Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Plans to Map Recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward

"The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." It must seem curious to others that I can be an organization theorist, yet don't put all my trust in plans. Even for my planning with NENA to map the Lower Ninth Ward this weekend.

I have my reasons - including in academic training and my religious beliefs - but there's also my experience mapping in New Orleans. Although I always plan as much as I can, I feel I never have enough time. And, inevitably, something happens I don't expect once the plan goes into motion.

I first mapped portions of the Lower Ninth Ward last February. Jeffrey Robinson , a NYU professor and colleague from my academic field, was working with me to prepare, with help from a couple of his student assistants. However, once mapping started, I discovered problems with the assignments we had created. Some information we'd received to create the assignments was incorrect, so I had to scrap the effort.

Or so I thought. By the next morning, facing a few volunteers who had come ready to map, I figured out another way to use the information we had. It was much less efficient than what I do in Gentilly, and subject to more error. But we mapped over 50% of the Lower Ninth Ward that weekend, with the help of about dozen student volunteers I didn't expect.

So when the mapping is about the start, my adrenaline runs up. Once reality meets the plan, I know there'll be a need to modify or reinvent how we're mapping. And I know I'll be dependent on someone else to help me do it. Or do it for me. And it's a good chance the help will come from someone I've never met before. Or from the last person I'd expect. Or from someone who suddenly reveals knowledge, skill, or a relationship that I didn't know they had. That's what the "open organizing" experience feels like.

It's a different way of relating to formal plans. It's a little bit of that saying: "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." It also has similarities to the Strategy as Structured Chaos view proposed by Shona Brown and Kathy Eisenhardt, from my years at Stanford.

I'm preparing, but afraid and hopeful at the same time.


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