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Reframe, Broaden a Problem

Dwight Eisenhower said, 'If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it.' It's a powerful insight into problem solving.

In 1999, the owners of the Philadelphia Phillies approached the leaders of Clearwater, Fla., with a request: The Phillies, who had played spring training in Clearwater since 1946, wanted a new ballpark and they wanted the city to help fund it. They wanted to build it in a different part of town, and needed something larger than the old park, which was outdated and too expensive to renovate.

The city leaders were torn; they didn't want the Phillies to leave, but they knew it would be expensive to keep them. They asked, "How do we get community support to spend public money subsidizing a privately-owned ballpark -- a facility that the team will use only two months a year?"

Officials realized that they needed to think about the new ballpark in a broader way. They decided to design a facility for multiple uses, making it a year-round community resource. They decided:

  • It would be used for several high school graduations each spring;
  • It would be available to an active veterans group for its annual appreciation day;
  • Nonprofits, including a major breast cancer fundraiser, would be welcome to use the park;
  • They would use it to set off fireworks on the 4th of July;
  • And, other baseball leagues could use it.
City leaders also worked with the county and state to create an economic development package to help fund the new park.

Five years later, in 2004, a new state-of-the-art, community-supported facility opened in Clearwater. The total cost was $34 million, of which the city's share was only $5.7 million. The remainder came from the Phillies and the economic development package. To boot, the city owns the ballpark.

To come up with this win-win arrangement, the city leaders acted in accordance with a statement attributed to Dwight Eisenhower: "If you cannot solve a problem as it is, enlarge it." City officials likely would have lost the community's support, as well as the Phillies, if they had merely asked, "How do we get residents' support to subsidize the Phillies' new park?" Rather, they enlarged the question, "How do we get support for building a new community facility, one that will also serve the Phillies each spring?"

I understand Eisenhower's astute insight in two ways. One way is to do what Clearwater's leaders did, and think of the problem in a larger context. Say, for instance, your local high schools are seeing a high number of dropouts. Rather than focus primarily on these kids when they're in their teens, "enlarge" the problem by doing some analysis of these kids when they are having behavioral and academic problems in elementary or middle school. Or say your locality wants to educate residents about simple energy conservation measures. "Enlarging" the problem might mean launching a campaign to make your city a "cool city," one that's attractive to young professionals and others in creative fields. Becoming more energy-conscious is just one of many factors that attract such people.

A second way to understand Eisenhower's insight is to "enlarge" the circle of people concerned about the problem. Clearwater's leaders did that as well; they demonstrated that keeping the Phillies in town benefited the city, county and state.

One historic example of this thinking comes from our founding fathers. In 1786, James Madison was convinced that the Articles of Confederation were an abysmal failure. He believed the states had far too much autonomy -- five states had their own currencies and militias -- and that the new government lacked the power to get the states to do anything in concert. In effect, he believed we weren't a true nation yet. But state leaders loved their autonomy, so how do you get them to create a stronger national government? Madison courted people with greater influence than he commanded at the time, including the governor of Virginia and George Washington, the most prestigious person in the country. Madison was a behind-the-scenes leader; he kept enlarging the circle of prominent people to promote the cause that he couldn't lead by himself. Ultimately, these skills helped replace the Articles of Confederation and create the Constitution.

Next time you're wrestling with a problem and the possible solutions seem inadequate, ask yourself if the problem should be framed in a larger context, and if a larger circle of people should be addressing it. Eisenhower's insight is a powerful one.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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