Raising Places is an exciting journey where healthier children and families are the driving force behind using human-centered design to help residents build upon existing work in transforming their communities.

While working collaboratively for positive social impact in communities is rewarding, the same bravery it takes to tackle society’s toughest challenges may produce a deficit-based mindset–causing some people to see an idea, community, or the world through a lens of what is lacking rather than highlighting and pursuing bright spots upon which to further build upon. One of the innovative tools we use at Greater Good Studio (GGS) and in Raising Places to overcome this mindset is the 'positive goals' activity, which community members and residents use during labs.

Hanging poster of positive goals generated by a small group working on food issues in North Wilkesboro, NC.

Design teams first identify major community challenges, then develop a root cause map of what they believe to be the underlying causes of those issues. (See an example of root cause maps leading to positive goals.) Next, they begin to write positive goals, identifying types of people and behavior changes that may lead to what residents truly desire to see, rather than focusing on what they want to go away.

In order to accomplish this conversion of negative challenge-focused energy into positive forward-thinking energy, positive goals use this format:

I want    (person)    to    (new behavior).

Team members are united in their quest for developing sustainable solutions to better their communities, so shifting towards positive goals immediately after mapping root causes is critical in propelling their momentum as agents of change.

Design team member Tie Oei (left) and convener Beau Sinchai (right) work together on positive goals in North Minneapolis, MN.

While the positive goals exercise is integral in our labs process for Raising Places, it is something uniquely created by GGS, the Chicago-based human-centered design firm facilitating the Raising Places project. With the hope that our work sparks lessons for other solution-driven efforts, GGS Co-Founder and Executive Director Sara Cantor Aye took some time to share more about the origin of the positive goals exercise and its impact in the process of Raising Places.

Sara Aye (upper right) listens as North Wilkesboro, NC design team members brainstorm positive goals.

How did the idea of positive goals come to be?

The idea came from my learning about appreciative inquiry, a theory of organizational change that says people move in the direction of what they talk about. We’ve also noticed that in the social sector, there’s a lot of talk about problems, which can be demotivating and unproductive for people. Finally, as designers we are always interested in behavior change, as it’s the most tangible way to see impact; we want to design programs, services and experiences that support new behaviors, so we include a new behavior in our positive goal format.

Why do you use positive goals in the Raising Places labs?

It serves two major purposes.

First, long-term, positive goals will serve as “north stars” that we will come back to again and again across all three labs. During research we study our positive goal, inquiring how it happens and why it doesn’t happen. While in design, we create ideas and solutions that will “move the needle” towards bringing our positive goal to fruition.

Secondly, short-term, positive goals serve as the organizing structure around which teams form.

What is the lab work that builds up to positive goals and what work does it bridge into?

The lab activity that precedes positive goals is mapping root causes, where we discuss and map out the underlying drivers of some of the most acute challenges facing kids and families in our community. Once we’ve identified the strategic leverage points, or the most consequential root causes of our problems, we’re able to write positive goals that would directly address these root causes.

After writing positive goals, the team votes and forms into small groups around the top three positive goals. Then the next thing they do is define the different characteristics of their primary users–the “people” part of the positive goal. This serves as a reminder that our primary users are not a monolithic bunch, and that we can learn most when we focus on bright spots.

How have you seen this activity play out in the labs?

Thinking at the person level or the behavior level is often new for people and therefore it can be challenging; it may seem “not big enough." Some team members have had difficulty identifying a type of person–instead, they may want an institution to change. They also had difficulty identifying a new behavior–they want people to think differently or simply be different. So to drive towards quality positive goals, we ask them to share with us what people would do differently to express the new thinking.

However, we’ve seen this also be tremendously valuable in moving the teams from deficit thinking into an aspirational mindset. Writing positive goals gives people a tangible vision for an alternate future, where they can then direct their energies towards. We’re already using the positive goals in research coaching to center our teams on that ambitious, yet achievable future.

What else do you want to share about positive goals?

Positive goals are not a standard part of the HCD process; they are a unique method that we created at GGS to support teams in self-directing their work. By giving them a clear structure (“I want ___ to ___”) we encourage consistency and specificity, but other than writing support, we use this tool to help teams envision their own ideal futures.

We vote on positive goals to ensure a democratic process where all voices carry equal weight, and to let the team decide collectively where it wants to focus its energies.

Sara's interview showcases how we ultimately use positive goals to shift momentum from investigating the problem towards capitalizing on revealed patterns which lead research towards ambitious solutions.

Try creating your own positive goals and join us on the journey to see where positive goals take communities!