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Asking questions backward

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If you can’t resolve a thorny conundrum, try asking the question backward.

In the United States we have an ongoing, unresolved question: What are society’s obligations to the poor? 90 years after FDR’s New Deal we’re still arguing about this, with plenty of programs but little in the way of a national consensus.

What if we asked the question backward — instead of asking what obligations, if any, we have to the poor, let’s ask what privileges should accompany wealth?

We might imagine a continuum. On one end are certainties: Wealth should entitle those who have it to more and cooler toys. Tastier meals. Freedom from having to pick up after themselves, vacuum their floors, and scrub their plumbing fixtures.

Terry Pratchett once pointed out that “privilege” means “private law.” On the other end of the continuum from better toys, food, and household hygiene I think most of us would agree that wealth shouldn’t entitle its owners to private laws, whether in the form of legislation passed to benefit the favored few, or better judicial outcomes because that’s what you get when you can afford the best lawyers.

For that matter, instead of asking if the poor should be entitled to free healthcare, question inversion leads us to instead ask if wealth should confer better health and longer lifespans for those who, through luck or skill, have more of it.

Keep the Joint Running isn’t the place for this conversation, although I’d be delighted if you decide to have it, whether in the Comments, at your dinner table, or in a local tavern accompanied by conversational lubricants.

What does fit KJR’s charter is a very different business question that looks much the same when you invert it.

The question: How can business leaders keep their organizations from turning into stifling, choking bureaucracies.

The inversion: Must all rules apply, all the time, to everyone, regardless of their performance, contribution to the bottom line, or where they rank on the organizational chart?

For example:

> In your sales force is a rainmaker — someone who’s exceptional at designing and closing big, profitable deals. He also has a volatile disposition and huge temper, which he aims at whoever is convenient whenever he feels frustrated. The question: Should his direct financial contributions result in, shall we say, a more flexible and nuanced response from HR than another employee, with a similar temperament who contributes far less to the company’s success should get?

> Your company has a well-structured governance practice for defining, evaluating, and deciding which capital projects to undertake.

Your CFO is championing a major capital project. While it seems to make sense she hasn’t run it through the process. Instead she’s schmoozed it through the committee, whose members trust her judgment … or might want her to return the favor come budget season.

The question: Should the CFO and her executive peers be allowed to skip procedural steps that lower-level managers are required to follow?

> Your company’s recruiting function has established specific procedures for filling all open positions. The CEO recently brought in a new CIO to straighten out the company’s IT organization, and the CIO wants to bring in “his team” — three managers he’s worked with in the past. He knows they share his approach to running IT and are the right people to lead the company’s IT turnaround.

Should he be allowed to bypass Recruiting’s procedures?

For most of us the instinctive answer is yes — the rules apply to everyone.

Except for most entrepreneurs, who tend to see the uniquenesses of situations as well as their similarities.

Take the case of the CFO and her capital project. Companies institute governance frameworks and procedures for reviewing capital proposals to reduce the risk of making poor investments. The CFO applies these frameworks in her sleep. Dragging her proposal through the procedure wastes a lot of her valuable time with little additional risk reduction.

On the other hand, insisting everyone follows these rules, from the top of the organization to the bottom, helps establish an egalitarian perspective that says nobody gets special privileges. It also ensures the company’s executives don’t get sloppy, mistaking arrogance for good judgment.

But on yet another hand, if everyone in the organization had the CFO’s level of financial sophistication, there might never have been a need for the rules in the first place.

“There are reasons we have rules,” is a phrase you’ve probably heard from time to time.

And I agree. There are reasons we have rules. And if we took the time to remember those reasons we’d all be better off.

Comments (11)

  • It’s the job of a company’s leadership to know when to o make exceptions to those rules.
    That’s one reason why they are paid the big bucks.

  • I look at the health care question through a somewhat different lens, although I like the questions that Bob asks. My version is, what makes our society better off as a whole? It seems to me that ensuring that everyone (especially children) receives a basic level of health care makes sense, as this keeps adults at work, prevents epidemics, and ensures children have opportunity to grow into productive adults.

    Unfortunately, we can’t afford to give everyone perfect care. Does it make sense to pay for a heart transplant for a 90 year old great-grandmother? There has to be some level of triage of care, even if we stray into the neighborhood of Sarah Palin’s death committees. So, in the end, the rich will always get a better level of care, because they can afford the health care that isn’t available to everyone.

  • “What are society’s obligations to the poor? 90 years after FDR’s New Deal we’re still arguing about this”

    I’d just like to point out that Bob here makes the usual slight-of-hand that moves from “society” to “government” without explicit acknowledgement. Similarly, we move right into questions about redistribution without ever tackling the prior question of “to what extent should government be able to decide what we do with ourselves and with that which we have earned or been freely given.”

    • Uh … you appear to have missed the point entirely, which was to invert our usual questions … in this case that would mean stopping asking about redistribution altogether. In any event, redistribution is a means not an end. Also, while I know that in some sectors it’s disconcerting, government is one of the most important means through which society acts.

      Your “prior question” is also about means without giving any attention to ends. There are some ends in which government has enormous and legitimate power to decide what we can and can’t do … for example, prohibiting us from robbing and murdering each other. There are other ends where most of us would agree its range of action should be far more limited.

      But the column was about what we can learn by inverting the usual questions we ask. You appear to be asking questions of a more familiar sort. This doesn’t make them illegitimate questions. It does make them less than useful for exploring the premise of the column.

      • Long time readers of your columns are unlikely to have “missed the point entirely”. No, I didn’t address the main points of your column, but you invited the readers to address the broader issues in the comments. My point is that no matter whether questions are inverted or not, the choice of words one uses can (sometimes subtly) limit the concepts people use in their thinking and can influence the answers one gets.

        Means and ends are both important. Focusing solely on ends is like focusing on the IT system one would like without focusing on the cost. To focus on the “ends” of the healthcare debate without focusing on the limits to freedom that some of those ends necessarly entail is a conceptual optimization without paying attention to constraints. All other things being equal, “wealth shouldn’t influence access to healthcare” is a great answer. But all other things are not equal and inverting a question does not change that–sometimes it just more effectively hides the necessary connections to other factors.

  • Super questions! – 4 things:

    1. Require everyone acknowledge diversity within the organization.
    2. Require everyone obtain and maintain the knowledge and skill sets to acknowledge diversity (because diversity does come to most of us naturally.
    3. Require everyone follow the rules of the organization.
    4. Require everyone obtain and maintain the knowledge and skill sets to implement the rules efficiently.

    Model: The Golden State Warriors. The players are talented, but not the most talented; the coach is superb, but not necessarily the best coach; the owners are rich, but not the richest; the communication is…etc., etc.

    But, what they may be is the most skilled organization from silent owner through ball boy at following its rules, the NBA has ever seen. Thus, excellence seems to come naturally to them, because it is the natural result of the execution of the required skills to follow the rules of their organization.

    But, yes, a truly interesting column to start off the year with.

  • In the case of the CFO, most organizations grant limited ability to spend without oversight to (particularly) its officers (or managers or…). If the project is under the CFO’s limit, she doesn’t have to follow procedures. If it’s over, she does. That’s what the limit’s for.

    We had a guy who worked here who was very good at what he did, but he had a very volatile personality. We let him work here for a number of years, but eventually the cost of putting up with him (slowed everything down because nobody wanted to deal with him) got too high and he was terminated.

  • I’d rather address your IT related questions than the one about rich v poor…

    I think the rainmaker example has some material differences from the CFO and new CIO – ie being a rainmaker does not excuse you from rules of common courtesy and potentially causing lawsuits by violating HR rules that rainmaker may not even know exist. CFO and CIO examples are in the domains that those leaders are familiar with and being held accountable to. As you said CFO has already mentally worked through the process.

    On the other hand, we all have blinders when it comes to our own ideas. Sometimes external input is very helpful.

    Regardless, your final point about remembering the reasons we have the specific rules is right on! “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. or
    “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
    ? The Dalai Lama

  • As a telecommuting data analyst working mostly alone with tools of my choice while being employed by a huge company where there are plenty of rules, I have faced what I see as my own inverted questions: How much should I hew to the tried and true methods that are alive and well in acres of cubicles across the organization, vs accomplishing the task in an unorthodox but very effective way? How much freedom should I afford myself in this regard?

    In the “20% of the staff doing 80% of the work” contingent at my workplace, I note that this elite 20% often leave the rule book aside, or at least skip over a section now and then. I grapple with this often. As with so much else, it’s a matter of degree; usually I follow the rules, but sometimes….

    “There are reasons we have rules,” and I agree–even if some of them come from (cover your ears, some of you) the *government*. But there exists another equally trite phrase, “Rules are made to be broken.” Our current political leadership, for better or worse, appears to hold that second maxim dear. Applied in the right measure, with the right context, with the right people at the right time, breaking rules seems to work.

    As for the “rich v poor” issue, I always wonder, “how much is enough?”. The reliable, competent sales guy from whom I bought two Sears appliances over the same number of decades is losing his job with no severance while executives walk away with $25M packages. My own CEO earned my annual salary in the time it took to write this comment. (Yes, I’m going back to earning my keep in a couple of minutes. This was a break.)

    For Bob to ask the inverted question “what privileges should accompany wealth” is to invite an accusation of being (again, cover your ears) a *socialist*. But we do live with social security and socialized medic–err, I mean to say “Medicare”. Even the staunchest free marketeers I know support that. (They also happen to be over 65). With her proposal to return to raise taxes back to Eisenhower levels (that socialist!), is it fair to say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is simply asking, now from the floor of Congress, “What privileges should accompany wealth”?

  • This may be a bit contrarian but I don’t have a problem allowing some people more latitude with the rules. People with proven track records for effectiveness. People who have demonstrated time and again that they get things done and understand the impacts of their decisions and actions. I don’t advocate carte blanche and legal, ethical, and moral considerations should not be skirted. But a lot of rules are to keep those of us without deep insight from going down the rabbit hole. If the CFO has shown she knows how to avoid that, I would grant her some leeway.

    Jimmy Johnson once cut a player who had fallen asleep in a team meeting. He was asked how he would have handled that if it was Troy Aikman. He said something like: “I would go up to Troy and ask if nicely if he would mind waking up and paying attention.” He understood the difference between a future Hall Of Famer and a guy on the bubble for making special teams.

    BTW: The rainmaker would get some latitude too. But he still sounds like a jerk and if the rain ever stops falling he is going to find out how being a jerk can come around back on you.

  • I prefer the term “Selective Adherence”. As a manager of a web development team, I don’t accommodate it nor do I allow it. I could rationalize that poor performers seeing the good performers get a break occasionally may be encouraged to do better but I’ve not seen any evidence elsewhere to suggest it works.

    At my company in general, I see it all the time. Some positions can negotiate extra vacation at hire-on but others cannot. Some can get reimbursed for company use of personal phones but others cannot (even though they’re expected to answer after hours). And, in a literal parallel to your column here, the CFO suddenly has a project that takes precedence over all others even though the other sponsors have patiently gone through the Resource Planning process to get IT and other staff allocated to their projects.

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