing accidents and congestion?

Did that one tax abatement really create the jobs we thought it would?

Every day, we live with the decisions of days past. This is part of life, work, family, being a human. The choices we made yesterday, last week, last year about where to go, who to spend time with, what to spend money on, what to say to the people in our lives — they all affect us now.

Living with our past decisions is also part of being a community and a city. The choices we made yesterday, last week, last year, a decade ago, a generation ago in meetings, City Council votes, elections, strategic planning sessions, neighborhood gatherings, conversations in the public square and online — they all affect us now.

Sometimes I wonder if Richmond is missing out on important chances to learn from our past decisions and their impact.

Yes, it’s possible to spend too much time thinking about our past, and there’s always the danger of reducing it to pure nostalgia: “Things were simple, and then they got complicated.” Or maybe, “The right choice was clear, but then someone decided to do something else, and we just need to go back and make the other way.

Beyond the danger of getting caught up in nostalgia, it can also be a little (or a lot) uncomfortable to debrief the past. If done poorly it can be unhelpful, even hurtful. The decision-makers involved may still be around, and no one likes to have their judgment called into question. The people affected may still be around, and bringing up old projects or promises that didn’t work out can be painful or just frustrating.

But being a leader or contributor in the community is not just about being present when the popular or successful ideas are launching, and then making sure you get credit for supporting them. Part of leadership and community engagement is taking ownership of your role in decisions, risks and projects that didn’t go well or outright failed, and showing that you care enough to learn from them.

It involves gathering lots of data and measuring/documenting outcomes in clear and repeatable ways. It means looking at systems and trends, not just single moments in time. And then asking hard questions: what was the original intent, and was it achieved? What were the parts that went well and how did those parts come about? What were the parts where things didn’t go as expected, or the desired result was not achieved? Why did that happen? What would we want to do differently next time? Who is going to take ownership of making sure the lessons of the debrief are incorporated into future decision-making?

If we can put aside the temptation to reflect on the past only through an emotional or personal lens, we can start to see this process as a broader opportunity: looking back at the past choices we made and what they have meant for the prosperity of our city might just lead to more prosperity.

Put another way, while we can’t see the future, we have a lot of data available about the past, and I think it’s important for a community like ours to dive in to that data and learn from it. We don’t have the time or luxury of making new choices that are both bad and avoidable.

What are some helpful, productive versions of debriefing past decisions that you’ve seen in action?

What are some past decisions and projects we could be learning more from?

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1 Comment

  1. Pat Heiny

    Chris, I have been pondering this very question. As we analyze past decisions, we must be realistic about the context in which the decision was made. I am trying to be careful not to judge something too quickly and by today’s standards. Historical context and even the evolution of scientific knowledge do make a difference in decisions made. How then do we use that information in looking at a decision and moving forward from this point? I try to use that knowledge to make the analysis more objective and out of the pointing fingers mode. Pat

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