By Bruce Waltuck, Professor, Kean University, College of Business and Public Management and an award-winning creator and facilitator of better outcomes for organizations
It is ok. You can admit it. You have watched Sesame Street. If you are my age, you have probably watched from the first day it was on the air. Right now, Sesame Street is in the midst of a two-year initiative to teach people (yes…all people, not only children) a simple, yet powerful framework for creative problem-solving. It sounds like this: I wonder… What if…? Let’s try!
While the problems facing governments are not the same as those that Elmo and Big Bird face, we can all learn powerful insights from our friends on Sesame Street. The problems facing government organizations are many and highly varied. That is no surprise. What is a surprise to most public managers and leaders, is that there is a problem in the way we understand the problems, themselves. Let’s call that the “Problem with Problems.” Sometimes the challenges that confront governments are clear and obvious. Everyone who sees the situation agrees on what it is, and what needs to be done. If the traffic light at Broad and Main is out, we will send folks out to fix it. Some problems that governments experience are somewhat more complex. How can we address homelessness? Or gang violence? Do we all agree on what is happening? Do we all agree on what to do? Can experts give us highly reliable solutions to our complex situations? The Problem with Problems is that even though complex situations are inherently unknowable, and that no expert can give us a guaranteed reliable solution, leaders act as if as if consultants will provide solutions with outcomes that are knowable and predictable in advance. Sadly, that’s not possible. Why do so many managers and leaders make the Big Mistake of treating ambiguous, uncertain, and unknowable situations with the assumption that some expert could fix it? In a word… fear. Fear of admitting we don’t know what to do. Fear of not knowing how to define metrics for outcomes in situations where we need to know “how well…?” as much or more than we need to know “how much?” “how many?” or “how quickly?” As government leaders and workers, we have to answer these questions all the time. Then we need to figure out “how will we decide what to do?” “who will decide?” and after we act, “what happened, and what do we do now?” An understanding of the types of problems and situations we experience, together with the powerful framework from Sesame Street, and a simple technique from the ground-breaking book “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” can lead government organizations to optimal outcomes more easily. “I wonder…” We each see complex situations differently. What can and will we do, to include and consider all voices in our dialogue, planning, and action? “What if…?” we saw the situation this way. If we could act on it this way. What might we learn? What might happen? What if we succeed? What if we fail? What can we do to not be afraid of failure? What if we agreed to learn as much from failures as from successes? “Let’s Try!” We have a range of ideas that each seem to have a good chance of working, even with the most complex situations. The optimal way to act in these situations is to try multiple promising ideas…at the same time. We can experiment, and carefully observe what happened to the best of our abilities. As we assess outcomes, we can act next to expand what is working for us and stop the things that are not working. With no fear, no blame. I wonder…what if… we as government managers and leaders, could learn to work together in this way? As we work and act together, we know that our funders and stakeholders will want to know what happened. We also know that some things… typically the “how many?” and “how much?” metrics are fairly easy to assess. We also know that the truly complex situations we need to act on, have “how well…?” metrics that are not easily countable. So… I wonder…what if… government managers and leaders adopted a simple, powerful practice from “Getting to Yes.” What if… each team brainstormed and reached consensus on a short list of Core Values and Operating Principles. Maybe six to eight criteria, used together by everyone, to assess each of the “What if…?” options. These can be criteria that the team will also use to hold themselves accountable for acting consistently with their agreed-on core values and principles. So even when promising ideas don’t work out as intended, we can assure ourselves and our stakeholders that we have acted consistently with our most important principles. I do not wonder if this works. I know that it works. These concepts and practices were at the heart of what became an award-winning initiative for employee involvement and process improvement at the U.S. Department of Labor, that I co-created and led. I wonder…how many state and local government groups everywhere, will benefit from learning and using the Sesame Street framework, and Integrative Collaboration. What if…we all acted with continuous curiosity, courage, consideration of all ideas, and full commitment to all ideas the team agrees on. What are you waiting for? Let’s try! The contents of this guest column reflect those of the author, and not necessarily those of Barrett and Greene, Inc.