I’ve been reading about the history of the Paris Metro, having recently been back to France. The fabulous book I’m reading begins:

“In the five decades leading up to the eventual opening of the Metro in 1900, businesses, citizens, government ministers and city officials scrutinised more than 60 different proposals to build an urban railroad in Paris.”

So over 50 years multiple stakeholders made multiple attempts to design the best railway for the City of Light. And for 45 of those 50 years no consensus could be found about the preferred option. It became a national embarrassment and a source of real pain, as the population grew well beyond the capacity of existing horse-drawn options. Yet despite the urgent need an agreed solution remained elusive.

It is a very contemporary story in many ways, as major urban transport projects continue to suffer ‘’. But it’s relevant in other ways as well, and to everyone who works with others on difficult projects.

Apparently a key cause of indecision for planners was the question of the purpose of a rail system. Was it to be focussed on connecting the existing regional rail termini, (think Gare du Nord, Gare du Lyon etc), or was it to be focussed on getting Parisians to work every day?

In other words, what is the problem the rail system was to solve?

Through 60 different proposals the many different stakeholders proposed solutions to the problem as they saw it. The city government saw the problem in terms of local voters and their commuting constraints. The federal government saw the problem as one of regional and national connection. Other stakeholders added to the confusion with their own perspectives.

Though ostensibly talking about the same thing – a rail system in Paris – everyone was trying to solve a different problem, so it’s not surprising that the answer eluded them.

Ultimately, the federal government threw up their hands and acknowledged that this was something that the City Fathers (and they were mostly fathers) should take the running on. The problem came into clearer focus and in no time at all the first tunnels were dug and the first elements of the now famous Paris Metro were laid.

The moral of the story is not that progress comes from wearing down your stakeholders so that they give up and walk away. Rather, it’s that any collaborative project requires a shared sense of the problem being tackled. Not just ‘how do we build a rail system in Paris’, but ‘what specifically is important to each of us in the situation we face and what are the questions we most need this rail project to resolve?’

If Parisians had this conversation back in 1850, perhaps they could have saved themselves decades of pain and megatons of horsemanure. Sounds like a lot of projects I know.