The War on Wisdom

I just watched a compelling talk by Barry Schwartz (watch here), documenting the war on wisdom that is being prosecuted in this country. Wisdom results from experience tackling difficult issues in unique ways and learning from these efforts over time. Mr. Schwartz takes the position that we are effectively shutting down initiative by allowing standard rules and procedures to supplant wisdom and the initiative necessary to create it.

How do you encourage initiative in the people around you? That’s a question many of us are investing more and more brain cells answering these days. Many outcomes depend on our ability to build initiative. Generating acceptable financial returns, creating innovative market approaches, finding ways to save our jobs all require personal initiative and initiative from people who can help us.

Initiative flourishes where the best efforts of all the people involved are harnessed in an environment that builds high expectations for success, intense levels of trust, and an arena where fear of failure is channeled into productive behavior. These environments require insane levels of personal freedom and motivation that can only be created by true leaders. These leaders know how to use energized initiative to fuel new solutions to particular problems and create the wisdom necessary to address the increasingly nebulous world we face.

Right now, key systems are populated with managers, not leaders. Managers use job descriptions and rules to limit negative outcomes and their own need to intervene in uncertain circumstances. These rules push activities to the mean, reducing any possible variations in the system. The lack of variation creates consistent reactions to situations, but enables weak managers to find cover behind the rules when things go wrong.

This is not the worst outcome of these situations. Stringent rules and by-the-book application start the entire system down a spiral where rules substitute for judgment. When judgment isn’t exercised, wisdom fails to develop. The lack of wisdom requires more rules for ambiguous situations, and the whole cycle begins again. Each turn of the cycle tightens the death spiral and wisdom loses another battle in its war for survival.

Schwartz cites two major areas as examples. In education, one school district uses a detailed script for teachers to go through a simple picture book with elementary school students. The script outlines the exact words the teacher should use while showing the book to students – including a stern warning about tub safety. Judgment is cast aside in favor of rules. Why? Because this particular school system does not trust its teachers to put together a reasonable lesson plan.

Contrast this scenario with another example, this time inside a hospital. The janitor’s job in the facility is outlined in a remarkably detailed job description. On first glance, it appears that every task fits this particular job. At second glance, it becomes apparent that the tasks also fit every other janitor’s job in the world. It’s a solid job description, one perfectly suited for a work-to-rule environment. Managers would love this clarity.

Fortunately, this hospital approaches the janitorial task as one of the critical elements in delivering effective patient care. Janitors are given leeway to use their judgment (wisdom) to address the situations they encounter throughout the day. For example, one janitor completely recleaned the room of a man in a coma, because the man’s father (who had been keeping a bedside vigil) was asleep during the first cleaning and didn’t see it being done. Another janitor, being ordered to vacuum the waiting room disobeyed that order because a family was catching their first sleep in several days on the couches in the room and she didn’t want to disturb them. These people understood their role in the delivery process, developed wisdom about their impact, and were given the freedom to make a difference. Very different results from the first example.

We are entering a critical point in our history, where leadership, judgment, and wisdom will be more critical than ever in dealing with the ambiguous future we face. The times are changing and the past may not be a reliable predictor of the future. Old solutions may not work and success is likely to require free, original thought from all of us. Only the best thinking, guided by well-developed wisdom will carry the day.

Enjoy this plea for great wisdom from Barry Schwartz and join the army fighting the war for wisdom!


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