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Tackling the Village Entry Dispute

Horwitz taps common wisdom to find solutions

Delia Horwitz arrived in Moscow for a scheduled Chamber of Commerce talk with officials from government, banks and businesses only to learn that organizers developed cold feet. They wanted to cancel the event for fear of violence. Her arrival coincided with the now historic financial collapse of 1998 where many Russian fortunes were lost, mistrust flourished and tempers flared.

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Delia Horwitz

But Horwitz, a specialist in instigating group collaboration, insisted she could help. She led consensus building exercises with each group and trained two participants to use her methods in their subsequent deliberations. In 45 minutes, the 60 participants reached a consensus and came up with an action plan to send to the Duma, the state legislative body, Horwitz said.

Laguna Beach’s city officials are turning to Horwitz to finesse a similarly volatile situation as facilitator of an upcoming public workshop on the controversial village entry project, scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12. By local standards, the issues surrounding the creation of a park and parking structure next to City Hall have proved as contentious as any, surfacing decades ago and still unresolved.

But Horwitz, who will only accept a job if she believes in its success, remains sanguine.

Her career as a consultant on collaboration and consensus building began in the late ‘70s. Her work in training sessions for various companies segued into helping establish an international consulting firm for training chief executives and senior managers. By the 1980s she started her own company, focusing at first on small businesses, but then branching out to assist city councils and government agencies with strategic planning. Now new clients — from dentists to government entities — seek out her company, San Luis Obispo-based Collaboration Soup, almost entirely by referrals.

Horwitz calls group collaboration to find solutions the “way of the future,” since problems are often too complex for any one person to figure out alone. “The answers lie in the group conversation,” she said. And that’s what she’s counting on for the village entrance workshop.

“In this case, you have a lot of good people who care about the city and they do want a beautiful entrance,” she said. “With all the wisdom in your community, I know that I can come up with a solution that will be beautiful and fiscally responsible.”

Horwitz expresses confidence the solution exists, but probably as a combination that no one has yet envisioned. Her process involves recombining existing factors in new ways and often the solution emerges from something people failed to see before. “It happens all the time,” she said.

She followed the same principal in January 2005 working on another stalemate in Laguna Beach. Horwitz led a workshop that famously led to what Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson refers to as “the famous village entrance compromise.” Deliberations had come to a halt over relocating City Hall’s corporate yard for maintenance vehicles to the ACT V parking in Laguna Canyon, which involved reconfiguring the village entrance project, before either could move forward. Few held hope for a resolution.

Despite the apparent impasse, Horwitz said that Pearson and Council member Toni Iseman had committed to a common goal to find an alternative they could both support. That willingness to find a way was all she needed to work with.

Council member Steve Dicterow, who also attended the 2005 workshop, remembered thinking the divide between the two opposing camps was an insurmountable hurdle. “You get a Nobel prize if you can bridge this gap,” he recalled telling Horwitz. But “somehow she was able to get things done,” said Dicterow, who hopes she’ll have equal success this time. “She’s really good and we’re lucky to have her,” he said.

With the support of Pearson and Council member Bob Whalen, City Manager John Pietig hired Horwitz for a fee not to exceed $5,400 based on her work that yielded the successful ACT V compromise, he said.

“If people are arguing, they are arguing because they all care about the same thing,” said Horwitz, whose underlying strategy relies on effective communication. When some people say they want to collaborate, they really mean, “you should agree with me,” she said. Those instances are non-starters. As long as participants want to find common ground, Horwitz believes she can lead the way.

She doesn’t provide the answers; she provides the process. “I simply create an environment where the audience can tap into their collective wisdom,” Horwitz said, which is broader than any one person or point of view. Tapping that wisdom comes from asking the right questions.

The focus of the workshop will be “how can we combine our various opinions and perceptions, which are all valid, into a solution that can meet the common goal, a way to move forward,” she said, where everyone feels included and heard and no one feels accused or broadsided.

Horwitz recalled an article she clipped in 2005 that referred to Iseman and Pearson as “heroes” for finding a way to move forward. “They can be heroes again by modeling what they did last time,” she said.

 

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