Wednesday, February 22, 2017

on creativity and power and resistance to change

From your friendly neighborhood applied social psychologist and b-school prof: Some free advice for managers, administrators, elected officials, parents, and anyone with supervisory (or really any kind of) influence over other human beings...

When folks come to you with ideas or suggestions for change, the stuff that drives those ideas is energy. Creative energy. And creative human energy is perhaps the most valuable thing on the planet. It's the stuff that moves mountains and gets spacecraft to Mars. Creative energy should not be squandered.

In the face of a new idea, the worst possible response is to shut it down completely. In other words, to say no. "No" kills creative energy. It kills it in kids and it kills it in employees and it kills it in constituents.

When folks come to you with ideas, with creative energy, I believe it's the responsibility of those in power to harness that energy. Direct it. Channel it for good. With creative energy comes opportunity. This is the hard work of management--reconciling the varied and diverse interests of varied and diverse stakeholders.

*** Maybe you can't say yes, but you can say yes to something else. ***

So, in the face of an idea, suggestion, critique, or complaint, take advantage of the situation, see it as an opportunity to harness creativity to do something cool. This will likely require some humility. Perhaps a lot of humility. You will likely have to give away power. You may lose some control. But you also may be able to do much more than you would ever be able to do alone.

Relatedly, beware of those who always say no. It comes from a place of fear. A place of weakness. It comes of apprehension over losing what little power the nay-sayer believes they enjoy. And when you hear no, realize that, often, what you're actually hearing is a response driven by fear. Fear of losing control. But understanding the origin of that fear may lead to a way forward.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

a brief essay on markets, competition, and the role of government in protecting liberty

In conversation with a conservative-minded friend, I realized that he was operating under a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of my beliefs about markets and the role of government. It also occurred to me that probably a similar misunderstanding extends among many conservative minded-folks regarding many liberal-minded folks. So, in an effort to clarify, and maybe build a bridge, I offer the following:

I absolutely believe in free markets. I believe in competition. In principle, I support the risk/reward dynamic inherent in capitalist commercial entrepreneurism. I believe really awesome things happen when folks employ their creativity and ambition and start businesses and build things and innovate to satisfy needs and wants we have and sometimes didn't know we had. I am in love with creativity. I admire productive innovation and ambition tremendously.

However... I also believe in rational checks to the free-ness of markets. Because individual interests must be held in check less their execution infringe on the liberties of others.

I am a civil libertarian.

To illustrate my point, I think pollution offers a poignant example.

Imagine a firm. Maybe this firm makes paper products. Paper products are good. I believe in paper. I buy and use paper. I think there should be firms that make paper.

But a byproduct of paper manufacturing can be a lot of nasty gluppity-glup. For simplicity's sake, let's imagine two options for disposing of the gluppity-glup. The first option is just to pour it in the river. Easy. Convenient. Economical. And absolutely profit maximizing. Good for shareholders. Good for customers (who get cheaper paper products). The second option involves investing in costly controls which reduce the toxicity of the gluppity-glup, and flipping the bill for the transportation of it to some location where it can be disposed of in a way that minimizes its impact on the natural environment and other human beings, which probably also involves paying someone else to take it and further process it. That's costly. And will undoubtedly have the effect of decreasing shareholder value, increasing the price of paper products, or both.

Unchecked by regulation, the firm has little incentive not to dump their waste in the river. (I say "little." There likely will be some push back from folks downstream, and maybe they get some bad press and stuff, but these incentives, ultimately, have proven not to be sufficient to induce firms from dumping their gluppity-glub...or engaging in all kinds of other social ills in the name of profit maximization.) But what's wrong with polluting the river? Well, in doing so, the firm has pushed off the cost of producing paper onto others. Economists call this an externality--meaning that the firm has externalized, or pushed off some of the costs of production onto others, without the consent, will, or even necessarily the knowledge that they have been thus burdened. The farmer downstream who relies on pure water to feed her crops. The fishermen who rely on the river to extract a living by harvesting healthy fish. On the recreationalist, who swims in the river. And so on.

Of course, the consequences of polluting the stream go far beyond that. The interconnectedness of all things is a central tenet of biology (if not all the sciences). Screw up the river, and you screw up all sorts of stuff, including the animals you know best and maybe care about most--those that wear clothes and walk around on two legs.

It's not clear to me what people mean when they talk of big government versus small government. I think that means different things to different people. But if by "big government" people are referring to the world of regulations that they perceive as a hindrance to business or whatever else, I challenge those folks to think of regulation not as restricting liberty, but protecting it.

One man's liberty ends at the next man's nose, as the expression goes. Regulation exists to protect your nose from my elbow, so to speak.

One way to think of any regulation is as a response to someone, somewhere, having been an asshole. Someone (or a group of someones) was unable to check their self-interest through personal morality and, in its execution, imposed a significant cost to the liberty of another. Thus, government must step in. Acting to protect individual liberty. Creating stronger incentives for individuals and organizations to act in the public good than existed previously.

Now, of course, there will be inefficiencies and redundancies. Sometimes (often?) well-meaning regulation has unintended and even disproportionately harmful consequences. It is absolutely rational to review, critique, and challenge the logic of specific regulations. And when errors can be shown, we should correct them.

But... To argue against regulation on principle is to argue against the role of government in protecting individual liberty. And I believe protecting individual liberty is. the. primary. responsibility of government in the first place.