Seven Habits of Highly Effective Communities (Part 1 of 2)

Submitted by Jay Connor on December 31, 2013 - 8:09am
We tend to reinforce too many people for what they do and not for the results they achieve.

We have learned that some things are absolutely required to truly work differently as a community and, therefore, achieve your goals. These are the irreducible minimums for success. Think of them as the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Communities.”  

1. Reach for It

2. Go With Who Ya Got

3. Hold the Center

4. Keep the Circle Open

5. Avoid the Blame Game

6. Choose Measurable Outcomes

7. Develop a Sense of Urgency & Keep Going


1. Reach for It!

We have yet to work with a community that chooses a higher aspiration than is doable. Every community under-aspires, probably because they have felt defeated so many times in the past. They walk around with the heavy weight of “We’re never going to fix this problem.” Plus they feel they need to keep the aspiration “manageable” in order to please everyone. It’s no wonder they find it hard to reach for the sky.

Know this: High expectations are not unrealistic. You actually can create a great community where all residents thrive to their best ability. Setting a high aspiration inspires the process. It may feel beyond your reach at the beginning, but no one wants to make the effort to work differently for a modest goal.

As your community engages in a process to develop its aspirations, keep focused on the highest common denominator, not the lowest. Don’t we all want smart, capable kids? Strong, healthy families? Fulfilling jobs for all our residents? A joyous, beautiful community in which to grow old? Then let’s say so. And mean it. And reach for it.

A great way to challenge yourself or your community to truly aspire is by using the "why?" test.  Here a link: Take the “Why Test” 

2.  Go With Who Ya Got

So often we hesitate to make decisions when certain key players aren’t participating. We let them control the conversation by their very absence. Instead of waiting for or worrying about their opinions, keep the aspirations front and center, make decisions based on that, and keep the wheels rolling forward. When the absentees see the exciting places you are headed, they will want to jump on the bus.

The key is to place a higher value on achieving the outcome than on deferring to those who are supposedly “in charge” of that outcome. If they alone were truly in charge, would it be the issue that it has become?

3. Hold the Center

Your aspiration becomes the center of your community’s new way of working. You need it to direct your subsequent work, and you can’t live without it when the going gets rough.

 Your aspiration becomes your mantra. The more your repeat it, the more you will believe it. It is posted at every meeting. It appears at the top of every handout and press release. It is incorporated into the logo for your community’s website. It is your guide.

It is also the beginning and end of every conversation. When self-interested objections arise, or people go on the defensive, or old ways of doing things threaten progress, the aspiration reminds people of what must come first. It is hard to work at the level of community, instead of as representatives of our jobs. But we must continually hold onto that unfamiliar place and plant our feet firmly at that center where we all want the same things, where our aspiration calls us to our higher selves. (See my recent blog post on the new "THERE").

The aspiration statement allows you to talk about measurable actions. Without a clear aspiration, courtesy will always trump impact. No one wants to refuse funding to a favorite organization or question the value of a long-time community leader’s work. But without clarity on the goal and the measurements, we reinforce too many people for what they do and not for the results they achieve. However, with that clarity, those favorite organizations and stalwart leaders can see how they can align their work to help achieve the goal—and how to prove the difference they are making.

By starting the community conversation with aspirations, we also inoculate ourselves from the harm of disrupters. Community members have feared the disruptive tactics of certain individuals who have derailed past efforts. But when the community started with such a clear picture of the goal ahead, they gave disrupters no opportunity to wreak havoc. We have heard people reflect, “So-and-so has always been so difficult before, but in these sessions they’re not.”

By holding the center, we maintain our neutrality about the activities or programs and remain committed to the outcome. It’s not that activities and programs are not important – they are how we get things done – but they are valuable only to the extent that they get us to the outcome. Even the value of collaborating must be tested against progress on outcomes. Collaboration to gain funding or create programs can be useful, but it must be designed first and foremost around what we want to accomplish.

4. Keep the Circle Open

A community effort must be just that—the work of the whole community. While you can’t force anyone to participate, you absolutely cannot keep out anyone who wants in. This is an inclusive process that takes everyone’s perspectives into consideration but is not held hostage by any one idea or agenda.

The circle is kept open through communication, invitation, and orientation:


Every step in the process should be documented and publicly posted on the web. Regular press releases to local media may also keep the effort in the public consciousness. The process will not be a smooth, linear success, and open communication will reveal missteps, re-dos, and changes of direction, but that’s okay. It shows how seriously you are taking this and how deliberately you are working to do it right.


Every report, news article, and web page should include information about where and when the next meetings will be held and an open invitation for anyone to attend. You should also make personal invitations to people whose knowledge or expertise would be a valuable addition at each point in the process.


New people won’t be used to working in new ways and will need to be caught up on what has happened so far. If they aren’t well oriented to thinking and working differently, to understanding how and why certain decisions have already been made, they will likely drag the conversation backward or in directions that reflect old ways of thinking. This is frustrating for previous participants and slows down the process.

Of course, newcomers’ questions should be answered, and they should be made to feel welcome. But the best strategy for keeping them from derailing the process is to get them up to speed before the meeting.

Plan on perpetual orientation as part of working differently.  Phone conversations, materials to read, and half-hour pre-meeting orientations for newcomers are all helpful. Tell them your story, and when you get to the present, add them as a character. Then they can be full participants who will carry forward the process in their own valuable ways.

The final 3 habits will be posted next week.