Blog: Getting it together

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.

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


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.

 

Citizenship, Communityship, Ownership & Leadership

19 May 2016

We function at three levels in society, not two: the collective level broadly and the individual level narrowly, as well as the community level in between.

At the collective level, we experience citizenship, and are reminded of it every time we vote and pay taxes, not to mention when we receive services and summons from our government.

These days, however, we are far more aware of the individual level—me, myself, and I. Thus, while the collective level gets only one “…ship”—citizenship—the individual level is so dominant that it gets two: ownership and leadership. We generally use the word ownership for what we own individually, as in MY house and MY car. And while leadership can be found in government and communities, the word always singles out the individual. If there is a leader, then other people must be followers.

We function at three levels in society, not two: the collective level broadly and the individual level narrowly, as well as the community level in between.

At the collective level, we experience citizenship, and are reminded of it every time we vote and pay taxes, not to mention when we receive services and summons from our government.

These days, however, we are far more aware of the individual level—me, myself, and I. Thus, while the collective level gets only one “…ship”—citizenship—the individual level is so dominant that it gets two: ownership and leadership. We generally use the word ownership for what we own individually, as in MY house and MY car. And while leadership can be found in government and communities, the word always singles out the individual. If there is a leader, then other people must be followers.

Between citizenship at the collective level and ownership and leadership at the individual level is another kind of experience that deserves far more attention. Just think of how much of our lives are lived in our groups and communities, quite apart from conventional citizenship, ownership, and leadership. Yet this level doesn’t even get a single …ship. So some years ago I gave it one: communityship.1 Communityship designates how we pull together to function in our personal relationships.

Of course ownership too exists at the collective and community levels. It's just that these take on quite different forms. Public ownership—what is owned by our government—is technically owned by you and me. But do we feel the same sense of proprietorship that we feel for our house or our car? (“I’m flying from MY airport”? These are MY VERY OWN tax collectors”?)

Ownership at the community level is called common property, or “the commons”2,  and where it does exist, we can feel quite attached to it, as do farmers that share water for irrigation.

The bad news is that common property is less common than it used to be. Take a walk on the “Boston Common.” This is where the landless people of that town used to graze their cows. (Some Bostonian should try that today! The sign at the entrance doesn’t even explain the name.) The good news is that the commons is making a comeback. Even, maybe especially, on the Internet. Take a walk on Wikipedia—it’s ours in common, technically owned by no one and therefore socially owned by everyone. It is ours to use, and to change. Walk too around our community gardens, and look at the research findings of our universities. Thankfully, these are all in the commons.

To drive home the idea of these three levels and four …ships, here are a few quotes to go with each, together with corresponding photos.

Citizenship

“The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.” (Flaubert, from Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes)

Elector, n. “One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice.” (The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, 1906)

We are the unwilling,
Led by the unqualified,
Doing the unnecessary
For the ungrateful
(U.S. troops in Vietnam).

Communityship

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

“The mainstream is a current too strong to think in.” (Paul Shepheard, in What is Architecture)

“Scout bees…fly out from the bivouac in all directions in the search for a new permanent nest site. When a suitable site is found…the scouts return and signal the direction and distance of the find…Different scouts may announce different sites simultaneously and a contest ensues. Finally the site being advertised most vigorously by the largest number of workers wins, and the entire swarm flies off to it…”(Edward O. Wilson)

Leadership

Queen bees “never participate in the ordinary duties of the hive such as cleaning cells, tending the young, or gathering food. After performing their nuptial flights, queen honeybees function as little more than egg-laying machines…” (Thomas D. Seeley, Honeybee Ecology) 

“Management is the delusion that you can change people. Leadership is deluding other people instead of deluding yourself.” (Scott Adams, in Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel)

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (George Bernard Shaw)

“Unhappy is the land that has no heroes,”’ sighed Andrea in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo. “No,” contradicted the astronomer, “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.”

Ownership

“I had reached the end of my journey. Everything that surrounded me seemed to be my own property. I was the King of Mont Blanc—the statue of this tremendous pedestal.” (Jacques Balmat, on being the first person to reach the summit of Mont Blanc, 1786)

Corporation, n. “An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” (The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, 1906)

“We sold the patent for insulin to the university for one dollar. And come to think of it—I don’t believe I ever saw that one dollar.” (Charles H. Best, medical researcher, quoted by George Gamester in the Toronto Star, 22 July 1975)

To close, I believe that we shall have to reclaim democracy from private individualism at the expense of collective citizenship and cultural communityship. (See MY book Rebalancing Society, which is yours to have too, in the commons on mintzberg.org.)

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Text © Henry Mintzberg 2016. Photos © Lisa Mintzberg. If you need some creative photography visit lisamintzberg.comFollow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also started a new Facebook page to disseminate these TWOGs. 


1 In “Community-ship is the answer", Financial Times, 23 October 2006; see also "Rebuilding Companies as Communities” in the Harvard Business Review, and the TWOG of 12 February 2015.

2 See J. Rowe, 2008. The parallel economy of the commons. jonathanrowe.org/the-parallel-economy-of-the-commons, also E. Ostrom 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge University Press.