The Grating Divide

CBS News recently reported that there is no longer a group we can consider as “moderate” in the U.S. Senate.  In a report on November 22, 2011 looking back on the past 40 years, Scott Pelley sourcing research from the nonpartisan National Journal noted that in 1982 there were 60 Senators who could be described as moderates, while today there is zero.

Zero moderates?

Two questions come to mind: 1) What criteria could we be using to define the concept of moderate that would rule out everyone in the Senate; and 2) If this is truly the case, how can this possibly be good for the nation?

If the essence of this analysis is that all Democrats are left of center and all Republicans are right of center, I suppose that would leave us with zero moderates.  Yet we all know this is not the case, the party labels of Democrat and Republican have largely become just that, where we all know Democrats we consider more conservative than some Republicans as well as some Republicans we consider more liberal than Democrats.  Clearly President Obama is receiving as much if not more criticism for the actual agenda he has pursued from vocal members within his own party for “not being liberal enough,” and the most significant criticism articulated about once leading Presidential Candidate Romney by numerous members of his own party is that he is too liberal.  Here we have a handful of labels that are useful to certain individuals on any given day for campaign positioning, high profile op-ed pieces, and extremely uncomfortable holiday table rhetoric, but beyond that, these labels aren’t doing us much good.

That doesn’t mean the divisiveness in our nation is any less real; it remains as the CBS News story implies a disease that is killing us.  The problem is that regardless of monolithic labels like moderate, liberal, and conservative — descriptors that tend to have almost no meaning in our day-to-day lives where business behavior and social interaction demand a level of civility and tolerance for anything to get done in a timely manner — our elected leaders at the national level have fully separated themselves from anything that vaguely represents the real world and isolated themselves in a war between two parties that does not reflect the desires, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a people who really do wish to be united under visionary leadership.

The divide is on party vote, creating a climate where the mandate of political survival necessitates that whether in truth moderate, liberal, or conservative, an elected official still votes along party lines so as not to be perceived as a traitor to the party.  The party articulates a definitive point of view — whether that is no tax increase can be on the table or a tax increase of some sort must be on the table — and there you have it, intractable postures.  The result?  We still haven’t resolved the debt ceiling with intelligence, we are going to allow it to be done by mathematical computation.  If preordained formulas are going to be the measure by which critical decisions of how precious and limited resources are going to be allocated, one starts to wonder exactly what we are getting for the time and money of those being sent to our nation’s Capitol as voices of representative democracy.  We are willing to go to war with enemies overseas to advocate that democracy is the best possible ideal for self-determination of nations, yet at home we allow our own democracy to languish while our leaders fight among themselves for agendas of their own career advancement that are entirely irrelevant to the people paying their salaries and standing on the sidelines waiting to be rescued from stagnation.

Now while Congress fights (before it vacations again) over whether current extension of tax cuts and jobless benefits must be tied in a single package — another all or nothing argument that mirrors the failure of the Super Committee — millions of Americans are facing the end of year holidays in complete fear they could lose everything they have before they can get back on their feet because our government cannot do its job.  There can be no more excuses here — the needs of the nation must trump the needs of those who manage the nation, and those who will reap the lucrative benefits of post government service with lobbying jobs that continue to compromise the very fabric of fairness in practice.  Not much holiday spirit there, and no rhetoric makes things right when the bank forecloses.

I have written before that polarization is not only anathema to advancement, it is largely not tolerated in the business world.  Indeed a corporation is not a democracy, it is run by a CEO with executive authority that can be autocratic when necessary, but those of us in the working world know how seldom a successful CEO exercises that kind of power — the use of a blunt instrument is too often demoralizing to employees who thrive when they are empowered.  Is there career advancement at risk in a corporation?  You bet, every single day.  Are there winners and losers on a personal level, despite the fortunes of the company?  Yes, sometimes.  Do companies on occasion forget that competition is outside the walls of the enterprise rather than down the hall?  Oh yeah, happens all the time.  Yet to maintain one’s stature and upward mobility in working life, most of us come to realize the wisdom and benefit in building consensus viewpoints around difficult measures — and the more complicated the problem, the more upside there is to be found in working toward consensus.  Consensus is not the same as compromise, but it incorporates tactics of compromise to allow the best of ideas from different points of view to come together to form more enlightened arguments and better constructed resolutions.  The winning formula in consensus understands there is always a big picture, and in standoff bifurcation there is only momentum for standstill behavior.

Any organization frozen solid when facing a crisis is likely to fail.  Strong executives understand that this is often the difference between positive and negative earnings, and rather than worrying about getting their way on every detail because they so strongly believe it, they worry about obstructions to the organization’s success.  A leader articulates a vision, listens, is decisive, and then sees to it that anything blocking success is removed from the path, not cemented at the crossroads as a monument to unhelpful ideology.

There are any number of points of view on any number of critical issues facing our nation, but my sense is that real question before us is how we rediscover the commonalities that make us a great nation and not a divided people.  If we have no moderates in government that we have no one who represents the voice of the people, which by definition in its aggregate is moderate.  Dividing lines may help individual careers and fuel unlimited punch lines for the evening talk show hosts, but they aren’t helping you and they aren’t helping me.  If Washington can’t get over it, then we need to show them where they are wrong.  If our elected officials simply refuse to lead by example, then it is time for the rest of us to show them how.  There is a lot at risk here, way more than an election, way more than claimed vindication.  We cannot meet our challenges if we remain divided, not a chance.  We must find a consensus and a shared voice of which we can be proud.

Demand more, demand better.

Deadlines, The Final Frontier

Looks like we dodged a bullet.  The United States of America will not default on its debt, We The People will be allowed to borrow more money to stay current in our obligations by way of a vague deal to curb deficit spending going forward that the House, Senate, and President will find a way to stomach late in the 11th hour.  Why don’t I feel proud?

In my mind, the process for resolution which was recently described by Senator McCain as “bizarro” has been a farce of such epic embarrassment, it is impossible to comprehend as somehow reflective of our shared values.  Last minute threats and posturing and leverage and mano a mano entrenchment ignore the obvious framework of achieving a shared vision — that working relationships must continue long after the dirty work is done.  Last week in a fairly heated discussion thread about the debt ceiling on another social networking site, an astute friend of mine wrote:

…the whole situation is disappointing. No one on the national scene has really acted that well.   Should we even give them praise for negotiating?  Has it come to that–we have to praise people for doing what sensible people do?

His exasperation is well-founded, and leads me to ask again, why must we accept one set of standards of conduct for business and a different set for government?  This is especially troubling since so many people in government have spent at least some of their career working in the private sector, where market forces determine the kinds of norms of acceptability and consequence our elected officials seem to ignore.

To be clear, I am not talking about mission structure — government service is not profit minded by design, so of course decision-making is not intended to be ROI focused, that would be absurd.  We go to war because our security is at stake, it is a cost.  We fix roads and build new infrastructure because they are the backbone of our shared needs, they are cost centers paid for by taxes, they are not profit centers so boardroom discussions will always be different.  I am talking about standards of conduct, behavioral norms — like honest discussion and earnest debate and timely resolution.

Consider that last one for a moment: timely resolution.  Anyone who has ever worked on a project knows the meaning of the term deadline.  Anyone who has ever taken a class knows that the date does not move for the final exam.  Anyone who has ever paid a bill knows that the due date is not negotiable, miss it and you pay a penalty out of your pocket and potentially suffer a credit score impact.  Anyone who owes a balance on their taxes knows that April 15 is not negotiable — it’s not magical, it’s just not negotiable, it is the law.  Although deadlines appear to be abstracts — fictitious creations of human imagination imposed as structure on others to compel action — deadlines are part of life.  They are real.  We learn as children to address them and as adults to manage them, or we suffer the consequences personally and professionally.

Deadlines teach us to manage two of the great success factors of businesses and careers: timeliness and urgency.  Timeliness means just that, occurring at a suitable or opportune time — being appropriately on time according to expectation and need.  Urgency is the competitive advantage of not being satisfied with timeliness, getting ahead of the curve so that winning is more possibly in reach by better applied and more efficient use of time to create distance ahead of the competition.

What can we learn from government with respect to timeliness and urgency? Does government consider these to be core values, even expectations of government’s viability?  Does government consider timeliness and urgency as Nice-to-Have or Must-Have?  We observe their philosophical commitment in their actions.  My sense is, there is not much here worth emulating.  If anything, government process is the antithesis to lessons a good business understands — and that includes leaving big blocks of time for rigorous review.

Our elected officials for whatever reason simply do not seem to take the notion of deadlines as seriously as the rest of us.  In some ways, a lack of respect for deadlines is the very notion of an entitlement culture — if you do what is expected, you get paid, and if you don’t do what is expected, you still get paid, right up until you get thrown out by the voters.  When you get thrown out by the voters, you get a pension.  Perhaps we are seeing the reason why deadlines don’t seem to matter in the halls of Washington.

Perhaps the reason our government has become so dysfunctional is because we have allowed it to be so.  In the working world, there are rules, and if you violate them, there are consequences.  In elected office there only seem to be two rules:

1) Don’t be party to a scandal that your opponents can manipulate to your demise.

2) Get elected, then reelected.

Pretty much everything else seems to be forgivable.  A missed deadline is a missed deadline.  Since there is no profit motive, there is no personally assessed penalty.  That’s just wrong.  It lacks humility.

Bosses are often accused of setting arbitrary deadlines.  What is the difference between an arbitrary and real deadline?  Not much, really.  If the boss sets a schedule and declares that milestones must be accomplished according to the schedule, there is usually nothing empirical or even mythical about the published dates — well, maybe the December holidays for retail, or similarly calendar driven events.  Most deadlines are made up, they are criticized and chastised and the stuff of Dilbert moments — but imagine a business enterprise without them.  Someone has to be Dilbert.  Someone has to create urgency.  Urgency combined with innovation are the stuff of success, creativity combined with timely delivery are the stuff of investment payoffs.

Most of us hate deadlines, but we all know they drive us to make hard decisions sooner, get past analysis paralysis, come together as teams and deliver.  Deadlines are the stuff of anger and stress and resentment — and the stuff of competition and collaboration and reward.  We hate them, but we embrace them, because we aren’t given a choice.  Arbitrary or organic, deadlines make us get stuff done to the best of our ability given the time allotted, and with some success, we then often get the chance to come back later and improve on our progress.  Deadlines are motivation and measurement, realities we learn to meet as challenges.  That’s why bosses set “arbitrary” deadlines — because timeliness is an expectation for compensation, and urgency is often a path from good to great.

I am not a big fan of rules just to have rules, but as a boss, I have to insist on a few or work does not get done and value is not created.  Deadlines are sometimes extended or forgiven for good reasons, but anyone who has worked in a high performance environment knows not to take forbearance for granted.  An occasional exception for truly improved work or some extenuating circumstance?  Of course, that’s possible.  The same rotten outcome I could have had yesterday a week from tomorrow?  Not a chance.

Just hitting a date with no breathing room and a lousy set of deliverables is not making a deadline, it is surrendering to mediocrity and living to play another day.  If that is allowable process, dysfunction has triumphed over reason.  It’s not urgency, and it’s not okay.  In business, you would likely get fired for it, or your business would go under.

Urgency is hard.  Urgency is a factor in competitive advantage.  Urgency matters.