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

The Three Basic Responsibilities (from Working Choices)

This excerpt is from Working Choices, Bob Mendonsa’s book on life in today’s organizations.

Responsibility is the key to making fully conscious choices. Human beings have three basic responsibilities: responsibility to self, responsibility to others and responsibility to the community.

Responsibility to self is basically being true to yourself. It means following your inner drive to manifest yourself in your own unique way. It is not self-indulgence, although the enjoyment of pleasurable things is not to be dismissed as a source of spiritual nourishment or judged as “selfish.” If you limit your actions to only the self-indulgent, then it is highly unlikely you are being true to yourself or living up to your other responsibilities. Then again, if you never indulge yourself, you will suffer the consequences of excessive self-repression. “Sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse an unacted desire,” Blake tells us, arguing that human desire is itself innocent and only made ugly, sick and distorted through years of self-repression. Balance is the key to living up to this and the other two responsibilities.

Responsibility to others means being responsive and respectful to those you know personally. This includes your family, your friends, your workmates, and your neighbors. Responsibility to others does not mean that you have to live up to their expectations or sacrifice yourself to make them happy. Again, balance is critical in living up to the responsibilities of life, and focusing on one at the expense of the other is always a self-destructive act. Responsibility to others involves working together to fulfill mutual needs, the defining quality of any successful relationship. It also means a fundamental respect for human life, including respecting the right of others to make their own choices, as long as those choices do not harm others.

Responsibility to the community is the most difficult of the three because it is the most challenging. This is because in modern society, the definition of community is changing. It used to mean your hometown; now the word can have global implications. Furthermore, communities are by nature fragmented because they are sprouting up all over the place as the result of technological advances. Most of us belong to many communities, from our neighborhood to our poetry circles to our Internet newsgroups. Simply put, a community is a group of people who have chosen to come together out of common interests. This means that for most of us in modern society the workplace is our primary community, for it is the community to which we contribute the greatest amount of time and effort.

Again, it is important that all three responsibilities be attended to in order for a person to feel right with the world. That doesn’t mean that we have to be in perfect balance all the time to be happy. What it means is that over time, we feel better when we nourish all three responsibilities. Sometimes you have to go off somewhere for self-reflection, so at that particular moment you are probably being more responsible to self than to others or to the community. Don’t worry, you can make it up later by attending to your other responsibilities in time.

I should also clarify that this is not intended to be a framework for happiness. Being responsible will not guarantee that you will always get what you want and that everything will work out. This framework is designed to help people process decisions, possibilities and opportunities by making them more understandable. The logic behind this is simple: if we understand the potential consequences of choices, we can make more effective choices. This is not to say that every choice will be effective, for there are always unpredictable variables in anything we do. What the framework does is permit you to make fully conscious choices instead of simply following the program or responding to the various guilt trips being heaped on you from all sides.

Author’s Comment: We’ve used the responsibility framework in several versions of our leadership programs with great success. People seem to be attracted to the concept of achieving balance, a goal that feels like a mirage to many overworked people. What I’ve noticed is that the responsibility to self is the one that people tend to sacrifice first, a choice that transforms a lot of good people into “martyrs for the cause.” You have to remember this: unless you take the time to nourish your soul, you will be left with nothing at all.

The Impact of Leading Through Fear: True Story

Once upon a time I worked in an organization for a leader who was scared to death.

He was frightened that the industry was falling apart, that the competition would eat us alive, that various agencies, attorneys and disloyal employees were circling in the skies overhead waiting to pounce on us if we made the slightest mistake.

So, he led from fear, and frightened the entire organization. He tried to control everything, from the big decisions to the trivial decisions. He would reverse course on a whim, on a fragment of information, on instinct. He would bark orders and make disparaging comments about any alternative course of action. He cut spending, because the first thing a frightened person does is hoard resources. He watched every move his subordinates made, because a scared person stops trusting anyone but himself.

After a while, people just gave up and did what he told them to do, no matter how silly it was. They followed the common wisdom, “keep your heads down.”

But while they talked behind the leader’s back about how absurd things had become, those subordinate executives were just as scared as the guy on the top. They were afraid of saying or doing anything that could cause them to disappear overnight into the black hole of outplacement. They had much to lose in terms of income, status and security, so they said nothing, implemented initiatives they knew were misguided and suppressed any opposing urges.

Because they all bought into the fear, they stopped trusting each other. Now they were all in competition for a scarce resource based on the logic, “He can’t fire us all.” In turn, they stopped trusting their subordinates, because they knew that no matter how innocent the mistake made by an underling, the leader would come down on their heads like a guillotine.

Eventually the leader’s fear translated into meaningless, random staff reductions that were little more than self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and justified by the macho restorative, “sometimes you have to make the tough calls.” Fear intensified and spread throughout the organization and even beyond. Because while the executives were cutting staff, they followed the logic of rightsizing and continued to hire people. Unfortunately for them, word had gotten around that this wasn’t the safest place to work, and only the underskilled and desperate bothered to apply. The organization lived on the fumes of past success for a while, then was mercifully put to sleep by an investment firm that gutted it for what was usable, which by that time, wasn’t much at all.

Once upon a time . . . don’t I wish. I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over in every industry and it will never end as long as insecure leaders obsessed with personal survival forget their responsibility to the people they lead.

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