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An Ownership Society

February 16, 2011

I have been thinking a lot lately about problems and solutions. Decision-makers find themselves confronted by both of these everyday. Unfortunately, they very rarely present themselves as nicely matched sets.

Indeed, the super-abundance of each sometimes makes me wonder whether some sort of cosmic clothes dryer is out there somewhere randomly producing odd, often unmatched sets of them much like the process occurring in my laundry room that leaves me with a pile of orphan socks overflowing the top-drawer of my dresser.

Like these lonely, mismatched socks, I am reluctant to discard either problems or solutions unless I am sure they have no mate. Others, I have found, seem to think there is a market for both and some desperate sole is out there just begging to cloth their feet with the cast-offs.

We all know many leaders who feel no need to acknowledge much less hang onto problems that present themselves unaccompanied by solutions. And surely we all know people who present problems and solutions or unmatched pairs of both to others hoping someone will rescue them from taking responsibility.

The consequences of both behaviors — favoring solutions over problems and failing to accept responsibility for either — pose many more problems for individuals, organizations and societies than the alternatives: accepting responsibility for problems and engaging one another in the search for viable solutions.

Over the years, it has become clear to me that problems find their origins in one or more of the following places:

  • Power
  • Purpose
  • Process
  • Product
  • Position

Notice that people and performance are not listed among the Ps. People experience problems but are rarely the cause of them without the intervening influence of one of the listed factors. When problems become evident, people often notice them because they are not achieving the results they desire, which of course means problems are all about performance. Performance, however, is the symptom not the cause.

Power problems originate from the desire to place one’s own needs ahead of others and often manifest themselves in the lack of clear and agreed upon priorities among a group, organization or society. (As often as not, power problems come wrapped as someone or some group’s preferred solution to another problem.) In many instances, no consensus exists about how priorities should be determined, which leaves everyone looking for leadership. Those willing to step up often mistake deciding for others rather than engaging them in the decision-making process as a means of achieving effective performance.

Purpose problems arise from a lack of agreed upon principles or the absence of shared commitment to the outcome. Cooperation and trust are not the same thing, and people often agree to go along to get along. At least that’s the case until they discover or discern that the outcome will yield unfavorable results or generate unwanted accountability.

Clear priorities and a shared sense of purpose are important, but a flawed process can prevent people from accomplishing what they want. Too often we delegate the process decisions to experts and technicians who have little stake in the outcome or who stand to lose very little from the failure to achieve results. Handing off decisions about the process to a willing expert solves very few problems if the process designer has no stake in the game and stands to gain more than they can possibly lose from the outcome and results.

Even well-designed processes produce some unfavorable or unintended results. Inevitably naysayers and critics will claim these results are evidence that the whole process is flawed rather than the natural results of applying simple production functions to complex, value-laden problems. Getting people involved in the process means getting them to accept that side-effects and waste are both unfortunate and largely if not entirely unavoidable. Minimizing and controlling these effects should be our priority rather than seeking to eliminate them.

Finally, like power, position haunts many efforts to resolve problems. Too often those with the most to gain and little to lose offer to take on problems beyond either their ken or ability simply to position themselves as leaders capable or making more decisions for others in the future. In most cases, those who really bear the brunt of the problems see little relief from such efforts beyond the momentary lapse of responsibility for dealing with them on their own. More often than not the old problems return or new ones come to take their places.

If we really want to become an ownership society, everyone has to accept some share of responsibility for the problems we face. Likewise, we should expect our leaders to involve us in solving them.

As we look over and critique the President’s proposed budget and the Republican House leadership’s counter-proposal, we would do well to ask ourselves which of the Ps define their definitions of the problems we face. If either solution or some compromise agreeable to both parties is to really produce results for our society and economy, we have to come closer to agreeing with one another about what’s really at stake. Absent this, we run the risk of becoming a nation of renters entirely beholden on others for our welfare and sense of place in the world.

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