The Real World? Might be broken. Where’s that toolkit?

Let’s take stock. We face five major challenges:

–         (unfavorable) climate variability

–         natural hazards

–         unintended environmental consequences stemming from past success

–         declining margins and pockets of scarcity

–         ineffective top-down, command-and-control decisions

Each of these challenges has the attributes of a wicked problem; each is virtually intractable. They’re more in the nature of inescapable realities. But that’s not all. In every case, we see two widening gaps: (1) between the advance of science on these subjects – our base of knowledge and understanding – and society’s ability to benefit from that science, and (2) between the advance of science, and the rapid growth in society’s increasingly stringent requirements for knowledge and understanding (down to the most-localized details, and extending to the entire globe and distant time horizons). No challenge can be ignored. We can’t set four aside, in order to focus on any one. We have to cope with them all of a piece. Each is urgent! We’re forced to respond to these challenges on the real world’s timetable, not our own.

Whew! So far, not looking too good. How to proceed?

But, hold on, we’re in luck, in two ways.

First, look closely, and you’ll see we don’t change these five realities per se – simply rein in their negative effects.

Stop climate change and variability? Can’t do that on the real world. But minimize human contributions to that change, and adapt to the rest? That might prove within our reach. Eliminate the extremes of nature? We shouldn’t even want to try! They have an awesome beauty, and they help our planet get its work done. But despite our bad track record here, we can do more to protect ourselves against future catastrophe. Unintended consequences? Let’s get better at smoking them out, heading them off, confining their reach. Declining margins and scarcity? Again, early detection and immediate response hold the key to sailing through. And finally, none of us even likes top-down, command-and-control approaches to problem solving. So why should that be our default approach? We want democracy, and to the extent possible, grassroots democracy. Let’s get more effective at solving problems individually, locally, from the bottom up. This job is still tough enough. But if we act effectively (in concert, from the right workplan, in time) and if we sustain our efforts, we can “succeed” (that is, pass on problems to successive generations that are no more formidable than those we face now).

Second, we don’t have to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s capabilities. And we have literally thousands, millions, of new scraps of knowledge, and clever bits of technology to draw from, that seem to be coming on line in a nick of time. IT. Biotechnology. A range of renewable energy sources. Nanotechnology. New materials. “Smart” this and that. The list is endless – and more are being added to the list, faster than we can build any index or catalog.

So that’s probably not the real challenge, is it? The real challenge is that of sifting through all these possibilities, and distinguishing what might be useful from what is extraneous. Are you familiar with “the NASA exercise?” This is a group activity often used in team building and management training to show the power of group problem-solving, etc. Participants are given a list of fifteen items (matches, oxygen bottles, an inflatable life raft, twine, etc.). They are then asked to rank their utility to a team of astronauts trying to reach a distant rendezvous point on the moon by foot. Think of humanity’s challenge as the NASA exercise on the big screen.

Four powerful tools are available for this task of harnessing, coordinating, harmonizing all the emerging capabilities:

First, policy. In short, policy is a framework for making decisions. For example, the fifth commandment, “honor your father and mother,” is a policy. It’s not a single decision so much as a guide for making a whole range of decisions. When you were four years old, this meant listening to your mother when she told you to hold her hand, and look both ways, before crossing the street. When you were somewhat older, it didn’t mean just getting home on time after a date, it also meant respecting your parents’ religious views.[1] By the time you will be sixty-four years old, it implies taking care of your parents in their old age. Your choices and actions? Changing all the time, from context to context. But having this policy in mind allows you to relate to your parents much more smoothly and effectively.


…that the policy has been chosen wisely and has been well articulated. (We’ll get back to this in future posts.) And the formulation of most policies is a bit more complex, and open to debate, than “honor your father and mother.”

Second, social networking. Much has been written about this. Think back to that NASA exercise. NASA astronauts know how to rank the fifteen items. (Why not? They’re rocket scientists.) And social scientists and management gurus find that, sure enough, when you and I give it a try, our individual answers range all over the map. (Where do we get some of those ideas? Matches in the vacuum of space? Come on!) But put us in even a small group, say 5-10 people, ordinary people like you and me, chosen pretty much at random, and let us discuss our answer among ourselves? Our group answer will converge on the same ranking ordering that those NASA astronauts came up with.[2]

We humans are social animals, and we’ve always worked collaboratively. But the Internet, computers, and cellular phones have fostered the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, and myriad other social networks, and with these capabilities we’re taking social networking to a whole new level. This should be really helpful going forward.


…that we can use these tools for doing more than saying, “Yo, everybody, I’m chilling out at Starbucks with a latte. Anyone around? Join me!” We’ve got to structure and harness these possibilities for more substantial problem-solving. And this is underway. Wiki-activities hint at the potential.

Third, leadership. (But wait a second, Bill! You’ve been hammering us for days that top-down, command-and-control decision-making is no longer effective, if it ever was.) Exactly. But pick up any book on leadership today,[3] and you’ll find it aimed more toward modeling desired behavior (including openness and vulnerability) – much more Gandhi than Attila the Hun[4]. The real task of leadership is to make work effective, as the management guru Peter Drucker said repeatedly, in hundreds of occasions and in as many ways. What does this mean? Simply this. Seven billion people have an interest (and a self-interest) in contributing something to coping with these five challenges. But as individuals, we question, “What can I do? I’m just one person.  If I sign on, what’s to keep me from ineffectively just spinning my wheels and getting tired?” Leaders can help individuals develop structure and show individuals effective ways to plug in.


…that leaders follow a service-oriented model. That same Peter Drucker, in less optimistic moods, would say, “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

Fourth, a basis of facts. It’s important in all this work to be reality-based. We have to have the right roadmap if we hope to find our way. As a scientist, I want to put this first. But this is not about a linear sequence. We can’t afford societal inaction until scientists get things right, any more than we can allow scientists to be insulated from the urgency of real-world problems. So getting facts right helps.


…that we balance our use of all facts, not just those that happen to be our particular favorites, or support our self-centered aims and desires over larger interests.

At first blush, you can be forgiven for thinking, “wait a second…all these four tools have been available for ages! And they’re part of the reason we find ourselves in this predicament.”

True enough. But they’ve also contributed to most if not all of the success we’ve enjoyed as the human race so far. And, remember: our five challenges are challenges resulting from success, not failure. Furthermore, each of the four is being transformed, just as society itself is changing rapidly. For the next little while, we’ll be looking at these four tools and how they’re changing, and respects in which they need and could be improved. We may even have a few suggestions for how this might be accomplished!

[1] Failure to do so for the early Israelites broke other commandments and called for death by stoning – another policy.

[2] For two contrasting perspectives on this, read Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written by the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in 1841 (after all, he had that most famous of economic bubbles, “the tulip mania” of the early 1600’s, for material), and then juxtapose that with The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, written by James Surowiecki in 2004.

[3] There are so many good ones today. Where to start? But just to pick two that capture a bit of the flavor, take a look at Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by James Collins (2001), or Building the Bridge as You Walk on it: A Guide to Leading Change, by Robert Quinn (2004).

[4] Even this leadership approach has been documented! See: Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wess Roberts (1990).

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2 Responses to The Real World? Might be broken. Where’s that toolkit?

  1. Pingback: Honesty. After all these years, still the best policy | Living on the Real World

  2. Pingback: Leadership… Begins with Character by William Hooke | Courage in America

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