If trust breeds speed, no wonder Seattle operates so slowly

The infamous "Seattle process" has developed out of, and caused, a big gap in trust here. In the case of the viaduct, voters seemed to scream out their dissatisfaction with the slow, painful cycle of distrust and debate.

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Work moving ahead on Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement: The project, approved by Seattle voters, will soon have a construction bypass route on the surface, after this section of the old structure is torn down in a nine-day closure scheduled to start Oct. 21.

The infamous "Seattle process" has developed out of, and caused, a big gap in trust here. In the case of the viaduct, voters seemed to scream out their dissatisfaction with the slow, painful cycle of distrust and debate.

What’s the speed of trust? Many people associate developing trust with things moving slowly. Stephen M. R. Covey argues otherwise in his book, The Speed of Trust.

The core of the argument from Covey (the son of Stephen R. “Seven Habits” Covey) is that when trust is high, things happen more quickly. Moreover, with trust high and things moving more rapidly, costs go down. However, when trust is low, everything takes a lot longer and costs go up.

Covey’s point came to mind recently as I listened to Bruce Agnew of the Cascadia Center at Seattle’s Discovery Institute addressing Crosscut writers on one of his favorite topics, regional thinking and planning.

As one example, Agnew noted that an important, and one would think relatively simple matter, would be to get traffic signals synchronized so that traffic flow would be improved. But it doesn’t happen. Why? Because continguous jurisdictions, such as Tukwila, Seattle, Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Everett won’t share their logarithms for traffic signal operation with others. So traffic moves slower with higher costs.

Synchronized traffic lights are one example. Another would be getting on an airplane. With trust down and suspicion up we spend a lot more time at airports being screened, scanned and scrutinized. Where you used to be able to arrive at an airport 30 minutes before your flight and get on board, now the minimum is two hours. When trust goes down, says Covey, things take lots more time. Even if such time-consuming scrutiny cannot be avoided in air travel these days, his point remains.

Another larger illustration, cited by Agnew, is the failure of the Puget Sound Region to develop a coordinated transportation strategy led and administered by one integrated body that has some actual clout. Local districts and municipalities don’t much trust one another and so even getting something like the Orca card operational is a mind-numbingly slow and costly process.

Does this shed a different light on the famous, or infamous, “Seattle process?”

People note the importance of process in Seattle. To be sure, there’s much to be said for decision-making that is open and deliberative. But is “Seattle process” really a expression of our commitment to openness and democracy or is it a sign of a trust deficit?

The August tunnel vote would suggest the latter. Prior to the vote, one might have thought that there was nothing remotely close to consensus so conflictual was the debate. But in August a surprisingly large majority said, “Get on with it already,” voting to move ahead with the deep-bore tunnel that had been being researched and discussed for more than a decade. After the vote, it looked more like a noisy minority had been holding the process, and the community, hostage.

In some organizations an over-commitment to process empowers malcontents and nay-sayers at the expense of making decisions and the participation of reasonable people. Many lament “Seattle’s addiction to process” but maybe process isn’t the problem at all? Maybe process is what you get when there is suspicion surplus and a trust deficit?

Covey’s argument might also suggest that job one for leaders is building trust. Here, leaders like mayors, City Council members, school superintendents and board members, heads of not-for-profits as well as businesses all set the tone and the standard.

Covey contrasts “myths” about trust with “reality.” One myth is that “Trust is slow.” In reality, he says, “Nothing is as fast as the speed of trust.” Another myth, “You either have trust or you don’t.” The reality, Covey maintains, is that, “Trust can be both created and destroyed.” He continues in this vein. Myth: “Once lost, trust cannot be restored.” Reality: “Though difficult, in most cases trust can be restored.” Myth: “Trusting people is too risky.” Reality: “Not trusting people is a greater risk.”

The point is that you don’t get far, nor do you get there in a timely fashion, without trust. If all sorts of institutions seem dysfunctional these days, the problem may not be a lack of process but a lack of trust.

The balance of Covey’s book is about how to build trust. If having high levels of trust does make it possible to move more quickly, to make decisions and get things done, building trust takes time. Time and skill and integrity.

Locally, some of Covey’s trust building strategies are evident in the work of Interim Superintendent of Seattle Schools Susan Enfield. Among the 13 behaviors that Covey commends are “Listen First,” “Talk Straight,” and “Get Better.” While her record isn’t perfect, Enfield has made progress by demonstrating all of these.

One might add another to Covey’s myth/reality list of ideas to compare and contrast. Myth: trust is dangerous. Reality: the absence of trust is what’s truly dangerous.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.