The complex problems that we face are complex because they require buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Take STEM Education. There is a lot of experimentation in this area. But if true reform is to scale, there needs to be buy-in from multiple stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, school administrators, policymakers, and sometimes even business owners. Each stakeholder in this list has their own motivation and worldview when they are addressing reform. So how do we navigate this kind of complexity? I have a few ideas.
The first thing we want to do is acknowledge the different points of view sitting at the table. So often we gloss over this and pretend it’s not going to present problems. But of course, it does. Any good listener at a committee meeting can hear the motivations behind what each person is saying out loud. And any good listener can see that when these motivations aren’t aligned, those mismatches manifest in clouded decision making. So it’s beneficial to acknowledge diversity.
The second thing we want to do is acknowledge people’s emotions. Our points-of-view aren’t only rational. Our points-of-view are tied deeply to our identity and hold space in our hearts. Emotion in decision making isn’t a bad thing. Unless we ignore it. If we ignore the influence of emotion, then that too manifests in confused decision making. So acknowledge emotion.
Once we have acknowledged the perspectives and emotions in the room, we are ready to frame the issue in a generous way, in a way that accommodates and encourages the diverse perspectives in the room. In an interview with UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, he asks us to reframe how we talk about taxes. If we frame tax issues as “tax relief” then the outcome of using this language is that people think taxes are bad and a form of punishment. But if we talk and think about taxes as our dues, as what we pay to enjoy the things that we enjoy in this country: highways, schools, bridges, etc, then we might see paying taxes as an act of patriotism. Yes, they are still hard to pay. But that’s what we do in order to live a good life. We make sacrifices. This is a generous way to think about taxes.
Once we have framed the issue we are working on in a generous way, the group of stakeholders with multiple perspectives are free to generate a bounty of potential solutions to explore. Why do we want to generate a number of potential solutions and not just one or two? Because each time we increase the number of potential solutions, we increase the chances of finding the right one or the right combination of a handful of solutions. If we revisit STEM Education as an example, a diverse group is likely to come up with curriculum ideas that are all over the map. This can feel terrifying for the teachers in the room because they know that they are on the line to implement the ideas that are decided on. To help those teachers relax, we can assure them that this is just brainstorm and that analytical decision-making will be coming in the next step.
However, the decision-making shouldn’t be framed as,”Which choices are right and which are wrong?” We should strive beyond either/or thinking to integrate the best ideas. Roger Martin, the former Dean of Rotman School of Management wrote a book about how the best leaders get alignment from multiple stakeholders. The book is called The Opposable Mind and in it, he claims that when great leaders are faced with choices that seem to be in opposition of each other, those leaders use integrative thinking to find a third way. With our STEM Education example, STEM Educators might proclaim that coding is the most important thing for a student to learn. While a parent might declare that teamwork is the most important thing that students can learn. And then a local business owner who has agreed to take on some students for a summer internship might believe that product management is the most important skill for students to learn. Integrative Thinking allows us to see that those three learning objectives don’t have to be in opposition. They can be integrated. A talented educator can craft lessons in which students learn to code while working in a team using a proven product management process.
Aligning these different points-of-view by acknowledging diversity, framing the problem in a generous way, brainstorming on multiple paths forward, and using integrative thinking to find the best solution is how we bring folks together to solve complex problems and make positive change.
Let’s do this.
note: This post was originally shared on Medium as a response to a prompt in Seth Godin’s altMBA program