Choosing the problem you want to work on answers the question “What do I care about?” “Violence in my kid’s school” and “Global warming” are examples of problems.
But problems are often broad and diffuse--great for inspiring action but not so great for providing detailed guidance. So after you’ve done basic research on the problem, the next step is to create a specific projectthat helps solve it--something you can plan and implement with the time and resources you’ve got or can get. Creating the project answers the question “How, specifically, can I make a difference?” A good project has a vision, goals, timelines, and a budget. “Creating a conflict-resolution program in my kid’s school” and “Getting the city council to create carpool lanes” are examples of projects created in response to the problems cited above.
The key point: choose the problem before creating the project--but don’t ignore either step.
Swinging into action with only the problem burning in your heart, and without a defined project, is too unfocused to produce a good result. On the other hand, launching a project not linked to some underlying problem you care about risks undermining the clarity and enthusiasm you need to succeed.
Here are steps for creating your project:
Review the research you’ve done about the problem. Who’s already involved? What’s the history and who are the stakeholders? What does the “other side” have to say? What’s below the waterline?
Discuss ideas for projects with friends and potential allies. What could you (or a group you start) do that would make a difference? Involving others at this early stage is more than a means of generating ideas--you may well attract people who’ll stick around to work with you.
Think about the scope of any project you might create. Projects, and commitments to projects, have a way of expanding once the action starts. How much time, energy, and resources are you personally willing to put in now? How might the work expand, and how far would you be willing to go with it if it does? You’ll want to steer away from projects that are clearly out of reach--but don’t settle for something that’s too cautious either. Don’t veto projects that require money, volunteers, or other resources you don’t now have. You can get all those things as part of the work.
Take stock of your own talents, skills, experience, likes, and dislikes. Whatever project you decide on should make good use of who you are. Trying to put a square peg in a round hole is not a great way to start. If you can’t draw, then launching an arts project for inner-city kids might not be the best choice for you. On the other hand, if you’re a marine biologist, then leading beach walks for those kids might be perfect.
Weigh the conflicts you are almost certain to generate. If you take on a project that’s not going to be universally popular, you will be criticized. How big is your comfort zone on conflict, and are you ready to expand it if you have to?
Don’t expect to have all the details in the beginning. You’ll refine your project as you go forward with it. What you want at this stage is a decent outline of your project---something from which you can launch the vision that will supply the inspiration and clarity you need for its success.
Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/835206