Paving Pathways

Our colleague Chris Hart has been using the analogy, “Don’t start by building sidewalks. First, watch where people walk, and where the paths develop, and then build your sidewalks where the paths are.” So at a meeting recently, our colleague Erin Jones mentioned that she had searched the Internet and had not found any validation of this practice.

However, I have a very clear memory of my father coming home from work one day in awe of a practice he had seen at The University of Houston. He was a civil engineer, and he said there were a lot of new buildings that had opened at the U of H, but the planners had delayed building any sidewalks. “They believe the students will find the most efficient ways to navigate the new parts of their campus,” he told me. “So they’re going to wait and see where the paths develop. And then they will come back and pave the pathways.” It made an impression on me, because he was not easily impressed – and he was unmistakably impressed when he was talking to me that long ago afternoon.

But was my memory accurate? Many decades have passed. Thankfully, today we have satellite views of everything on earth. So I checked out the UH campus, pictured above. Look at those sidewalks! They look like, well, paved-over walking paths! No right angles. Denser in some areas. Wider in apparently high-traffic locations. I think this satellite view validates my memory of what my father, the engineer, had described.


The important matter, though, is “why does Chris use this analogy?”


It’s because he believes in a distinct method for fulfilling intentions. That method starts with identifying the talents, services and resources that are already available to those who must do the work of fulfilling an intention.

From there, you identify the groups and individuals that are willing to sit down and participate in what the intention is all about and the roles they might play in bringing it to life.

Next, in those early conversations, you make connections with potential advocates who have existing networks that can serve as force multipliers for your intention. And then you mobilize them to repurpose their networks to help fulfill the intention.

That’s the “pathways” part of this method: see where the people walk, where they intersect, where they congregate, where the volume is and how the outliers can be reached.

And then you build the “sidewalks.” These sidewalks are about getting people to go in the right directions toward fulfilling the intention – and then closing any gaps in the overall design, which might mean shutting down pathways that don’t take people where they need or want to go. Now we have a system that can be carefully studied. We’re looking for points of entry – onramps for getting new people into the flow of intention fulfillment. And we’re looking for barriers that deter people from getting where they need to be. With that studious approach, we can build the speed, intelligence and effectiveness that leads to fulfilling intentions at the upper end of what’s possible.   

That’s a clear alternative to the massive rollout – where you make all the decisions and build all the infrastructure, and then “launch it” to all the people who do the work. This alternative is all about starting a conversation about the intention, putting people in motion, mobilizing every asset you already have, watching how the pathways develop, formalizing those pathways – and then: you study what happens and you act on what you learn. We’re doing that at sr4, and it works.   

Email Bill.