Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round... and round

Comedy or Tragedy?
Okay, I've been chewing on this for a while and I'm finally making some sense of it all. After the whole debt-ceiling circus we witnessed a couple of months ago, Senator Harry Reid made the statement, "Nobody left the room happy, that is the sign of a good compromise." What?? Did I hear that correctly? The polarization in Washington has reached epic proportions and the list of candidates continue gravitating to new extremes. The problems seem so obvious, yet the political process just keeps grinding away in the same old broken patterns to ensure nobody is happy.

Not too long ago, I read "Good to Great" by Jim Collins (highly recommended, get it here) who points out how a selection of fortune 500 CEOs transformed companies with flat or descending performance into tremendous success stories. According to Collins, one key element is to "get the right people on the bus." That means the right people in the right roles, which seems like common sense until you start looking at all the times it doesn't happen. How often have you seen a person with excellent technical skills get promoted to a management position, where he/she floundered? Or an executive that didn't understand the business or the customers? Or a customer service rep that was impatient and rude? Or politicians that don't collaborate?

So I began wondering what kind of people we have in our Congress, beyond career politicians. Where have they come from? What was their former profession? What is their mental model of the world? With some light digging online I found an article stating, "From 1780 to 1930, two thirds of the senators and about half of the House of Representatives were lawyers; the percentage seems to have stayed fairly stable" (Friedman 1985: 647). Though I'm not sure of the original source (Milton Friedman?), the quote has been referenced many times and I have found additional statements from other sources that corroborate the sentiment, if not the exact numbers and time span. Even as recent as 2009, 168 of 435 Representatives and 57 of 100 Senators listed law as their profession. Several articles I found online are right-wing attacks aimed at the number of lawyers in the Democratic party; however, both parties have their share of law degrees and the differences between the parties are more about ideological economic theory, their methodologies are quite similar. As a side note, I believe either theory is probably valid if followed 100%; but when you cherry-pick features and try to mix and match systems, the model breaks.

So, what kind of person is a lawyer? How does a lawyer interpret the world? In the 19th century, acquiring a law degree was essentially an intellectual pursuit, steeped in history, culture and philosophy, ideally suited for a future statesman. However, in the 20th century lawyers began focusing on litigation. Today, lawyers are the gladiators doing battle for their clients (or constituents). They play a zero sum game, there is always a winner and a loser, and the bigger the win the better, since many will make a percentage of the awarded sum. Our government structure requires its members to work together in order to make progress, at its best it is a collaborative environment. Unfortunately, we don't have that. Each side uses any trick they can to try to "win" and give as little as possible to the other side. Each party becomes further entrenched in a tit for tat exchange that seems to get worse every year.

Maybe the Marshmallow Challenge
should be required training.
Our society is degrading, our economic model is faltering, our environment is turning hostile, progress is stalled and our direction is unclear. How can we send people to Washington who embrace collaboration? Not debate, not compromise, not spin everything to a perceived advantage. We need people who can see the common ground, think big picture and long term. We can't afford to keep electing leaders who cater only to specific regions and focus on just the next election. The status quo is a death sentence for this nation and will have an impact felt around the world. It is time to leave the mindset of the industrial age behind and look forward. Let's get the right people on the bus: the designers, architects, engineers; system builders who work as a team to create sustainable solutions. 


  1. I concur with your opinion regarding the state of our political system, and i think your description of the recent debt ceiling crisis as a "circus" is dead-on. Looking forward, I have zero confidence that Congress will pull it together enough to pass any meaningful legislation for job creation. Our country is floundering, and the government's polarization further impairs the people it was designed to support. I also agree that "getting the right people in the right roles" is essential. However, I am not sure I agree that the problem stems from the profession of those in Congress (although this is an interesting theory). I am inclined to believe that our government is crippled by a deeply rooted culture of group think, coupled with a phenomenon long studied by psychologists called "Diffusion of
    Responsibility," a concept popularized (though sometimes misrepresented) by a 1935 event in which a woman was raped and stabbed to death in an alley while 38 bystanders watched from their apartments, all of them thinking that someone else would do something about it. Why should any particular congress person break with party lines to do what is for right for the country? Let someone else sacrifice their career. I also think that the past decade has shown our society steadily moving towards a mentality of entitlement, an attitude evidenced by the housing bubble. We are each caught up in our own needs and wants, and give little thought to the impact our choices will make on others (and ultimately, ourselves). If our faces are buried in our iPhones, and saying hello to someone on the subway is too much of a sacrifice, how can we expect people to step out of their comfort zone at the Capitol to pass legislation that goes beyond party lines, special interests, or the next election?

  2. Katie,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response. Of course I am not implying there is only a singular cause, there are many variables in play, as with any complex system; however, groupthink is a human psychological phenomenon that has been engrained in all of us through evolution. That doesn't paralyze progress, it is actually a positive influence in the right circumstances.

    The key is to focus on the catalyst variables that are actionable. Shifting the environment away from an adversarial mental model that wastes time and money in trivial bickering toward a positive action model facilitated by the group identity of doers instead of debaters.