Leading a process? Learn the process.

Always thought this was interesting: members of Congress will have regular debates (and funding sessions) around public school in America, but most members themselves send their children to private school (well, at least at a rate that’s four times the national average). It’s hard to discuss something — to have any real context on it, honestly — if you, well, don’t have any real context on it.

Apparently, the same thing happens in transit planning circles (which probably doesn’t shock a lot of people that ride public transit in America). Here’s a quote from an article about the re-invention of the bus system in Houston:

“There are way too many people working on transit who don’t actually ride transit,” he says. “If you’re going to be making decisions about transit, you really need to know what it’s actually like. Not what it’s like in theory, but what it’s actually like. “

Transit is a huge deal in America right now. Ridership seems to be rising, and you’re even seeing successful initiatives in red Western states. This is all relevant because good access to public transportation — i.e. less need for multiple cars — is something that seems to appeal to millennials as they rent/buy homes (and it appeals to the Earth in terms of, you know, emissions).  I’ve argued before (not entirely convincingly) that BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, is a great idea for certain classes of cities.

While the idea that people planning transit don’t actually use transit isn’t necessarily surprising, it’s interesting because you see this in a lot of life contexts. For example, how many times are people put in charge of a project at work that they have no real background in? You saw this en masse in the last decade — as companies need better digital ideas/initiatives, they often had to turn to people not experienced in those worlds, simply because there weren’t other choices. (In fairness, until about 15 years ago, no one really knew what “digital marketing” would look like — and if you claim you did, you’re likely lying.)

I worked at ESPN for about six years, as I’ve mentioned in a few other posts. The first boss I had there was a newspaper guy overseeing people who wanted a future in TV. There’s some overlap there, but admittedly a lot less than you’d think. After that, I had a TV boss in a TV career. (That works.) After that, I had a few different bosses — but for the longest time, they were TV people supervising digital-focused employees, or ex-journalists overseeing content/social. It was often messy, and they wouldn’t take the time to learn the new aspects of what they were doing; they would typically apply ideas from standard newspaper journalism to digital practice or social media. That can work, but it also creates a lot of square-peg-and-round-hole stuff.

I’d imagine the same happens in transit, no? If you only ride in cars and that’s how you see the Light Rail / bus of your city, how exactly will you know the pros, cons and must-haves / need-haves of the public transportation system?

You need a lot of things to lead a process, but logically one of the bigger elements would be knowing about the process and what underlies it

That seems logical, right?

It makes sense in the broader research context too: if you want people to listen to you, two things you need are authority and education; if you want “influence,” consistency and authority are necessary. In both cases, you’re saying that knowledge of the subject area is important for establishing where the leadership comes from.

Shouldn’t we just say that’s an universal rule?


Ted Bauer

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