Is America in Decline? A Lesson in Group Problem-Solving

Baseball in TattersIs America in decline? That was the entire content of one of those quickie polls that appear in the sidebar of the Washington Post’s website. “Is America in decline?” Yes or no.

What a stupid question!

For one, the question can only produce one result: an argument. If you answer yes, you’ll be labeled a traitor and will get the love-it-or-leave-it message from a self-proclaimed patriot. If you answer no, you’ll be labeled as a person seriously in denial by those who have reached the opposing conclusion.

When I took a peek at the poll results, the results showed about a 50/50 split. Duh.

The reason why it’s a stupid question is because it’s not a helpful question. The problem of “America” is too big and broad for us to solve. “America” is the result of a billion variables that go into the recipe. If you try to solve the “America problem”, all you’d wind up doing is making a lame attempt to cover up a failed recipe with a few spices in the hope that it might at least turn into something palatable.

Which America are we talking about? North Dakota seems to be doing pretty well. Recent dining experiences have convinced me that American winemakers are on their game. Last weekend’s round of football playoffs were pretty exciting. On the other hand, there’s little question that Congress is broken, that the stock market is more influenced by fear than fact and that there are still far too many people without jobs. By trying to solve the “America problem,” we fail to solve thousands of problems that are within our power to fix. Instead, we waste our time debating a meaningless question that cannot possibly yield a solution.

The other problem with the question is that it allows the person answering the question to sidestep any responsibility for the problem or the solution. “America” becomes an abstraction, something that is beyond me, a problem I did not create and cannot solve. When we break any problem down to its components, we know this cannot be true. If you voted in your congressional election, you bear some responsibility for the sorry state of Congress.

Edward DeBono came up with a simple way to define problems. A problem is simply the difference between what you have and what you want. If you try to apply this model to the “America problem,” you’ll find out pretty quickly that you can’t come up with a problem definition on which everyone will agree. We all have different definitions of what we have and what we want. That alone should tell you that you’re trying to solve the unsolvable.

Until we agree on the problem, we will never agree on the solution. This is why the most important stage of group problem-solving is the first: trying to precisely define the difference between what you have and what you want. Too many groups in business, government and the nonprofit sector operate in crisis mode, reacting to symptoms instead of problems because they haven’t taken the time to clearly define the issue at hand. This leads to poor decision-making, failure and to a decline in the confidence of the group members to solve any problem.

As anyone who has been a human being for any length of time knows, it takes time to figure out what you want and what you don’t want. It requires hard thinking and quality discussion to help a person or a group clarify a goal and avoid potential pitfalls. One way to get there is to reshape DeBono’s model by phrasing the question in the “How can we/Without” format: How can we (get what we want) without (getting what we don’t want). How can we reduce unemployment without increasing the deficit? How can we position this product in the market without cannibalizing sales on other product lines? How can we improve the bottom line without cutting heads? How can we design a compensation program that has real impact without breaking the bank?

Some might read this post and blame our instant gratification, time-sensitive culture for refusing to give us the time we need to clearly define problems. Sorry, but I don’t buy “the culture made me do it” argument. Anyone in a position where they have the opportunity to influence an outcome has the responsibility to take the time to get it right.

Given the seeming enormity of our many problems, taking the time seems like a pretty inexpensive investment.

Photo Credit: © Cmillc22 | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.