Who Does What in Society?

The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak is titled as if it were a new development in local governance and problem solving, but the authors suggest that New Localism is really more of a return to historical problem solving and idea formation. Over the last few decades, the national government has captured more attention and focus in national media and public debates about problems, policies, and solutions. However, it has always been the case that the place where people actually experience and live out any problems, policies, or solutions is in a local context. We have all felt the disparity between regions when an economy is “strong” or “in free-fall.” We know that things can be great for our neighborhood, but a total train-wreck in the next, town, or even just a few blocks away.

 

Katz and Nowak reassert the importance of local action and problem solving. The authors describe a current phenomenon in the United States where people, businesses, non-profits, foundations, and civic groups are rediscovering local authority and collaborative institutions to achieve meaningful goals at the local level where people live and experience the problems we actually face.

 

Katz and Nowak write, “Correcting the confusion over who does what in societies is an essential act of civic education and a necessary first step toward national progress.”

 

Countering the intuition that solutions must be national is an important first step toward addressing our real problems. Learning what it means to be connected and organized locally to implement solutions quickly with the support of the public and private organizations is the heart of New Localism. Deferring action toward higher levels of government is effectively an abdication of the authority and ability of local actors to make changes that work in their region. A standard playbook and actor chart cannot be developed across all cities and communities, but each individual community can rediscover the impact that local individuals and local businesses can have moving our societies forward.

 

What the quote also addresses is the confusion we have over who can and should take action in problem solving. It is easy to think that a problem is the responsibility of someone else and that some other governmental agency or some other public actor will step in to make a change. It is hard to remember that it is the people experiencing the problem and living in the area where the problem exists who are the ones that can best respond. Businesses often complain about regulations or public decisions, but don’t always make the investments in the institutions which make those decisions. Citizens often complain about an issue, but don’t often form a group or make decisions that would actually address the issue. We don’t have a good sense of how the public can work with government or how communities can organize around a solution to make the places we live better places to be. Everyone is busy and under a lot of pressure, so learning how things work and taking the time to be involved is understandably challenging, but bringing visibility to the roles that we need citizens and businesses to play in problem solving is important as we rediscover what local governance looks like.

Problem Solving to Fit the World

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak argue that political decision-making, solutions to complex problems, and innovations in progress and economic development occur more at the local level than at the national level in the world today. Their argument is that national politics is complex and cumbersome, with too many large and disconnected voices and opinions to tailor policy solutions to problems in ways that actually make sense. More local structures, on the other hand, are better suited to find and implement real solutions to the specific problems taking place in a given region.

 

“Cities and other localities,” the authors write, “can craft and deliver better solutions to hard challenges since they match problem solving to the way the world works – integrated, holistic, and entrepreneurial rather than compartmentalized and bureaucratic.”

 

Sometimes we think about our challenges and problems as being distinct from each other. We tend to think  the opioid crisis is a healthcare failure, that unaffordable rent in San Francisco is a housing policy failure, that a factory closing is an economic failure. We try to find individual solutions to each of these problems such as, introducing databases to monitor opioid prescriptions, or capping the price of rent in a city, or by trying to attract a new business to fill the old factory with tax breaks. In reality, however, all of these policy areas are interconnected. Economic development can influence the price of housing, and stable housing (or the lack thereof) can influence community dynamics which make people more or less likely to misuse drugs. Trying to tackle any individual problem from a broad national level, without considering the specific details that contribute to the problem in a given place would be unlikely to succeed.

 

Local problem solving, as Katz and Nowak suggest, is able to look at problems in a more comprehensive way since it tailors solutions to the local environment. Solutions can be integrated instead of compartmentalized and localities can bring entrepreneurs into the fold to mix business interests and development with social responsibility and support. The policy that is likely to succeed in reducing opioid misuse San Francisco is unlikely to be the same solution that would succeed in Dayton, Ohio, but both communities could share what they learn and take advantage of local resources to build coalitions to address the problems in a manner consistent with the local experiences. National level policy cannot introduce such individualized solutions and cannot be as responsive to the local variations on a given problem.

Designing for Two Goals

“Savvy institutional designers,” Write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “must … identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals-or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.”

 

In public policy research, there is a framework that is used to understand the legislative process called the Social Construction Framework (SCF). When examining the world through the SCF, we look at the recipients of particular policies and ask what social constructions are at play that shape the type of legislation surrounding these recipients. We also group the recipients into four broad groups: Advantaged, Contenders, Dependents, and Deviants.

 

Advantaged are those who have strong political power and public respect, like veterans and small business owners. Contenders have lots of political power, but are not viewed as warmly in the public eye, such as big business or unions. Dependents are socially sympathetic groups that don’t have much political power, such as sick children who can’t vote but evoke sympathy. The final group, Deviants, are socially scorned and politically weak, such as criminals or drug users.

 

The way we think about who belongs to which group is a social construction. That is, we attribute positive or negative qualities to groups to make them seem more or less deserving. Businesses always highlight the jobs they bring to communities, the innovations they create to make our lives better, and the charitable activities they contribute to. This is all an effort to move from a Contender status to an Advantaged status. Similarly, we see movements where people look at drug addicts and criminals in new ways, seeing them more as victims of circumstance than as entirely bad actors, moving them from Deviants to Dependents.

 

The reason this is important is because we introduce policies that either reward or punish people based on the groups they belong to. It all ties in with the quote from the book because we can either openly distribute a reward or punishment or distribute it in a hidden manner. Our policies might have stated explicit goals, but they may also provide a big business a hidden tax break. Our policies might be unpopular if they directly provide aid to former felons as they leave prison, but offering policy that is nominally intended to help the poor may provide a greater benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals than anyone else.

 

Hanson and Simler call for more sophisticated policy design that addresses our stated high-minded motivations and at the same time helps fulfill our more selfish and below the surface policy goals. SCF is a powerful framework to keep in mind as we try to develop policies and think about ways to actually enact policy that has both open surface level implications and addresses our deeper hidden purposes. This can, of course, be used for good or for ill, just as the tax code can be used to hide tax breaks for unpopular companies or help new homeowners, and just as social programs can be used as cover to assist individuals who are typically seen as Deviants.

Solving the Wrong Problem

I work for a growing but still small tech start-up in the healthcare space based out of the bay area. The company has a great mission and is amazing to work for, but we have certainly had a lot of growing pains and unanswerable questions over the last four years that I have worked for the company. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is making sure we answering the right questions and getting the right solutions to the right problems in place.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at these types of problems and takes them on in his book about coaching, The Coaching Habit. His book is full of recommendations to be a more effective coach and manager, and one of the benefits of his techniques is an improved understanding of the problems and questions that organizations must face. In the company I work for, things have always been in flux, and that means that sometimes it is hard to know what the real issue is and where we should be focusing all of our energy. If you polled the entire office about what the biggest problem is right now, you would get different answers from everyone. Bungay Stanier described the situation like this:

 

“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.”

 

Effective leaders don’t just jump in when a team is discussing the issues they are facing and they don’t just take on all the problems in an attempt to solve everything themselves. Good leaders try to drill deeper to understand what is really at the heart of the collective issues facing the team, and then work to empower the team to tackle the problems they face. In my next post I’ll describe the conversation that Bungay Stanier recommends to help us find the right problem to solve, but for now I’ll describe the question he uses to get to the heart of the issue, “What’s the challenge?”.

 

In my career I have solved a lot of problems and fixed a lot of issues, but often times I have spent a lot of energy on problems and issues that end up not being very important. Something might be a little bit off and something might be an inconvenience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to spend a lot of effort fixing that individual thing. Perhaps what everyone complains about is frustrating and annoying, but it may just be part of a larger problem or something that would go away altogether by solving a bigger picture item. This is definitely an area where growth is possible for me, and is something that all organizations struggle with, especially if we are quick to action and don’t make real efforts to dive further. Asking ourselves and our team, “What’s the real challenge?” and looking upstream from the stated problems to possible larger causes is one way to make sure the work we do matters and is one way to galvanize our team around the most important solutions.

A Great Start to a Coaching Conversation

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is not just a book with a few good theories about coaching. Bungay Stanier includes a lot of specific words, phrases, and conversation examples to help you see concrete ways to improve your coaching. One example that Bungay Stanier includes is a quick way to get a coaching conversation moving in a clear path to help you discuss the issues that are driving the challenges for the individual you are working with. His quick start question is as follows:

 

“So there are three different facets of that [the problem the individual said they are having] we could look at … the project side — any challenges around the actual content. The people side — any issue with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns — if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”

 

What I love about this question is that from the start, it disentangles different parts of a problem that anyone may be facing. In my own life, and in listening to others, I have noticed how frequently all of these different issues seem to meld together and become overwhelming. By disaggregating each piece of the problem, you can begin to look at individual items in a manageable way. It is a lot easier to begin to look for things that one can change or adjust, when you take the pieces one by one and fit them back together.

 

This question also helps to steer coaching conversations away from becoming venting conversations. I really struggle in my relationship with my wife with handling conversations about the challenges she faces. One of the reasons is because I don’t handle venting well. When my wife wants to vent and tell me about the issues and challenges she faces my natural reaction is to simply tell her what she should do as if I was some sort of magic profit who could solve all her problems. Of course, my views of her challenges are not actually accurate and my advice giving does not work in these venting conversations. By steering questions away from venting using the approach that Bungay Stanier suggests in the quote above, we can heave more productive conversations focused on what really matters. A coaching session will be useless if it becomes a venting session. The other person may feel better temporarily about having a chance to vent, but nothing will actually be solved and their possibly mistaken perceptions will in a sense be validated by being heard.

 

The questions that Bungay Stanier presents in the quote above keeps us focused on specific issues in a solutions oriented direction. The questions also show that there are different aspects of our problems that need to handled in different ways. By working with the individual to acknowledge the self originating aspects of their problem, you get them to refocus on themselves and their growth without blaming other people for their challenges. The other pieces of the issue can be also worked on in a more objective manner when we are not looking at the whole.

Bargains

In his book about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, author Joel Achenbach explains the steps that were taken by both BP and the United States Government to solve the problem of the broken well leaking oil thousands of feet below the surface.  Our government eventually established a think tank task force of the best scientific minds in the country to address the problem in part by viewing it from new and unique perspectives.  One of the scientists brought on board was Dr. Steven Chu from Stanford University, and Achenbach explains why he was such a good addition to the team by referencing a graduation speech from Dr. Chu that outlined the way he thought about interacting with others in  the world.

 

In his speech Chu said, “In your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that ‘credit’ is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets ninety percent of the credit.”

 

I really enjoy what Dr. Chu states in his quote and I think our society would benefit from hearing his quote more often. Whether it is scientific discussion, presidential politics, business negotiations, or marriage, trying to win any negotiation and take 100% of the credit will cut out some of the people with interest and input in the discussion.  Trying to instead find the best path to move forward while presenting an honest and valid view of world will help all parties advance.  Dr. Chu was invaluable to the BP oil spill team of scientists because of the way he could help arbitrate discussions and ideas for shutting the well. He was quick thinking, witty, encouraging of discussion, and also had everyone’s best interest in mind.

 

What the BP oil spill crisis showed was that no one could take 100% of the blame for the disaster, and that no one could take 100% of the credit for its solution. When we narrow our view of the situation we start to look at the problem in a black and white view, and we instantly start to assign wholesale blame and complete credit to single actors. We are much better off if we learn from the mistakes and see the ways in which everyone shared in the decisions that lead to the disaster, but also recognize the ways in which everyones’ actions lead to a joint solution.

Ask the Right Questions

Dave Birss writes in his book, A Users Guide to the Creative Mind, about being creative, finding new solutions, and combining ideas and perspectives to create something new. On solving problems he writes, “The best way to find the right solution is to make sure you’re asking the right question.”  I am a huge fan of this quote because it shows how important varying perspectives can be, especially when combined with persistence, a desire to improve, and flexibility.  Too often in our daily lives, be it business, our personal lives, and even national politics, we settle into a single perspective and we begin to approach problems from one side with everyone asking the same question.
If we follow Birss’ advice, then we begin to reach out to find solutions to our problems from new perspectives.  In my mind it is as if we take a problem, and leave a two demential space where we are looking at the problem as if it were a wall in front of us, and enter a three demential space and look at the problem as if it were a sphere where we could change our angle and vantage point at will.  When we begin to look at problems from new perspectives we find that we have different questions about our original problem. In fact we may see that our problem is actually a goal, an opportunity, or just a thought that others have not acted upon.
Asking the right questions is an exercise in persistence because you have to reach beyond the first thoughts and questions that you develop.  You must begin to think of things in new ways, ask others for their thoughts and advice, and not be afraid to voice opinions that may be different.  Our openness to new ideas will help us change our perspective, and our new perspective will help us ask new questions regarding our problem.  When we take this approach to push forwards and constantly grow, we will build new bridges and make new connections with a more well rounded and flexible mind.