Archives for the month of: February, 2010

My latest article at my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Toyota Needs Action On Three Levels

Last night I gave a talk on ethics and leadership and I based a large section of it on a reading of Akio Toyoda’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece apologizing for his company’s shortcomings and outlining plans to correct them. Published Tuesday, it is a good example of some of the concerns that face a public leader in trying to craft and lead an organization that not only talks ethics but also acts on its ethics.

'Working on machinery' by Flickr user NIOSH

'Working on machinery' by Flickr user NIOSH

Set aside, just for the moment, any anger you may feel that an op-ed statement is perhaps too little, too late. There are definitely ways in which some may say his statement falls short, as does the fact that he had to almost be shamed into attending congressional hearings on Toyota’s problems. Instead, let’s take his statement at face value, because, by doing so, we can draw lessons from it.

The story of how Toyota responds (is responding) to its catastrophic problems illustrates the three levels on which leadership must work if an organization is to act ethically. I have written about this before — I call it Heart, Head, and Hands. What I mean by that is intention, policy, and execution.

  • Intention: What is my mission and purpose? To what extent is the achievement of my goals more important than how I go about it? (Heart)
  • Policy: Are there systems, structures, and practices in place, and are they sufficient? Do they connect logically with my mission? Can they reasonably be expected to result in the fulfillment of my mission? (Head)
  • Execution: Am I carrying out my plans, in the way I intend? Am I following my own rules? (Hands)

So many organizations focus on the first two, and ignore the third — but that’s where things go wrong. All too often, when a problem comes to light, the organizational response is to create new policies and procedures. But many, many times the problem is that someone did not follow rules. Often, there’s one slip that gets tolerated, and then magnified over time. A leader needs to keep their eye firmly on all three levels.

Toyoda’s op-ed is remarkable because he admits that it is at the level of execution that things broke down, and he sees execution as the critical component in correcting the problems.

Sure, he points out that Toyota’s heart is in the right place, as he refers to the “Toyota Way.” And in multiple passages, he outlines specific plans about how he will be correcting the safety problems that are coming to light. That is, he’s got his head in order.

But he also talks about the hands. He admits that it wasn’t a matter of having wrong policies — but that Toyota did not execute its own plans properly. “I recognize that we must do better — much better — in responding to safety issues,” he writes. Elsewhere, he admits, “we didn’t listen as carefully as we should — or respond as quickly as we must” to problems. And, “we focused too narrowly on technical issues.”

That’s looking backwards. Looking forward, Toyoda writes:

I pledge that Toyota will set a new standard for transparency and speed of response on safety issues. We also will strive to lead on advanced safety and environmental technologies. And I will continue to personally visit our sales and manufacturing workplaces to reaffirm the Toyota commitment to excellent quality.

Here, too, is a good lesson — a lesson about execution. It takes three things from a leader to really push execution: Commitment to focus on execution over time; Accountability and a willingness to be held responsible for outcomes; and Courage to act on decision. Toyoda’s statements suggest he is thinking about all three factors.

I am not a Toyota owner, but I know many who see the current problems as a blip in an otherwise stellar record. Akio Toyoda’s statements suggest that this can truly be the case — so long as the execution really is there.

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

Membership Rolls Dropping. What Does ‘Support’ Look Like?

Yesterday on the DC Metro, I found myself seated behind someone who was reviewing the minutes from a board meeting. I don’t normally read over shoulders but this was just about being shoved in my face. The font was large and clear and had lots of bold. I recommend that people think twice about what sensitive documents they peruse in public — I am not proud to say I could not stop myself from glancing along.

Be Careful, Stick Figure by Flickr user chad_k

'Be Careful, Stick Figure' by Flickr user chad_k

The heading proclaimed these as the minutes from the meeting of a very high profile national advocacy organization. This is an organization that has been around for decades and has been very effective in changing national views on a range of issues. (I am not saying what group this is.)

The page my travelling companion was reading recapped a contentious discussion about membership. Turns out that this organization has fewer than 60,000 members. That caught me up short. It seemed wildly out of step with the organization’s powerful profile.

It also opens up a window into the crisis of confidence that large nonprofit institutions are  facing throughout society. Everywhere you turn, you see formerly-major institutions losing relevancy and crumbling. They are good organizations that do good work. But they are running into brick walls all over the place. The United Way, the League of Women Voters, many public broadcasting stations, and more. Community benefit organizations are facing more difficulty in fundraising, and increasing skepticism. And memberships are falling off the cliff.

Shrinking memberships is a real problem for these organizations, as dues are one of their important revenue sources. Here’s one thing that I believe is going on: The perceived value of my membership has increased. That is, it takes a lot more to get me to “join” an organization now than it used to.

There are many reasons for this. An argument could be made that declining membership rolls are reflective of a sector that is ripe for a shakeup. That may be part of it. But there is a broader force as well.

There are now more ways to show one’s support of a cause, campaign, or organization than there used to be. From easy “liking” and “fanning” on Facebook to retweets, online petitions, and blog comments, the spectrum of options available to prospective members has widened and deepened. Actual, dues-paying membership is ‘way over there at the edge.

Effective organizations are taking account of this and are finding new ways to find revenue (creating for-profit non-profit hybrids), and using new metrics besides just  “members.” For mission-based organizations, focusing on “members” will undercount your actual influence and distort your operations, taking you off mission. More important is having a good understanding about how people move from one form of support to another, what levers you can push to encourage that, and what the utility is of each form of support.

I wanted to share with you some important work that my friend, Beth Offenbacker, is up to.

Beth leads a firm called Public Decisions, which is breaking fascinating ground as one of the premier online real-time training, conferences, and stakeholder engagement. Many of her conferences take place in Second Life, which — more than just being a toy — allows you to do things you can’t otherwise do such as virtual tours, in-depth conversation among far-flung people, and more.

Beth has partnered with Learning Times, a leading producer of online communities,  to convene an annual international flagship conference. This year’s conference is coming up, and it looks very interesting.

Here is what Beth’s materials say about it:

Including the Excluded: The 2010 Stakeholder Engagement Online Conference

Public, private and nonprofit/NGO professionals who experience challenges with effectively engaging diverse people or groups are invited to attend the Stakeholder Engagement 2010 Online Conference: Including the Excluded. The three-day program highlights practical insights and best practices from around the globe for engaging people who have historically been excluded (for example, those subject to racial or ethnic discrimination), individuals with physical or mental disabilities, or persons who are socially excluded for a variety of reasons (such as people who are homeless or in a country illegally).

Held on Tuesday, March 2 through Thursday, March 4, this online conference is open to the public and no travel is required. Registration is $179 USD for individuals and $2,000 USD for site registrations. Group discounts and full-time student/faculty rates also available. Complete registration details are at

The conference is ideal for professionals whose responsibilities include engaging stakeholders on an ongoing or periodic basis, including those in the fields of planning, environmental management and engineering, health, education and nonprofit management.

Registrants will become part of the online conference community, attend conference sessions, participate in networking activities and take field trips in Second Life. They also will be able to access session recordings, presentation materials and continue networking with fellow registrants for at least six months following the conference.

Including the Excluded is presented by PublicDecisions, the online provider of professional development programs for stakeholder engagement and Learning Times, the leading producer of online communities and online conferences for education and training. The Presenting Sponsor is Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

You can keep up on what’s up with the conference by following @publicdecisions on Twitter or search on the #SEConf2010 hashtag.

(I was an early adopter with Second Life. My name used to be Bradrourke Dynamo. Alas, I let that identity go fallow and I recently recreated an identity. You can find me in Second Life under the name: Brad Roundel.)

Yesterday I gave a presentation introducing a new discussion guide designed to help people deliberate over the issue of childhood drinking. I am happy to say the event went very well and there were a lot of people in attendance (more than 125, by my count).

Me outside my talk

Me outside my talk

I opened the talk with a discussion of wicked problems. Among many of my colleagues in the dialog and deliberation field, wicked problems are old hat and not very interesting. However, among more normal folks, the idea never fails to generate energy and very interesting “ah-ha!” moments as people ponder the implications.

That was what I saw yesterday, as people nodded their heads and their facial expressions betrayed discovery.

Ordinary Problems

A lot of problems in public life that communities face are technical in nature. How large should the dam be?  How do we plow snow most efficiently? How should we invest the City’s retirement funds? These are the kinds of problems that it is best to ask experts to address. They can tell us what the best, right answer is and then our political leaders can drive the appropriate solutions.

Other problems are educational in nature. Some people don’t know that they shouldn’t park on certain streets in snowy weather and plow operations get fouled up. Other people are not aware of the services available to them as low-income residents, so they do without things they need. These kinds of problems can also be solved in straightforward ways by getting more information out to the right people (not to say they are easy to solve, just straightforward).

Still other problems are just political problems, or engineering problems, or scientific problems.

Wicked Problems

Then there are wicked problems — these are often problems that beset communities over and over. Persistent poverty is a wicked problem. So is persistent crime. What we do about health care as a community (or nation) is a wicked problem.

Wicked problems were first formally defined and described by a pair of planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973:

Now that . . . relatively easy problems [like shelter clean water, and roads] have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn. . . . A growing sensitivity to the waves of repercussions that ripple through . . . systemic networks and to the value consequences of those repercussions has generated the recent reexamination of received values and the recent search for national goals. There seems to be a growing realization that a weak strut in the professional’s support system lies at the juncture where goal-formulation, problem-definition and equity issues meet. . . .

As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning – and especially those of policy or social planning – are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved – over and over again.)

What Wicked Problems Look Like

Rittel and Webber identify ten characteristics of wicked problems. That’s a lot of characteristics to keep in mind, and many are in fact corollaries of one another, so I tend to simplify it a bit.

Here are the key factors I usually talk about:

  • There is no agreement on the cause of the problem, or the cause is not clear
  • There is no definitive solution to the problem
  • Every solution has trade offs
  • Any solution will take multiple actors (e.g. community groups, individuals, and government)

It boils down to this: Wicked problems are so intractable because they involve conflicts between values and every solution has a downside.

For instance, one contemporary wicked problem is what to do about the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil. We don’t agree on the cause — is it radical Islam, is it porous borders, is it oppression of developed nations, or something else? There is no definitive solution — will jailing all potential terrorists do the trick, or deporting them, or how about educating people around the globe about the freedoms America represents? Every solution has trade offs — for example, if we drastically restrict air travel that may be effective but at the cost of curtailing our fundamental freedom of movement. And, any solution will take multiple actors — government can’t just do it themselves, not can individuals just be more watchful on their own.

Solving And Re-Solving Wicked Problems

We seem to be destined to solve and re-solve wicked problems, precisely because we have to re-strike a social covenant each time we face the problem. In the terrorism example, in 2001 we were willing to live with sudden dramatic travel restrictions in pursuit of security. Today, in 2010, our willingness to go along with that deal is not as wholehearted.

For communities (and nations) to face wicked problems, we simply must deliberate together and weigh the options.  This is not an educational question, but a deal-making question. We must decide together what deals we will strike. Otherwise, we will be faced with imposed solutions from leaders that have tepid support at best.

It has been my honor to work in various ways on exactly these kinds of questions over my career, exploring and articulating the values trade-offs inherent in difficult public problems. It is rewarding, and sometimes difficult, work. But it is work that we in communities will need to keep plugging away at.

The problems we solve today will be back later – not because we did a bad job solving them, but because circumstances change.

Because they are wicked problems.

By the way, here is the presentation I used at my talk, in case you are curious:

Today I am giving a presentation at the release of a new community discussion guide that I am excited about. It is a collaboration between the National Issues Forums and The Leadership Foundation To Keep Children Alcohol Free, which is an organization made up of spouses of governors and former governors.

The discussion guide is called: Childhood Drinking: How Can We Prevent And Reduce The Number Of Children Drinking Alcohol? (Available here as free PDF.) It is meant to help communities deliberate over this issue and develop common ground for action. I am the author.

Underage drinking: How can we prevent and reduce the number of children drinking alcohol?

Underage drinking: How can we prevent and reduce the number of children drinking alcohol?

Here’s an introductory overview, from an abbreviated version:

Alcohol is the drug of choice for America’s youth. By age 15, half of the nation’s children and adolescents will have had a whole drink. Among 15 year olds who do drink, one study shows that on average they binge drink (five drinks or more per session) twice a month.

How many children are drinking that way? According to a federally funded survey conducted by the University of Michigan, 8 percent of eighth graders (13 years old) have binged in the past two weeks, and 18 percent of tenth graders (15 years old) have done so.

Underage drinking is not just a problem for parents to worry about. It can have ripple effects that spread throughout the community. Recent studies indicate that drinking at a young age can derail a person’s later development, which can harm communities.

Childhood drinking is a problem for the entire community. It does not have a single solution. It can increase crime, lower productivity, and raise health care costs.

It must be addressed by many different kinds of people, because solutions will depend on actions by everyday people, community organizations, and government.

Here are three options for addressing childhood drinking, along with the major trade off or drawback to each:

  • Option One: Reach Children With Problems Early — Some children have problems when it comes to alcohol and other issues. We need to find them as early as possible and help them. But: Professionals will intrude in families’ lives; the issue may get pushed underground.
  • Option Two: Remove Access and Incentives — If  we are going to make it so our children don’t drink, we will need to change the community. This includes not only making it harder to get access to alcohol, but also stronger enforcement of the laws. But: We will need more control over children’s day-to-day activities as well as more restrictions on adults’ behavior
  • Option Three: Help Children Through A Difficult Time In Development — We need to help children through the difficult elementary and middle school years so they do not get derailed. But: Responsibility for parenting children will shift from the family to professionals.

Here is an introductory video made using Xtranormal that gives an overview of the options and trade offs:

I enjoyed working on this project and I thank the National Issues Forums and the Leadership Foundation for the opportunity!

To learn more about how to host your own community conversation on this issue, contact the Leadership Foundation.