Blog: Getting it together

Going public with my puzzle

21 December 2017

I don’t like doing jig-saw puzzles and other games that come in a box. They Boggle my mind, Scrabble my brain. I prefer puzzles beyond boxes, including the box called “thinking outside the box.”

Recently, I joined some family in Toronto for a game that I was told I would love, as soon as I figured it out. I never did figure it out, perhaps because I never cared to figure it out. Look, I’m a word guy who goes blank in cross-word puzzles (although I delight in inventing words, like TWOG).

On a table, beside this game of ours, sat a jig-saw puzzle, its pieces strewn about near the box that showed what picture to make. Then and there it hit me. These games are too pat for me, too circumscribed, closed-ended. Choose the proper words or move the proper pieces while respecting the proper rules to make the proper picture. I want to fly with ideas, not be grounded by some rules.

I don’t like doing jig-saw puzzles and other games that come in a box. They Boggle my mind, Scrabble my brain. I prefer puzzles beyond boxes, including the box called “thinking outside the box.”

Recently, I joined some family in Toronto for a game that I was told I would love, as soon as I figured it out. I never did figure it out, perhaps because I never cared to figure it out. Look, I’m a word guy who goes blank in cross-word puzzles (although I delight in inventing words, like TWOG).

On a table, beside this game of ours, sat a jig-saw puzzle, its pieces strewn about near the box that showed what picture to make. Then and there it hit me. These games are too pat for me, too circumscribed, closed-ended. Choose the proper words or move the proper pieces while respecting the proper rules to make the proper picture. I want to fly with ideas, not be grounded by some rules.

So let’s call these pat puzzles, to compare them with another kind of puzzle, defined in my dictionary as “a difficult or confusing problem.” These we can call puzzling puzzles. They are not about breaking the rules so much as creating new rules to get around old rules are broken. To do this, we have to be playful rather than pat. Puzzling puzzles require solutions that are outrageous—until they turn out to be obvious.

In a pat puzzle (jig-saw):

1. The pieces are supplied.
2. Each is clean-cut.
3. They fit together perfectly
4.  To make the picture shown on the box.

(I took this photo of that table in Toronto.)

In a puzzling puzzle

1. The pieces have to be discovered, or created.
2. Each appears obscure, like a fragment.
3. They need to connect, although never neatly.
4. With no box in sight, the picture has to be constructed from these fragments and connections.

(I took this photo of my work table at home, exactly as I had left it earlier, while puzzling over this TWOG. Notice the fragments at the front, loosely connected.)

Pat solutions for puzzling problems?

Why are we so enamored with puzzles that are pat. Sure they can be fun, even useful for problems that are pat. But how about problems that are not? Pat solutions can no more resolve puzzling puzzles than can Monopoly develop entrepreneurs or chess model guerrilla warfare.

We used to play more open-ended puzzles at home. Remember charades—that was playful.  And how about LEGO? It used to let the kids build their own thing, instead of assembling 3-dimentional jig-saw puzzles. Here in Canada, kids used to learn hockey on some local pond. Now they are marched off to a designated arena where a designated coach teaches them the designated way to play. No wonder novelty has declined in professional hockey.

As for adults, look at how much of medicine, management, politics, and life has succumbed to pat programming. Get the patient or the problem into a category, a box where clean-cut pieces can be connected correctly. As a physician, diagnose that disease to apply the proper protocols. As a captain of industry, buy and sell businesses the way you bought and sold Monopoly hotels. In the affairs of state, treat diplomacy like a game of chess. And in life, find a partner on a dating site that lists categories of compatibility.

Some of this is fine when an existing category fits. Hail to those protocols and marriages that work. But problems fester when there is a misfit, or a forced fit, or no fit. A patient falls between the cracks of medical specialties. A merger or marriage proves incompatible beyond the categories. Diplomacy discovers that chess isn’t much of a model when faced with guerrila warfare.

Why do we have this propensity to use pat programming for puzzling problems? Sure, it’s easier. But just as surely, it’s fruitless. Has pat schooling killed our capacity for discovery? Or is it all those convenient apps we use on our phones?  Click and go—no novelty required. (Siri does the thinking.) Do we play too many games that come in e and cardboard boxes, or watch too many sitcoms on that big black box? Maybe we have simply become irrationally rational, thanks to centuries of privileging thinking over seeing and doing.

Our profound puzzle

Now we face a number of particularly difficult and confusing problems—puzzling puzzles that are foreboding, yet continue to fester. These include global warming, income disparities, and declining democracy. I see them as the fragments of a single profound puzzle, which in various TWOGs and a book I attribute to a basic imbalance in society. Narrow economic forces, encouraged by rampant individualism and unrestrained globalization, have been overwhelming our collective and communal needs as human beings. 

What can we do about this imbalance? We can start by putting seeing and doing ahead of thinking. We need a compelling image of what we are facing that can suggest concerted action, so that we can begin to think differently. This is the puzzle that engages me now: how to form that image—a comprehensive picture to see our way to a rebalanced society.

As I probe around—by meeting, reading, testing, tweeting—the fragments of ideas come at me, left and right, in no particular order. (I list some below—in a box of all things!) Imagine the image I am trying to construct as a map on which the fragments can be positioned and connected, to locate ourselves in the territory and construct possible routes to a better place.

Each new fragment contributes to the image that is forming in my mind. So please stay connected as I post the play of this profound puzzle.

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Some fragments for rebalancing society

Some of these fragments have been mentioned in TWOGs, as indicated; others are ideas in progress.

• Focusing corporate social responsibility on the causes of problems, not just their conditions (CSR 2.0)
• Liberating enterprises from the tyranny of the stock market
• Shifting production and consumption away from MORE, toward better
• Encouraging Indigenous development from the inside up
• Putting economic globalization in its place, namely the marketplace (forthcoming)
• Challenging illegitimate trade tribunals in national courts
• Building up the social economy
• Using progressive protests (1 hour longer each day) for impact
• Collaborating among prominent NGOs for common cause, beyond institutional causes
• Establishing a Peace Council (see pp. 92-93) for security instead of insecurity
• Developing a worldly strategy for the global climate (with Dror Etzion and Saku Mantere, submitted for publication)

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This last one may be the start of a map, with key roles of the three sectors located around a circle: grounded engagement in the plural sector, autonomous venturing in the private sector, and orchestrated planning in the public sector. The fragments listed above can be placed near each, but we conclude that real progress will depend, not on a collection of such efforts, but a consolidation of them around the circle.

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. My thanks to Dulcie and the gang, Dulcie for the idea of the map, Gavin and Lorraine for the puzzles, and David for explaining why there may now be less novelty in professional hockey.

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Confronting Socially Transmitted Epidemics

2 September 2016

Today this TWOG is 2. On 2 September 2014, I wrote: “Welcome to my TWOG—Tweet2Blog. Rousing reflections in a page or 2 beyond pithy pronouncements in a sentence or 2.” So maybe it’s time to look back and ask myself what all this has been about.

Mostly, I have decided, these TWOGs have been about socially transmitted epidemics: pathological practices in society that spread like wildfire, causing considerable devastation. We need to see each of these for what it is, and to get it by reframing it so that we can do something about it.

Today this TWOG is 2. On 2 September 2014, I wrote: “Welcome to my TWOG—Tweet2Blog. Rousing reflections in a page or 2 beyond pithy pronouncements in a sentence or 2.” So maybe it’s time to look back and ask myself what all this has been about.

Mostly, I have decided, these TWOGs have been about socially transmitted epidemics: pathological practices in society that spread like wildfire, causing considerable devastation. We need to see each of these for what it is, and to get it by reframing it so that we can do something about it.

Seeing it   These socially transmitted epidemics range from mismanaging (including organizing defectively, measuring excessively, and training mistakenly) to the mother of them all, imbalance in society (the domination of private sector forces). In between are executive bonuses and income disparities, pharmaceutical pricing, gun control (in the U.S. at least), climate change, and others.

Getting it   We may see most of these epidemics, but that doesn’t mean we get them, in our souls, and behaviors. For example, most of us see climate change, and do get it—in our heads. But how many of us get it in our practices? (That’s inconvenient.) We may see mismanagement all around us, but how many of us understand its full consequences, let alone its causes. I have railed on about the dysfunctions of conventional management education, which I see as a main cause of this mismanagement, and have backed this up with a study of Harvard’s superstar graduates, most of whom failed as CEOs. This raised not a single alarm bell. Do we not want to get it?

I am amazed at the extent to which these epidemics fester. How, for example, do we tolerate pharmaceutical pricing for one day longer? Likewise, why is it that the more outrageous is executive compensation, the worse it gets?

Reframing it   Hence I have devoted considerable attention to reframing—attempting to shift our understanding of these epidemics so that we can get them. To understand gun control in America, ask yourself if people there have the right to bear nuclear arms. To face the defects of globalization, think worldly. To reverse mismanagement, understand its separation from leadership on one side and from communityship on the other. Appreciate that effective managing is about scrambled eggs more than bottom lines.

To challenge pharmaceutical pricing, recognize that a patent is a monopoly, granted by a government. (How can any government allow its citizens to die for want of available medicines that could be affordable? That’s manslaughter.) 1 To understand the imbalance that enables such pricing, appreciate that the Berlin Wall fell on us. Capitalism has triumphed since then, not before that. To do something about this imbalance, recognize that there are three sectors in society, not two, and that the forgotten one—the plural sector, of you, me, and our communities—will have to galvanize our governments and businesses into serious action.

Doing something about it   This is where TWOGs stop. They are collections of electrons, from my e-thing to yours, hopefully having passed through my brain and into yours, so that they can reach our hands and our feet, for action. When a medical epidemic is recognized, the progressive world goes into action. Well, here are all kinds of social epidemics causing untold damage; they need attention. At the ripe young age of 77 (Happy birthday to me!), after years of being the good academic, now I am active. Maybe you are too; otherwise I can assure you that it’s not too late.

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I wrote in my first TWOG that “I intend to do this at most weekly, to avoid doing it at worst weakly, feeding the beast with all sorts of provocative and profound fun.” I have been true to that, skipping just one week in two years. It has been fun, for me and I hope for you too. But to avoid doing it weakly, I think I should stop doing it weekly. Time to confront the beast. So look for these TWOGs about every other week. Both of us already have quite the agenda of epidemics awaiting out attention.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. My special thanks to Simon Hudson, who has been the rock between the place of hard data and my soft ideas.

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1 On Tuesday, an article in the New York Times reported that “The raging debate over EpiPen pricing has offered a surprisingly wide window into the complicated world of prescription drug pricing…” Are you kidding? There is nothing complicated about this scandal at all. 

 

Coalescing around Climate

17 August 2016

(Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library, CC BY 2.0)

I hate to harp on the same themes, but I do need to to get this right. For some time, I have been blogging about imbalance in society, about climate change, and about the plural sector (civil society) and how to get its collective act together. Last week, after participating in several related activities at the World Social Forum in Montreal, including a panel discussion that gave rise to two insights, these themes began to coalesce into a coherent framework for action. I summarize it here as a work-in-progress:

(Photo Credit: NOAA Photo Library, CC BY 2.0)

I hate to harp on the same themes, but I do need to to get this right. For some time, I have been blogging about imbalance in society, about climate change, and about the plural sector (civil society) and how to get its collective act together. Last week, after participating in several related activities at the World Social Forum in Montreal, including a panel discussion that gave rise to two insights, these themes began to coalesce into a coherent framework for action. I summarize it here as a work-in-progress:

THE ISSUE: The world is dangerously out of balance. The private sector is dominant; much of the public sector is coopted by it; and the plural sector is obscure, marginalized by our obsession with left versus right, namely public sector governments versus private sector markets, with no room for the communities of the plural sector in between.1 Many of the difficulties we face now—for example, income disparities, lop-sided globalization, and global warming (intensified by our relentless production of more and more)—derive from, or are exacerbated by, this imbalance.

THE IMPERATIVE: The plural sector will have to take the lead in restoring the balance. The private sector will not cede its established dominance, nor will the social responsibility of businesses compensate for all the the social irresponsibility we now experience. And how many governments are prepared to challenge the private interests that coopt them domestically alongside the economic forces that overwhelm them globally?  This leaves but one sector to take the lead in driving the radical renewal we require—the plural sector.

THE PROBLEM: The plural sector is too plural, and disorganized, to get its collective act together. This is the sector of NGOs, cooperatives, community groups, social movements, social initiatives, and other associations that are owned neither by the state or by private investors. (They are owned by their members, or else by no-one. Who, for example, owns Greenpeace?) The World Social Forum itself made clear last week how eclectic and vibrant is the plural sector, also how much difficulty it has getting itself organized. (Compare this with the World Economic Forum in Davos, and business lobbying in general. Private sector businesses get their collective act together rather effectively when, for example, they wish to lobby for lower taxes.) Can our future be ceded to whatever force in society happens to be the most organized?

FIRST INSIGHT: The plural sector will have to focus on some central challenge. At a panel we ran at the Forum about the sector getting its act together, someone in the audience made the point that, to make headway at this point, the plural sector will have to focus its energies on one central theme. Rebalancing society is perhaps too broad and abstract a theme, at least for getting started. The obvious theme on which to focus is climate change. Pledges by governments, as at the COP 21 conference in Paris last December, will not deal with it. ( See the TWOG of 12 May, “Saving the planet from governments and markets.”) And business initiatives, however beneficial—for example, related to cap and trade, electric vehicles, and alternate forms of energy—are not going to suffice. (See the TWOG of 22 January 2015, “Can the World Economic Forum deal with the world’s social problems.”) We need 0°, not +2°, and cannot count on government or business alone to get us there. Once we recognize the urgency of stopping global warming, not just slowing it down, we will be able to face the underlying problem of balancing our societies.

SECOND INSIGHT: The plural sector will have to channel the power of its plurality—to make constructive use of its own dis-organization. Alex Megelas of Concordia University made an important point on the same panel: that the strength of the plural sector lies in its plurality, namely its messiness. How then are we to reconcile these concurrent needs for organization and dis-organization at the same time? By organizing around a central theme and then tackling it with a whole host of different efforts. We need to swamp the problem of climate change with all kinds of clever initiatives. So the issue reduces to:

THE QUESTION: How to channel the power of the plural sector, which includes that of ourselves, to move the public and private sectors toward profound action on climate change, and ultimately, on the imbalance we face? We are the plural sector, on the ground: you and I. We create, staff, use, and support its associations, in our communities and beyond. Moreover, we vote, we buy, and we march. Individually, we can refuse, we can reduce, and we can replace. And together, as consumers, citizens, and actors, we can drive our governments and businesses to face their responsibilities, as we must face our own. The plural sector will cease to remain obscure when the good folks of the world come to realize the potential of their power, and become the force needed to address the future of this planet and our progeny. After all, what major social change ever began without a groundswell of concerned human energy?

I want to end this TWOG here. After all, as James Thurber claimed: “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” Here at least is one of the questions. But can I just stop now, without explaining what has to happen next? This is the question I get every time I push these ideas one step further: “Yea, but what do we do now?” The answer lies in we, beyond me.

Social change in the thirteen American colonies began with a sudden tea party in the Boston harbor. The civil rights movement in the U.S. began with an act of civil disobedience, by a woman who boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. People on the ground take the steps that cause chain reactions to change the world.  As a work-in-progress, this effort has to engage many of us, with a plurality of ideas that can evoke all sorts of determined actions, to overwhelm what now overwhelms us. So let me ask you to suggest what can come next, with the spark of compelling ideas that can take us to a decent climate: on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

We don’t have it right yet, but we are getting there!

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. For more on the central theme, please see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left right and center, available in the usual places, but also for free downloading as a PDF.

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.


1 For an all-too-pointed example of this, see last week’s TWOG on how Montreal’s English-language daily focussed its coverage of the Forum around two Israeli-Palestinian incidents, as if the thousand other activities never took place.