In digging for more than a
decade in the heap of confusion of American society, I have found that at the
root of much of the inability to solve many problems is a simple reality.
The three basic sectors of
society –business, nonprofits, and government –have different languages,
customs, practices and cultures. The people in those three sectors often do not
know each other well, tend not to trust each other, and do not follow similar
policies and processes in the pursuit of their needs and goals.
A ‘cookbook’ for solving many
of America’s challenges involves remedying the tensions and differences between
these sectors – in the Intersector. Regular readers of this column will no
doubt recognize this as a reference to “collaborative governance.”
But a deeper, broader and, hopefully,
simpler understanding of the practical
nature of those underlying problems appears to be an essential precondition to
getting more people to understand why
they want and need to understand more. Only that way can their voices become collectively
loud enough to get political
processes sufficiently focused on fixing society’s many and real problems by
using those tools.
Much of the discussion of this
subject and, to be quite honest, including my own, tends to be abstract and dreary.
Dry, academic treatises also impede problem solving. A wrench is a remarkably
simple tool whose function and purpose is readily grasped by anyone who has
ever had occasion to need one; but a scholarly examination of a wrench would
quickly delve into arcana (“the cross product of the position vector and the
force vector”) neither useful nor discernable to many people who simply want to
unwind a nut.
Consequently, it has become vividly
apparent that many people need concrete, specific examples familiar to them to visualize this subject so that they can truly grasp,
and retain, what all the abstract stuff actually means.
Imagine, then, a large
restaurant. The prime focus might be the food (naturally), but that’s far from
the only thing that makes restaurants successful. In fact, it takes a small
army of people, with different skills and responsibilities, to make restaurants
run successfully and for a long time.
The Chef, of
course, concocts the delectable offerings that are basic to earning a restaurant
The Maître ‘d
is charged with ensuring a pleasant experience around the food – e.g., prompt and polite waiters and clean dishes.
The Manager’s job
is to bring the disparate pieces together to make everything flow smoothly, and
keep the books in balance to assure the restaurant’s continued success.
These positions, and the
myriad staff beneath them, must collaborate closely – water and drinks offered
shortly after seating; food prepared to the customer’s expectations; dishes brought
and cleared promptly; and the check delivered and payment collected. In a
well-run restaurant, those positions not only cooperate with each other, but they
also compete to offer the greatest food, service or experience, depending on
Then comes something of a
surprise: despite the best efforts of those many, well-intentioned restaurant
folks, one-third of restaurants in the
U.S. fail within one year!
Well, the answer is that is
it not easy, and far from automatic, for a group of even smart, talented and
well-intentioned people to work together smoothly. Not only does each job need
to be done well – all the time – but the different jobs must be executed in
close coordination. The failure of one sparks the failure of others, until the red
ink flows too fast.
Now, if you can, try to think
of America as just such a restaurant writ large. Visualize the myriad complex
issues in traffic coordination, infrastructure maintenance, water distribution
or crime prevention just to name a very few easy to imagine examples. As you
overlay in your mind the restaurant metaphor, you can see how there are many common
threads in these seemingly quite different situations.
Much like our metaphorical
restaurant, most of America can’t succeed with only one or two of the critical pieces
out of many working well together. Just as a restaurant with great food but
lousy service will invariably fail, so, too, will a republic and all its parts if
it can’t balance the oftentimes conflicting needs of its many customers,
vendors, service providers, owners, regulators and managers.
In the world at large, think
of the processes and places where the different sectors have to come together
to work out the complexities of their inevitable interactions. Those competing
and conflicting sectors have to work out (or orchestrate) their problems among
themselves or all of society is left to suffer as the failures fester and
spread to other sectors.
Two other core problems can
derail even the best-intentioned ‘societal restauranteurs’:
- Very few citizens
notice, believe or understand the important differences in the key jobs – for
example, in a restaurant, not many people are much aware or pay attention to
the bus staff and dishwashers, but imagine what that restaurant would be like
if they weren’t there!
- Very few people
holding those key jobs truly understand many of the other participants as well.
A head waiter may know little of what makes a chef’s signature dish renowned; the
chef’s understanding of the restaurant’s finances may be comically off
In fact, in many cases,
they’re not even speaking the same language. The manager, looking to order
supplies, can’t properly gauge demand if the chef’s recipe calls for a “soupçon
of paprika.” How many soupçons are there in an ounce? The service staff likely
don’t recognize that laundry for table linens cost a lot and should be used
The idea for a metaphor of a
restaurant, as a proxy for society writ large, is solely to illuminate that there really are pretty simple and
understandable ways to engage more and more people to understand the basic
issues of problem solving to gain their support for the process.
Once more awareness exists, a
path to overcoming problems should tend to come faster and more easily. But
getting to that awareness is hard; the notion of joint dependency through
collaboration is often difficult to grasp and illusive in practice. But, it can
be done, and the ‘cookbook’ at the center of this piece basically offers simple
Only three basic steps are
required, regardless of the type of problem being confronted:
- Identify and assemble the relevant players;
- Establish their respective needs and wants; and
- Encourage possible compromises that reflect the different needs and priorities of the relevant players.
I have been thinking about
and working on this subject for a number of years and see the importance of
effective metaphors to convey the relevance and importance of the topic to a
broader audience in order to see solutions accelerate.
The Intersector Project (www.intersector.com) has produced the
beginnings of a helpful cookbook on the matter, one that is basically agnostic
about geography and topics. The tool kit and case studies provide examples and
guidance for many vexing issues – from economic development to environmental
protection – for all sorts of problems great and small.
We really cannot and should
not accept being doomed to working at wasteful cross purposes forever. We have
to learn to understand and to talk better (with,
not at) colleagues. As in
restaurants, a lot can be achieved fairly quickly with good leadership.
Let me know what you think. Your
contribution to this subject could be greater than you imagine!