Seattle really can work better for everybody. Here’s how.

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Since I was a kid, I’ve fantasized about making the world work better. As I’ve gotten older, partisanship has increased, and it’s become more difficult to improve lives and situations through the political process.

This inability to set and achieve goals is especially frustrating to see in Seattle, where so many people working in local companies use methods that are specifically designed to help groups of people navigate through uncertainty to accomplish big things.

I lead teams of people in building web and mobile apps. For the past couple years, I’ve been teaching a monthly workshop on Agile project management for General Assembly in downtown Seattle. When working on a project that uses an Agile methodology, we make a list of all the tasks that we have to do, and put them in a glorified to-do list that’s called the “backlog.”

The really important part of it is that we rank all those tasks from top to bottom in order of “business value.” Business value is an arbitrary term that just means the task in the number one position is the single-most important thing by your criteria, and the task in the last position is the least important.

Since we do work in order of most business value to least business value, we can guarantee that we’ve delivered the most value possible when we run out of time or money.

Running out of time or money (or any other important resource) is guaranteed to happen no matter what your project is. Whether you’re installing a new sink in your kitchen, developing a mobile app, or constructing a regional light rail system, constraints like budget and schedules always exist. The principles behind Agile methods teach us to accept that reality and pragmatically accomplish as much as possible within our limits.

I have long dreamed that government could work the same way. But it seems sort of impossible, doesn’t it? There are so many different interest groups and so many different ways to use city staff and tax revenue.

Often, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and we end up with redundant and wasteful city projects that please absolutely no one. Or we spend eons building “consensus through exhaustion” as part of what’s become known as the Seattle Process.

Think of the Burke-Gilman trail’s “missing link” in Ballard. Construction might finally begin next year, 22 years after the city council passed a resolution intending to complete the trail.

I contend there is a better way for Seattle to operate. And not only is it a better way, but I believe it’s possible to do so while making many more people happy with the results.

Focus on the goal

We all tend to want the same things. Or at least, we’d all happily accept positive outcomes. We want for everyone to be well-educated and healthy. We want to see people housed and safe. We want less crime. We all want to move around the city more easily.

But we don’t spend time talking about these visionary ideals. Discussions in city council meetings, in online forums, and in the media revolve around the disagreements people have. And those disagreements most often focus on methodology. They ask the question, “How are we going to do ____?” instead of, “What is our achievable and desired outcome?”

How different would our local politics be if we always brought political conversations back to focus on the end goal?

In my project management world, we use a tool called the “user story” to state in clear terms the purpose behind a task. It’s like a mad lib, and always follows the same pattern:

As a ______ (the role of person), I want ______ (the thing the task is about), so that ______ (the purpose of the task; the desired outcome).

Ex. As a homeowner, I want to install double-pane windows, so that I save on my heating bill.

It’s that final part, the “so that”, that is most crucial when working towards a goal. It’s the raison d’être for doing the work. It’s more important because by considering the purpose behind a goal, we might find an alternative method that achieves that goal even better than what is already stated.

In that example, the homeowner wants to save on their heating bill. Consider two scenarios where the homeowner hires a general contractor for this job:

Scenario 1: Homeowner tells the contractor to install double-pane windows. Contractor shows up with right-sized windows, installs them, and bills the homeowner $300 for the work. Next winter, the homeowner saves $50 heating the home compared to the previous winter.

Scenario 2: Homeowner tells the contractor that they want to lower their heating bill. Contractor suggests installing heavy curtains and insulating the cracks around doors and windows. Contractor shows up with the curtains and caulking gun, does the work, and bills the homeowner $200. Next winter, the homeowner saves $50 heating the home compared to the previous winter.

This is obviously a contrived situation, but it illustrates the difference between methodology and purpose. By telling the contractor the purpose in scenario 2, the homeowner achieved the same result for a lower cost.

Don’t compete; problem solve

Most of my career has been as a consultant, meaning, my teams have built software for clients. Often, the client has multiple groups with competing interests acting as stakeholders for my team.

Years ago, in search of a way to help these different groups come to agreement on priorities, I found a tool out of the arbitration field called interest-based bargaining.

This is the opposite of positional bargaining, which is what we tend to be more familiar with. In positional bargaining, party A says, “I want X”, party B says, “I want Y”, and then a negotiator helps A and B compromise on some parts of X and some parts of Y that are satisfactory to both.

The problem is, in politics, sometimes X and Y are mutually exclusive, and there is no satisfactory compromise. The A and B parties view themselves as adversaries, competing to get as much as possible from the other in a brutal battle for resources.

Interest-based bargaining, on the other hand, treats the different sides as collaborators working to solve a problem. The process asks each side to state their interests and needs, i.e. their purpose. This means asking the question “Why?” a lot. Why do you want X? Why do you want double-pane windows? Answer: to lower my heating bill.

Seattle is a city with a lot of interest groups. Many of those groups hold very opposing views. Think car drivers vs. bikers vs. pedestrians. Homeowners vs. pro-development urbanists. Suburban commuters vs. urban transit supporters. We gravitate towards one group or another because we consider ourselves a part of that tribe, or because we think that group has the most right opinion.

But that’s the positional bargaining way of going about it. What if our city-wide conversation were focused more on the purpose behind these disagreements? What if, like the teams I work with, there was a voice keeping our conversation on track to what would satisfy our combined needs and interests? That voice might ask questions like:

  • What was the goal behind the $15 minimum wage? Was it to require raises for a specific group of people, or was it to ensure people affected saw an increase in income and could afford to live in this city? Did that happen?
  • Why did we build the First Hill Streetcar? Was it meant to be attractive to tourists, or was it to increase public transit availability? Did it do either? Did it reduce transit times for anyone, or take a net negative number of cars off the road?
  • Is our constantly increasing amount of spending on homelessness issues showing a net negative number of homeless people in Seattle? Are the programs that we have in place accountable to their funding sources for results?
  • Why did we have a city bike share program? Was it to reduce transit loads and get cars off the road? Did it? Why did a private company get bailed out by the city only to see the program scrapped a year later?

Share your vision

I propose that the people of Seattle need to discuss their visions for what sort of city we want to live in. These visions should guide our conversations, so that when we disagree on policy, we can reflect on if we actually want the same outcomes. I bet that we all have more in common there than not.

So here is my vision for Seattle:

I want to live in a city where everyone has access to quality educational opportunities. I want it to be as easy as possible for people to move about the city and see the people they want to see and do the things they want to do. I want to live in a city that offers economic opportunity for people across a wide range of class and industry. I want to live in a city where no one is forced into homelessness. Most of all, I want to live in a city where all people feel like the process works for them, not against them.

What’s your vision for Seattle? Try this format:

I want to live in a city where/that/with _________ (outcome).


Share your completed sentences to the prompt above on The Evergrey Facebook page, and we’ll compile your answers and share them back.