Musings on decisions and factors that drive them.

Getting the purpose right...

Or self-destruction over "whose" direction

Paul Krugman in the New York Times reports on the shift from political parties themselves, to a support base outside the political officialdom of the party of "celebrity" agents. This move plays to extremist beliefs in our society.

"Real power in the party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who at this point is more a media figure than a conventional politician). Because these people aren’t interested in actually governing, they feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it."

The "right" undoubtedly also believes that the "left" is employing the same techniques. For those in the "middle," frustrations continue to grow as the deep divisions in this country (cited as Krugman points out, decades before), appear likely to continue.

Divisions are sustained, as he indicates, by extremist viewpoints. Unfortunately extremism, by its nature, appeals more to the media ("right" or "left") than anything moderate. The result is that those in the "middle" are besieged by demands for partisanship. Take a stand...a "side."  "What are you, some sort of 'leftist?'" "You sound like a socialist!"  "Are you a right-wing Republican, for goodness' sake?" Ideas are not heard until they are first pigeon-holed. Opinions that might, by issue, find a home in "one camp" or the other cannot be judged without first being labeled.

The results of this divisiveness for the majority of moderate citizens is an increasing sense of futility. Each "side" enfolds its beliefs in a ballooning self-righteousness. It appears that we are unable to work together to achieve a greater common purpose. We are to be forever mired in the lesser purpose of having some "side" win at all costs thereby entitling the winner to force "the other side" into compliance with its own beliefs.

Is this the nature of a two party system? Will it always be about who is in charge? Who wins? Is it impossible for two sides (whether or not elected officials), once an election is concluded, to put aside "winning the next election" to focus collectively on achieving a greater purpose?

If the purpose of each "side" cannot be elevated to a higher common purpose, we can be assured that decades from now, another journalist will be quoting Krugman's columns, just as he quotes the work of Richard Hofstadter from 1964.

Decisions are typically fought at the level of details. Conflict resolution must first focus on achievement of agreement at a higher level, and then work from that point into the details, exploring alternatives in the context of that agreed-upon greater purpose. Achieving movement in a common direction always depends on collectively seeing value in a destination.

We can always throw up our hands and say that the two-party system is and shall always remain diametrically opposed.  That there is no common destination. We can continue to demonize others who have ideas and beliefs that differ from ours. We can insist that we will always be headed in opposite directions, refusing to even attempt common exploration of alternatives.

If we truly believe all of that, and we truly believe that we can never see a common purpose, then we need to accept that we are not one country, but two. We need to then accept that an internal war will always be taking place in which, during any given administration, one country will "occupy" and "enslave" the other to its beliefs. The question is, is this then the type of country we wish to have? Or, is there any hope that we are willing to change this picture of extremism?

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." The author, of course, appears right there on the U.S. penny.  Instead of promoting self-righteous beliefs, perhaps it is time to ask "Penny for your thoughts?"

Health Care Reform as weapon

The subject of Health Care Reform, no matter what one's personal views on it, has provided us with depressing insight into a greater issue that faces our nation: A divided culture that is compelled in all matters to take "sides." A situation in which a real and serious issue becomes but a ruse for advancing underlying disharmony. A culture in which "winning" is more important than advancing quality of life for, and as, a people. A climate in which victory, even Pyrrhic, seems to be sought for the momentary satisfaction of watching someone else being "defeated." A milieu in which a victory for one's "side" will justify whatever means are employed to achieve it . Where "spin" is more important than truth. It all seems a very far cry from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Rather than railing at each other, rather than fanning flames of discontent, rather than spending resources and energy in trying to prove that one view is "right" and all others are "wrong," it is possible to take a more systematic and disciplined approach to discussion and planning. A means of honoring and respecting diversity of opinion and needs.

Each key constituency should identify the essential qualities of a health care system that it is seeking, and separately list its concerns. It is typical to find at least a few items on each constituency's list that are similar to items identified on others' lists. Some items would be unique to each constituency. That is absolutely as it should be. Each constituency should independently ascertain the relative importance, for them, of the items on their own lists. Any judgment of other constituencies as to the merit of their lists, or their resultant weighting should be politely withheld. Differing values, and differences of opinion, are to be respected, not attacked. (Something cable news and talk radio have yet to learn.) Reaching common ground is neither a matter of convincing nor coercion. The best solutions evolve from listening, and a mindset of respectful willingness to understand, while perhaps still disagreeing.

Once each constituency's individual judgment "structure" has been created, each potential option for a health care reform plan should be listed and weighted, again by each constituency on their own, against their own criteria.

Finally, the results of all constituencies' weightings can be integrated into one graphic picture. It is entirely likely that results will not be as far apart as we have been led to believe. It may even surprise some people. The disciplined integration of independently structured viewpoints would further allow discussions of differences in a way that allows meaningful and cooperative resolution.

Applied to the health care reform issue, it is possible to resolve the key issues in a civilized, respectful, cooperative manner... which, I am told, is exactly why such a method probably would not be adopted. Health care reform is currently being savored as but a means to sabotage the other "side." As an issue deeply affecting everyone in the country, health care reform has become too great a temptation to use as the tool to foment outrage for self-serving ends.

As Pogo said decades ago, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."


Needed: new rationale

Yet again, we are being hit with news stories geared to practically nurture public outrage. Once again, the subject: executive bonuses. This time the recipient in question is Andrew Hall, head of Philbro, up for a bonus in the millions. I don't know which is more irritating: the large amounts in question, or the fact that these stories are becoming all too familiar both in stylistic construction and content. Big bonus. "Talent flight." Connections to "bail out" dollars. John Q. Public foots the bill.

If we are to move beyond outrage to acceptable solutions, more comprehensive thought about this compensation issue is necessary, if not by journalists, at least by the Pay Czar. Lack of clarity as to criteria for how "merit" is determined is typically at the core of any outrage related to compensation. If the public were given more than "talent flight" as the sole reason for bonuses, it would be a good place to start.

More reasons than one determine worthiness. These reasons have a relative importance. In addition, the Pay Czar must understand the full set of concerns from the public view. He must delve into the below-the-surface reasoning that drives the perceived point at which a sum of money given as pay or as a bonus switches from being reasonable to being considered "obscene" or morally reprehensible. These perceptions and concerns, too, have relative perceived levels of impact or pain.

Each potential recipient, now and in the future, should be assessed against the established criteria. The assessment must, with transparency, drive the amount granted. Additionally, integration of that merit assessment with the analysis of public perception will make decisions have a better chance of being deemed "reasonable." They will be defensible.

Without this discipline, the public will create their own myriad sets of criteria for judgment, not only for compensation granted, but for judging the Czar himself. We can then expect the focus of outrage, the topics of the articles, to shift from amounts of compensation to the capabilities of the person making the decision, in this case the Czar. And have we not heard and read similar stories in the past as well?

To ban or not to ban... that is not the question

When arguments ensue, it is often not due to a specific action or idea, but rather is due to various interpretations of the intentions behind the action/idea.  A key to conflict resolution resides in the ability to listen for assumptions about, or interpretations of, any specific.  

Nicolas Sarkozy recently stated his support for a parliamentary commission to look at whether to ban the wearing of burkas in public. France has already outlawed the wearing of veils in state schools.  The deeply felt reactions to this announcement are rooted in the various interests' differing assumptions.  These assumptions are both about the intent behind the action of banning, as well as about the clothing as a symbol of an intent.

The BBC suggests focus be put on whether these articles of clothing are being worn voluntarily or not. (As difficult as that might be to determine, this is a key point, but not the entire issue.) One needs to delve into the values not only of free will, but of social responsibility, and moral obligation.  Rights guaranteed by "the state" to its citizens and those living within its borders must also be considered.  Groups and individuals are obliged themselves to not act at odds with the laws of that state.  In every aspect, individually or collectively, these are matters of choice, decisions and the balancing of values.

Defining and openly expressing what is hoped to be achieved by an action, i.e.,  intent, is the best place to start in a case of conflict.  Understanding and agreement as to the value of that intent must then be attained.  From that point, one can go on to elicit and examine all values that underpin the judgment, of all involved perspectives.  Only then can a "best" action emerge and be discussed in terms of supporting both that intent and those values.  The final choice will then be less susceptible to an immediate outcry based on assumed intent and values.

The right team... representation, therefore acceptance

Since the last decade of my life has been focused on creating tools for weighing one's options and encouraging disciplined decision-making, I wondered at my own sense of delight in the rash action of an Irish pensioner in throwing eggs at a banker.  Allowing for and integrating the emotions of decisions has always been a factor in designing good tools.  But, any tool is only part of a larger decision process.  Egg throwing illustrates failure in a larger process.

Acceptance of decisions (and even the misfortune that may result from them), comes from a sense of participation in the decision, even if it can only be through a representative.  If persons do not feel listened to by their "representatives," and if their thoughts and feelings are not conveyed or assimilated, then resentment and frustration occur.  Eggs will fly.

The imminent retirees of America voluntarily contributed to their 401K plans. These plans, for many workers, will never (in the time these individuals have left) return to the needed levels for simply surviving their old age. (Single women, it is noted, will be particularly hard hit.) 401K contributors, however, knew that their funds were invested in the "private sector," and were susceptible to loss. As investors, we suffer their loss, yet we also remember that we participated in the investment choice.

On the other hand, taxes to support Social Security were not optional.  Neither the option to participate, nor the option as to amounts paid. Taxpayers simply met the imposed obligation of this social contract.  Now, as the rules for receipt of funds are being unilaterally changed, and as we learn that the use of the funds has been for other than social causes, the best we can hope for is that the right team of representatives is in place to make the decisions that will gravely affect us.  Given 1) the amount of money it takes to become an elected "representative" in this country, and 2) the age of key persons making the decisions (fifteen or more years from retirement themselves…time to recover), the necessity to add representation by someone without wealth and who is over 60 becomes more critical.  Decades ago, the then-aging population, also frustrated, found representation in the form of the Gray Panther movement, led by Maggie Kuhn.  Will we see its revival in these coming tough times?

We have often told our clients that no software tool produces an acceptable result if the right team isn’t in place.  Diverse viewpoints, varied experience, myriad backgrounds, education levels and wealth, differing cultures and a mixture of ages are but some of the many characteristics to be sought to comprise a team.  Only then can those they represent have the sense of, and confidence in, "participation" in the process.


When differences matter

It is said that buying a house is one of the most stressful events in life. A real estate agent friend told me that the toughest part of selling, for the agent, was witnessing relationships being strained as young couples, while in their first house buying process, learned how differently their "significant other" valued the identical housing options. Seeing eye to eye, i.e. having an identical set of values, was rarely the case. 

The same is true in business.  Virtues of a business case typically dominate the viewpoints of Marketing, Sales, and Research & Development.  Finance, Legal and Operations will tune in to the risks.  That is, one observes, the nature of those jobs.  

In both examples, it is important to note that the criteria by which one judges is neither "right" nor "wrong."  Judgment factors, whether subjective or objective, indicate for each party “what is important to me,”  “what matters to me,” “what makes something ‘good’ in my view.”  

These factors, for the person stating them, are not open to question.  But, so often we hear an argument focus on the criteria by which someone else is judging:  “That’s not even important.”  And the retort: “Well, maybe not important to you, buddy, but it is important to me!!”  If a criterion of importance to another is not allowed to be voiced, one can be sure that it will still be influencing any discussion of choices, albeit behind a mask of obscurity.

Differing parties should be encouraged to clarify their own value systems without judgment.  Each party needs to define its own set of criteria by which it will appraise the options before it.  The factors form the basis of opinion.  And, it must be remembered, if the same factor appears on everyone's list of criteria,  this does not mean that the item has equal importance to everyone.  Let each individual or perspective find the relative importance of what matters to them.  Then, go ahead.  Have each party assess every option against its own set of criteria.

Results generated will be more valuable than if one had forced agreement on a set of criteria that are deemed wanting by some, or deemed a compromise by others.  An integrated picture showing each viewpoint's position on an option or case will emerge.  Then, the best steps to deal with each perspective's “big issue(s)” can be planned.  

A good decision is not just about reaching agreement, it is about reaching understanding of differences and forging a path that addresses all with respect.  The shift is behavioral: from trying to convince to finding common understanding.


What's behind the anger?

The G20 demonstrations on April 1 started as having “a carnival atmosphere.”  They were then described as “turning sour” and “becoming violent.”  The day before, Timothy Geithner in a televised interview on CNBC, expressed understanding for “the anger and frustration” of persons who have lived frugally and responsibly towards those who have not. He’s onto the existence of anger.  But the source of anger, is not always the same as a target for anger.

It should be noted that demonstrators are becoming stronger and more universal in their condemnation of systems and philosophies of government.  A core belief has been shattered, centered on the systems that manage, or do not manage, responsibly.   People are judging systems.  The result of that judgment is anger.

For years, a divide between "Haves" and "Have Nots" has grown.   YouTube has a rather damning video with our former president joking about it. Those who are angry have viewed a double-standard not only for economic bailouts (banks vs. auto industry), but for criminal punishment (ankle bracelets in posh apartments vs. hard time in a cold cell for basically the same crime -- stealing).

Since our company's software has been used in conflict resolution, my focus naturally turned to this "story" as a representative example for anger assessments.   At the core of anger is typically something perceived to have failed to meet expectations.   In this case, a system.   In thinking of the factors by which that system is judged, I wondered:  Would it make people angrier with a system that a) potentially could cause them to lose money, or, one that b) exhibited a double-standard for treatment (in which they are likely to be less well treated than others)?

Both of the above attributes are unwanted.  But, would more people say they would resent the existence of a double-standard more than the potential loss of money?  The weight of receptivity to such factors will have a varying degree of influence on the acceptance of any solution.  

There are other criteria for a system that people would use to judge its success or failure to meet their expectations.  These factors should be elicited, as well. Wiser solutions to problems have a basis in understanding the full set of fundamental judgment factors underlying the larger issue, once that larger issue has been clarified.

Ascertain the set of "what matters" to those affected. (How do they judge?  By what criteria?) Determine the relative importance of these factors. Construct solutions that support those values.  The result will be a systemic answer to core issues.  And perhaps, people's good natures will not be eclipsed so much by anger.
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