May 28, 2024

like a broken record

water plants floating in a large clay pot filled with clear water
photo caption: water plants floating in a large clay bowl. the smallish leaves that look like green pac-man are known as the flowers of kumudu. the larger cluster of green leaves is known as a mosaic plant. if i ever shrink to tiny size, you will find me sleeping in one of these. photo is once again by Sujatha Arseculeratne.

My colleague Clara and I were facilitating a meeting that was long overdue. The participants were there to solve a problem that was also long overdue. One participant explained, with clear emotion in his voice, everything that had gone wrong. He told us how the actions of others caused him harm. He said he’d been telling this story for years. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I don’t mean to sound like a broken record.” Why were so many people making him repeat himself?

How do you fix a broken record? You can’t replace the record player. You can’t turn it off and back on again. The problem isn’t in the speakers, though that’s where the sound comes out. You can name a hundred solutions, each one more outlandish or disconnected than the last. But there’s only one way it stops skipping. You have to fix it.

Here’s how we do that.

understand the problem

If you’re in charge, I hope you have direct experience with the problem. I hope you know well the impact(s) this problem has. You may even have ideas on how to fix it. If this is true, you’re already off to a good start. Consider how your privileges or lack thereof give others a different perspective on the issue than yours. Consider how we bridge any gaps that might exist.

You have more work ahead of you if you don’t have that direct experience. Find people who know well the harms and the problem they face. Give them space to share their stories without judgment or jumping to solutions. Get really good at naming and describing the problem. Then, collaborate on solutions in a way that puts lived experience in the lead. This part is useful no matter what your connection is to the issue. Understand the situation from different angles and perspectives. Try imagining potential solutions. Collect them from the people you meet. Clarify and improve them with even more people. Repeat until you’re ready to act.

spend your time on what people want

Most decision-makers have a pretty good understanding of a problem (or they think they do). They might even have a great idea for a solution. What if the solution doesn’t seem possible? Solving systemic issues, for example, can be a massive undertaking. Consider the contentious issues of american society. DEI efforts and the ongoing backlashes that followed; reparations for descendants of the enslaved. People with some power might look at an issue like that and decide it’s a nonstarter. We speak from a place of privilege when we say something isn’t (politically) possible. On that note, I’ll be right back…


I’m driving a very large truck. I pull right up next to you, and oops! I ran over your foot. The truck is still on your foot. Your foot. Hurts. Hey, I bet that’s pretty painful!

I agree, I think getting my truck off your foot is a great idea. But is that really possible? Right now? In this political climate? See, I’m unloading my truck at the moment. You might not have noticed what with you blacking out from the pain. Yeah, I make good money renting out my truck to brick haulers. For some reason the bricks have to be completely level when we unload them, or else they might tip over. That would be bad for business, to say the least!

Anyway, your foot was exactly what I needed to level out this crappy road. See, I ruined the road driving my truck all over it! Ha ha. Hey, what if I got you a nice glass of lemonade instead? My grandpa always said to me, “son (he called me son), there’s nothing more satisfying than a nice glass of lemo—” What? I can’t… I can’t hear you. Ugh, are you talking about your foot? Again??

no idea is impossible

That glass of lemonade did nothing for your crushed foot, right? It might have felt like an “easy win” or something we could “do this year.” But it made little difference to the actual problem at hand. We can’t let our feelings of discomfort or overwhelm distract us from the real issues.

Here’s a huge issue. We all know Native people on Turtle Island (to use the word given to it by the Anishinaabe people) had their land taken by settlers and their government. They stole and sold Native land; bought and sold it for centuries. They displaced Native people, attempted genocide, state-sanctioned campaigns of terror. They worked the land with enslaved Black labor. These profits (nothing for money) supercharged the national economy. One potential remedy, that we can do right now, is to return the united states’ national parks to the Indigenous people who lived there.

For some people, this plan will be a nonstarter. When something doesn’t feel possible, we’re taught to brainstorm alternatives. “We can’t do that, what else would work?” Why is that? What if the solution we already have is the most important thing to people most harmed? Everything else we offer would be nice. But it’s not what people are asking for. Why spend time on lemonade?

define incremental steps

When we focus on the desired solution as our end goal, we put all our ideas and energy towards reaching it. There are many paths to that solution. We can try them all, but we only need one to work. Start with the big idea, then think of all the ways we could get there.

  • Raise awareness among the general public
  • Make it a political issue and advocate for parties to integrate it into their platforms
  • Push for land trusts and other interim measures while keeping the goal up front

David Treuer articulated this idea in a piece called Return the National Parks to the Tribes. It’s right there in the name, isn’t it? He named several steps along this path, some of which are already happening, like:

  • Preservation of Native spaces and cultural heritage sites in parks
  • Hiring historic preservation officers to link parks with tribes connected to that land
  • Granting Native people the use of parks to harvest traditional medicine, or trap or hunt wild game.
  • One park leader in the article attends tribal meetings. She also mentions reparations for Native people as it relates to parkland.

But the overarching thesis of this article remains the same. He writes, “All 85 million acres of national-park sites should be turned over to a consortium of federally recognized tribes in the United States.”

Treur, and members of the Land Back movement, focus first on the big thing they’re fighting for. Then they describe how to get there.

fixing a broken record

So how do you fix a broken record? You can restore it. You can put a new record on. Beyond the metaphor, we have the exquisite opportunity to ask the person themselves. How do we solve this problem? What would really do it? How can we work together to make that happen? Your power. My power. Our power.

The broken record won’t stop skipping until something changes. Everything else is wasting time.

Hi folks! If you like reading these posts but forget to check the website, I’m trying out a newsletter mailing list. It’s free to join. I’d love to know your feedback on this option. Subscribe here, or on the right sidebar:

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]