I rode the subway several times last week while I was in New York City (along with 6,335,700 other people). Every time I’m in Manhattan, it amazes me how much stuff is packed into the 23 square mile island. Over 1.7 million people live there, but the commuters raise that number to closer to 4 million during the day. That’s 170,000 people per square mile! That’s 170 people for every one person per square mile in Oklahoma City!
It obviously takes a significant infrastructure to support that many people and all the things they are doing. Transportation, power, communications, water, sanitation, and logistics are all more complex and difficult. No one is going to Costco and loading a suburban with bulk groceries for their 900 square foot 3rd floor walk-up.
The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 was the original design for the streets of Manhattan which put in place the rectangular grid plan of streets and lots that has defined Manhattan to the current day. It has been called “the single most important document in New York City’s development.” This grid, and subsequent decisions about where to route all the pipes, cables, tunnels, and other subterranean components, allowed engineers and city planners to create the infrastructure necessary to maintain the density of people and activity the city sees today.
If individuals hadn’t had the vision and taken time to create the plans, Manhattan might have developed very differently. Without the grid and the infrastructure, what is challenging today would be impossible. Moreover, it would be almost impossible to change now, so without the grid being created before it was necessary, New Yorkers would be stuck with the result.
This same principle applies to everything we want to build, including communities and organizations. Without forethought and planning, things will develop organically, which might fit the present need but hamper future growth and capacity. The trick is knowing when to start imposing constraints that envision a much larger future state without unnecessarily burdening a young or small community.
We should start by thinking about things that will be difficult to change once they are in place. Buildings are one of the more permanent parts of the infrastructures we create and therefore are usually on the “list.” However, there are things far more important than physical structures that have significant impact on our communities.
Our values, ethics, and morals are the most important part of any community or organization. Since they are not tangible objects with mass and spatial volume, we may be fooled into thinking they are easy to change and replace. They are not. In fact, it is much easier to tear down a building and build a new one than it is to significantly shift the values of an organization.
The values of an organization are a reflection of the values of the founders and/or current leaders. These core beliefs shape the significant decisions that are made, in turn creating the culture of the community. That culture will attract people with similar beliefs resulting in an inertial mass of values that is hard to turn. Changing the core values once established results in making many people who were comfortable before, uncomfortable. People don’t like change, and they don’t like being uncomfortable. They will strongly resist both.
If the commissioners had developed the Plan of 1811 but then not required people to build according to the grid, the plan would be meaningless. Over time, the resulting development would become a tangled mess of individual desires and needs without any substantial coordination for the greater goal.
Likewise, we can start with admirable core values and then get lost in a conflicting mess because we don’t hold people to the foundational infrastructure. The opportunities for deviation are often small and seemingly harmless, but they add up over time. Like the grid, every decision must be viewed through the framework of the core values to determine if it fits or not. Those that fit move forward, those that don’t must be set aside.
On the surface, NYC looks like a mess. There is unbelievable diversity in the people, activities, spaces, and actions that we can see. Under all this is a very intentional and fiercely protected and maintained infrastructure that supports the diversity above. It takes a solid foundation to make it possible to accept and utilize the diverse and wonderfully creative possibilities on the surface.
Leaders must ensure the core values of their communities are timeless and far-reaching. Then we must guard them and protect them by being intentional in everything we do. It is this fierce adherence to our core values that provides room for diversity and creativity without them resulting in chaos and collapse. Core values that respect and value people and acknowledge our responsibility to care for ourselves, others, the community, and our environment provide the robust infrastructure where we can build flourishing organizations. The vision to see this and act on it is what makes us leaders in The Bison Way.