Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Courage to Say “It Can’t Be Done That Way”

I read an interesting statistic yesterday.

When the Social Security system was invented, the average life span of an American citizen was 61.

So offering to pay benefits when someone turned 65 was a pretty safe bet – there were very few people who would be collecting anyway.

Now that the average life span of an American man and woman is 75.6 and 80.8 years respectively, we are asking the Social Security system to accomplish the same result for which it was designed but with a completely different set of inputs. 

We want it to be self sustaining while paying Americans a pension that allows them to enjoy their retirement, ignoring the fact that we have far more people drawing from the system, the ratio of contributors to withdrawers is unsustainable, retirees draw for much longer and the amount each individual needs to draw from the system is much larger than when the system was created.

Politicians, not often known for their bravery when it comes to revealing the true state of things, keep tinkering with the system with the hope that they can fix it without revealing to the world that it is broken.  So instead of the desired result, we have a system that is bankrupting itself while at the same time, keeping the average retired American well below the poverty line.

The problem with reality is that we can’t hide from it, try as we might.

Sometimes we need to accept the fact that original intentions and assumptions, while having served their purpose for the day, are no longer relevant and in fact may be dangerous to embrace in the current environment.

When this happens (which, by the way, is a normal result in the evolution of any “system”), it is quite ok to admit that the current system doesn’t work at all and needs to be redesigned from the ground up.

Sometimes it’s better to gut something and start over - frightening, disappointing or angering everyone for the moment but then creating a result that everyone will like rather than deny there is any problem right up until the thing that needs to be fixed, whether it be a personal Life plan, organizational intention, large-scale computer system or government program, collapses beyond repair (taking innocent people and organizations down with it).

It’s like being given a Sopwith Camel (a World War 1 fighter plane with a maximum speed of 115 mph) and being told that we are to use it as a low-cost replacement for the Space Shuttle.

We can set an expectation now, temporarily disappointing people by denying the request and insisting that we be smarter with our intentions and our actions.

Or we can be another “yes person”, petrified of disappointing people and deferring the disappointment until years and bazillions of dollars later when people discover that we had no chance of ever getting it done.

In either situation, pain, anger and disappointment are inevitable. 

However, in one case, the feelings pass when we focus on a solution, complete the project on a high note and establish the potential for a bright future.  We might even provide the basis for a case study in a business strategy 101 course as the courageous way to do the right thing.

In the other situation, there’s also possibility of ending up as a business strategy 101 case study.

Just not the kind any of us want to be remembered for.

In service and servanthood.


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