A ‘Cookbook’ of Recipes to Help America Satisfy its Appetite to Solve its Social Problems

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 its reputation.

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 the role.

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!

Why?

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 base. 

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 prudently.

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 recipes.

Only three basic steps are required, regardless of the type of problem being confronted:

  1. Identify and assemble the relevant players;
  2. Establish their respective needs and wants; and
  3. 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!

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