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September 21, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Reality

Among the sources of predictable beliefs and behavior in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families are shared ideas -- that is, ideas that folks share some understanding about (even if it's inaccurate) and act upon that understanding. In the run up to the Iraq war, for example, a variety of organizations (the Bush White House, the Republican Party, the mainstream TV and Radio news organizations, thousands of newspapers, Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, Halliburton, Bechtel, the National Review, and any number of other shadow lobbyist organizations) planted, nurtured, grew and maintained this shared idea: that Sadaam Hussein worked together with al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorists.

Tens of millions of Americans (and others) bought into this idea. They believed it. And they behaved based on that belief. It was, is and will remain one of the most profound illustrations of the power of shared ideas to shape shared values in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families.

It -- and the larger phenomenon it represents -- also illustrates an age old verity: namely, that inherent in all strengths are dangerous weakenesses. Civilizations -- like men and women -- can be undone by their strengths if they fail to heed that all strengths have limits and that those limits, in turn, point to strength-as-weakness.

Our civilization -- our culture -- is extraordinarily skilled at marketing. Given that we've pioneered the new world of markets, networks, and organizations, this mastery ought not come as any surprise. We've had long experience at selling. Of course, even those who lived in a world of places -- a world where place bounded up ideas as well as relationships -- were sellers. And, human nature being what it is, a spectrum of belief and behavior has always prevailed. There have always been those who took advantage through shady practices -- and those who have not. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is an ancient notion.

Still, our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families provide unbounded opportunities to sell. Consider only the disturbingly predictable misuses of the Internet (from child pornographers luring 'actors' to folks who use Craig's List to set up victims of theft). We also have long experience with financial or other product schemes that rip folks off based on false advertising and sales.

Not until the Rove White House, though, have we experienced the misuse of marketing competency on such a grand scale. And, it has not been limited to selling wars on false information. Compassionate conservatism, Helathy Forests, Clear Skies, Homeland Security, Terry Schiavo, the Geneva Conventions as antiquated or vague, Dissent as Treason, Osama bin Ladin as Hitler, the Unitary Executive, Bush as Churchill, the Coalition of the Willing -- and on and on. Among the most telling comments was the one in which a Bush White House spokesman said to other media players, "You are irrelevant. We make our own reality."

The objective here -- the singular, the one, the only -- objective has been and remains: power. I'll always remember the sage advice from an experienced lawyer to his younger colleague about how best to sort out the various legal issues among parties to complex commercial transacttions: 'follow the money'. That is, if you look hard at how any particular issue (warranties, indemnification, insurance, etc) affects the monetary interests of each party, you'll have a good idea about how their respective lawyers will act.

Well, with the Rove-led White House and Republican Party, the adage morphs into: what will it take to win and retain power?

That, then, is the interest at stake. Certainly not: what would it take to best govern the most powerful nation in the world in the interests of that nation's peoples as well as the globe's peoples. That is now an outdated notion -- one that is surely not widely shared among the power brokers of our new world. They are in it for themselves.

And, in their immoral misuse of marketing, of course, the Rovians have also endangered more than just the rest of us. They've planted the seeds of their own undoing by ignoring the corrupt effects of their power. They have so broadly and widely mastered the art of using markets, networks and organizations to foster powerful shared ideas with no basis in reality -- or, rather, as said earlier, they are so expert at marketing that they create their own reality. Just one that bears no relationship to now antiquated shared idea of accuracy; that is, to facts 'on the ground'.

Today, we all live in their reality. But, the primary principle of their reality is that reality itself is a fable - a false representation. So, we now live in a world where tens of millions of people shadow box with fable - with fabulous shared ideas that, like helium balloons, float free from any tether other than the marketeers. And this means that, absent some herculean effort on the part of powerful players -- and one sincerely founded upon acting in the interest of others -- we have set ourselves free from any shared idea of accuracy at all.

This is far beyond 'up is down'. This is about the destruction of any accurate or fact-based shared idea of direction itself. This is about the destruction of accuracy in the concept of language. It's about creating a new language: theirs. Consider: "Stay the course". Not too long ago (1990s), that phrase contained the implication of direction. Not any more. That's 'old world thinking'. To have any connotation of direction, 'stay the course' would need to imply something fact-based about goals, about strategy and about implemenation of strategy. Bush's use of the phrase has nothing to do with any of those things. There are no goals. There is no strategy. The boots on the ground in Iraq have no idea, no plan, nor any daily action that bear any correlation to the concept of implementing a strategy. They're just trying to stay alive while Bush 'stays the course'.

No, "stay the course' has nothing to do with fact-based reality. It has everything to do with winning elections, retaining power and continuing to use power to create a new, fact-free reality.

Go ahead. Look around yourself -- or your kids or friends or even just folks in general. Ask yourself what percentage of the 'input' -- the information on which we must navigate our busy lives in this new world of markets -- is fact-based? If the input comes from 'news', is the 'news' fact based? If the input comes from the Bush White House, is it 'fact based'? If the input comes from TV programming (even 'reality shows'), is it fact based? How about from your relgious leaders? What about schools? How about work?

What is your reality?

And, how does your reality compare and contrast with this report from an American Colonel:

"When I discuss the possibility of an American military strike on Iran with my European friends, they invariably point out that an armed confrontation does not make sense -- that it would be unlikely to yield any of the results that American policymakers do want, and that it would be highly likely to yield results that they do not. I tell them they cannot understand U.S. policy if they insist on passing options through that filter. The "making sense" filter was not applied over the past four years for Iraq, and it is unlikely to be applied in evaluating whether to attack Iran."

Posted by Doug Smith at 11:29 AM | Permalink

September 02, 2006

The Size Of The Pie And The Share Of The Pie

For those who have the courage and wisdom to pay attention, among the most important contributions of the now decades-old quality movement in the contemporary business world is it's demonstration of 'both/and' thinking and acting. When people adopt and pursue shared purposes built on 'both/and' principles, they identify and articulate two or more objectives that are in constant tension with one another. For example, within the broader field of quality, an organization might pursue both fewer errors or defects and faster speed of delivery. These two objectives struggle with one another. A group pursuing only speed has an easier, less constrained set of solutions than the group pursuing both speed and fewer defects because the former can simply speed things up and accept more errors.

The benefits of both/and approaches, though, go far deeper than the stated objectives themselves because they support and promote effort that is more fully human -- more challenging and, therefore, more creative and more fulfilling. While elitists might disdain the deeper meaning within the work of a team of folks at the front lines of a company pursuing both speed and fewer defects, the people on the team itself will and do report that with success comes the experience of both deeper affiliation and deeper meaning. No, such folks do not equate either the affiliation or meaning with the poet's truth or beauty -- but they do know and sense the importance of collaborating with other human beings on something that matters. As Marlow in The Heart of Darkness admiringly, respectfully says of the man who helps him guide the boat up the river, these folks do work, they do something.

And they do it together, fully challenged by both/and realities of human existence.

Our planet is beset by powerful men and women who ignore the way of both/and humanity in favor of single goals and single answers. In this, they pursue self-interest over shared interest and personal power and wealth over shared purpose and the rule of law. In contemporary geopolitics, we see this abhorrent, destructive self-interestedness in the form of powerful governmental, corporate and media officials who claim truth stripped of reason as a shield to their own pitiful failure to embrace the opportunity for a more fully human experience given to them at birth. They love single answers because they are the easy road to self-enrichment. They eschew both/and because, down that road, lies shared struggle and shared responsibility.

In economics and business, we see this single answer extremism primarily in the form of our age's deep and widespread acceptance of shareholder value as the trump card for business performance. The primacy of shareholder value is today as widely shared as the belief in motherhood. And, yet, unlike motherhood, the beliefs and behaviors of shareholder value extremism march us toward and over the cliff of despair and destruction every single day. Whether it is exploding mortgages, layoffs, deteriorating benefits, moves to privatize social security, ongoing environmental destruction, decades-old erosion of real wages, poverty that is hidden by false statistics, rising obesity and eating disorders, failure to equate energy policy with national security -- etc, etc, etc -- the either/or thinking and action of single answers have now endangered our planet and put the futures of our children and their children at grave risk.

The Philistine plutocrats admonish us to either accept the primacy of shareholder value or destroy our markets, our business prospects, our jobs and our country. That is the 'either/or' proposition that has an iron grip on our society today.

And, it is the either/or proposition that has propped up the irresponsible, self-interested officials in government, corporations and media who have spent the last three decades promoting the false notion that the 'size of the pie' -- the size and growth of GDP -- somehow exists in isolation from the 'share of the pie' -- the distribution of income and wealth. Both matter.

Both matter to the aspiration embedded in our national heritage known as 'liberty and justice for all'.

Not for some. For all.

Not just for the top 1% who now control more than 40% of our wealth.

For all.

Not just for the top 20% who control more than 80% of wealth.

For all.

"For all" includes the bottom 40% who actually have less than 2% of our society's wealth.

For all.

Just like the quality team who challenge themselves to be more fully human by tackling both speed and fewer errors, all of us -- every day we wake up -- have the choice to demand of ourselves and those who would claim to lead us that we commit our resources, our capabilities, our hearts, our minds and our guts to building a society that aspires to both a larger pie and a just distribution of that pie.

We cannot and will not find our way to this 'both/and' pursuit of happiness, though, until we once again adopt belief and behavior that demonstrably care about people beyond ourselves. Nor until we -- and especially the 'we's' of organizations -- explicitly evict shareholder value extremism from our midst. We must not condemn shareholder value itself -- only the tenets by which it is made a golden idol, a trump card of either/or-ism whose shininess blinds us to the corrosive reality with which it destroys our common humanity -- including, importantly, the humanity of those who practice and espouse it.

Let us now -- right this moment -- turn our eyes toward both the size of the pie and the share of the pie. And let us do that work together.

Because the clock is ticking. And our children our crying out for us -- their elders -- to take shared responsibility for creating a safer, saner and more sustainable future.

For all.

Posted by Doug Smith at 01:30 PM | Permalink