CODA: Messing with Problems

Russ Volckmann

Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby in Harvard Business
Review; Ian I. Mitroff and Abraham Silvers, Dirty Rotten Strategies

Leadership Coaching TipAre the times really changing or is it same ‘ole, same ole…’? Is there hope for progress in confronting the challenges we face in the world or have the French had it right all along (as I suspect they have in a number of ways)? “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!” (The more things change, the more they remain the same!) is attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a journalist and novelist who lived in the latter part of the 19th Century. He might be viewed by some as a harsh sort of fellow, for example on the abolition of capital punishment: “Je veux bien que messieurs les assassins commencent”—(Let the gentlemen who do the murders take the first step). I wonder what his position might be on the social responsibility of corporations and the grand scale ecological challenges we face in the world today. As it happens, there is an article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review that addresses this question by drawing on the business metaphors of internalities and externalities.

hbr coverChristopher Meyer and Julia Kirby, “Leadership in the Age of Transparency,” Harvard Business Review, April 2010.

Essentially, their argument is that given how transparent corporate (and personal) transactions are in the era of the Internet, it is good corporate policy to actively engage with bringing responsibility for externalities back into the corporation for action and management. A company would be “taking ownership of an issue that they could, by law, have continued to say was not their problem.” What is this transparency?

One example they offer, that I tried, is to go to and check up on the state and source of pollutants where you live in the United States (there may be equivalent sites for other countries). In my case it was shocking. While the data was 8 years old, it turns out I am living in one of the worst polluting counties in the United States (after moving from one of the least!). To top it off, the biggest polluter was a tennis racquet manufacturer who was putting out more than 160,000 lbs. of pollutants a year in 2002! I don’t have more recent data. Okay, what to do about this?

Corporations around the world are vulnerable to external pressure to address environmental issues. One example was the protests of villagers in Mehdiganj, near where Coca-Cola had built a plant. Ground water levels had sunk 19 feet in one year as a result of the plant’s drawing off water from its environment. This is not a unique event. But it is one that shows that corporations have a choice. They can address these “externalized” issues proactively or they can wait until communities and governments decide to pressure them and intervene.

These authors have offered actions that the corporation can take in regard to “externalities.” These revolve around taking ownership of those that are a direct result of company action. Then, take action to address these issues. In addition, take an interest in issues that affect the community for which you have no direct responsibility. They note, “It will remain the job of government to set standards for measurement and ensure that they are properly carried out and made public. The markets, once in possession of full information, should be able to do the rest.” The word “should” concerns me. There are counter arguments. When companies such as BodyShop in the UK took on ecological causes, no other companies in that industry followed suit. Of course there were no government requirements to do so. Also, as in the case of carpet maker under the executive leadership of Bud Anderson, no other carpet makers have followed suit with their 100% recyclable commitment.

The authors leave us with this highly positive and optimistic thought, and I hope they are right: “As the boundaries between businesses and the nonprofit sector erode, adversarial relationship will become cooperative. A consensus will emerge that we are all responsible for our world and must work together to make it better—and we all wonder how we could ever have thought otherwise.” Bring out your developmental lens to read that quote!

dirty coverIan I. Mitroff and Abraham Silvers. Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Ian Mitroff has long been concerned with issues of problem definition and their implications for enacting solutions. Note Smart Thinking for Crazy Times: the Art of Solving the Right Problems, published in 1998, Crisis Leadership: Planning for the Unthinkable, published in 2003, among a myriad of other books and articles dealing with crisis management—dealing with the unexpected.

“Solving the wrong problems precisely is the central topic” of this book. “If problems are wrongly stated to begin with, then what good are the answers?” This is not a new question as the authors point us to the following quotations;

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, then they don’t have to worry about the answers.”
—Thomas Jefferson

“The worst and most corrupting lies are problems wrongly stated.”
—George Bernandos

“We know…that when you cannot get an answer there is something wrong with the question.”
—Joan Robinson

An early president of the United States, a French author of questionable repute (his anti-democratic and early support for Franco before World War II), and a British Cambridge economist who probably did not receive a Nobel Prize because of her support for the Maoist Cultural Revolution—what an array of sources of wisdom. I suspect, coming from such diverse sources, Mitroff and Silvers have tapped into a fundamental wisdom. They identify some common patterns in a vast array of examples of wrongly stated problems leading to abuses, crises and disasters. Yet, “We do not have to accept the narrow and limited definition of problems that others (single-issue interest groups, big and powerful businesses, academic specialties, and so on) force on us. In other words, there are grounds for hope.” When I read these words I could not but think of the new series Sue McGregor and I are undertaking on transdisciplinarity in higher education. Our interest is transdisciplinarity, in part, is because it offers us more complete definitions of problems and approaches to solutions that transcend any single stakeholder group.

A core concept in this book is “Errors of the Third Kind.” Failures happen because we solve the wrong problem and then delude ourselves into thinking we have solved the right problem and then are unwilling to reexamine what we have done. “Errors of the Third Kind” involve “trying to solve old and new problems with the assumptions, mindsets, and institutions of the past.” This is an elaboration of the Einstein reference to solving problems with the same mindset or consciousness with which we created them. Type 1 and Type 2 errors (read the book) are taught in statistics courses, but not Type 3. The latter requires wisdom—“the ability to be aware of and rise above our biases and passions…the ability to exercise critical thinking, to be aware of and challenge our basic assumptions.”

Reading this was timely. I received a copy of an email by a CEO who is participating in a yearlong leader development program. The email was full of excitement and discovery. Key to this was his discovery that the assumptions he had been operating on in key aspects of his work were not valid. He had reframed these assumptions and was experiencing significant shifts in his approach to leading. He had avoided the Type 3 error and tapped into his wisdom.

Mitroff and Silvers continue, “The Type Three Error is the unintentional error of solving the wrong problems precisely. In sharp contrast, the Type Four Error is the intentional error of solving the wrong problems.” As I read this I found myself reflecting on the current political tension in the United States between the Radical Right and the Liberal/Progressive political groups. I found myself wanting to say that the Radical Right was guilty of Type Four Errors and the others guilty of Type Three Errors. Take this with a grain of salt, but it might be an interesting exploration for someone. Anyone game? These perspectives related as well to the authors’ treatment of unreality. “Unreality is the deliberate creation and use of arguments, images, myths and tactics that not only distort, enhance, and replace ordinary reality but also attempt to convince us that unreality is better than reality.” This is a Type Four Error.

The book is replete with examples from various domains: business, health care, national security, media, academia, religion, etc. Then there is the chapter, “Misconstruing God.” Ken Wilber’s work plays a significant role in this discussion. There is a description of AQAL that is used to build on a theory of human development and spirituality. They relate a four-quadrant perspective to both Type Three and Type Four Errors because each tends to ignore one or more of the quadrants, thus oversimplifying both the definition of a problem and the design of solutions. And, interestingly, they close this chapter, a chapter written by individuals who can be considered significant players in the worlds of government, business and academia (e.g., Mitroff’s reputation as the Father of Crisis Management), with the following:

The topic of religion and spirituality provides an interesting perspective on current affairs. When he was campaigning for the presidency, now President Barack Obama was roundly criticized mostly by members of his own party, for embracing the concept of faith-based initiatives. The basic criticism was that in doing so he sounded too much like G.W. Bush ‘warmed over.’

Democrats have extreme difficulty acknowledging not only the general role of emotions in life (the inner-individual and inner-group quadrants of Wilber’s model) but also the role of religion and spirituality in particular. This has traditionally been on of the Democrats’ greatest errors and downfalls. They just don’t see to understand—to ‘get’—the powerful role that emotions and stories play in human affairs. Indeed, stories play such a fundamental role that if we were inclined to believe that there are indeed ‘atoms’ underlying all of human reality…then we would say that stories are it.

As this chapter has argued, not all forms of religion, and certainly not all forms of spirituality, are irrational. To the contrary, it is irrational not to believe in any form of religion and in spirituality….

Wags have often voiced the opinion that one of the worst things the Founding Fathers did was reject the idea of a state religion. If the United States had had a state religion, we might have ended up like Europe, that is, rejecting religion in large numbers. Perhaps then we would not have been as prone to fundamentalism, or in our terms, to solving the wrong problem of religion.

Finally, the authors address this formula: Underlying Sources>Means>Type Four Errors. Another way to express this is that there are factors that motivate Types 3 and 4 errors. These lead to the ways we make these errors, which in turn produces these errors. Taming these errors can be achieved through shifts at any one or all of these steps. Wicked problems resist being effectively addressed by any one point of view, be it discipline or worldview. If we take the solution to wicked problems seriously we are also meant to consider transdisciplinary approaches. Ideology narrows our thinking and keeps us from effectively addressing these complex problems. “We need a 360-degree mirror in which we see ourselves clearly; we need multiple theories if we are to have any hope of explaining complex phenomena.” I would add that we need to be aware of our meta-theories in the problem definition and solution process. We need to take the great contributions of folks like Ken Wilber and build on them to find the ways to integrate these disciplines in addressing Third and Fourth Order Problems. We cannot afford to be blasé and assume that the more things change the more they remain the same. Perhaps this is true when we fail to address the issues raised by Mitroff and Silvers.

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