What We Can Do About the Milwaukee Malaise

by rthieme on February 1, 2013

The Milwaukee Malaise – What We Can Do About It

by Richard Thieme

Published online (jsonline.com) by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in response to responses to The Milwaukee Malaise   February 1 2013

To call for systemic change when our culture – like all cultures – resists change with all its heart and soul is arguably a fool’s errand. But when the risks of not engaging in creative change in intentional, focused ways are as daunting as they are in a world of perpetual change, the risks of engagement are less than the risks of hunkering down. The rate of change itself is accelerating as the IT revolution sustains change in many other areas – biotech, nanotech, materials science, space technologies, transportation – to an unprecedented degree.

Hence this response to the many responses to my op ed on “The Malaise of Milwaukee” on January 27.

The most spirited rebuttal came from Tim Sheehey of the MMAC. I found myself nodding in agreement with many things he wrote – there are dedicated people in Milwaukee, which I never denied, including both of us, doing everything we can to make a positive difference in our collective life. There are creative thinkers and bold actors like Howard Fuller and others who stand out in his list of names.

But they are exceptions that prove the rule. That they stand out is precisely the point. In a culture like the ones, for example, in Silicon Valley, Austin Texas, or Boston, there is such a matrix of creative people and bold actors that they do not stand out. The culture itself supports and generates them, and it is the culture itself – the matrix of values, incentives, and rewards and the actions and behaviors it mandates – that many of us have concluded lacks the leadership, vision, and incentives to bootstrap itself into new ways of thinking and new possibilities for meaningful action.

Sheehey names some of the trees, in other words, while I am speaking about the forest. What he calls a “broad brush approach” is, less pejoratively, the Big Picture, the very thing that Robert Galvin, in my example of how one might inflect behaviors and therefore the culture of a large company, addressed so effectively.

So let me suggest what other responders requested, some things we might do to create a context for creativity and innovation.

(1) The “vision thing” is essential. “Without a vision, the people perish,” and the shared vision called for by Ellen Gilligan of the GMC is needed to “true us up,” as a means of accountability to our goals and intentions.

(2) That vision must be articulated clearly and repeatedly. During times of change, anxiety is a natural response. Fritz Perls, the father of gestalt therapy, said that excitement is anxiety plus oxygen.  Our fears can be transformed by the continuous statement of the positive outcomes we intend. Nothing else penetrates the force field of “I can’t hear you” that anxiety and fear create.

Why IS change so difficult? Because a strategy of generalization, quick conclusions and not-changing often works. To simplify our view of the world and hold it against evidence to the contrary has helped people survive. Better to be wrong – it was a branch snapping in the wind, not a tiger – than be eaten

What does leadership look like in such a context? A friend who kayaks in raging rivers said, “When you look at the rocks you hit the rocks. But when you look at where the water flows, you go where the water flows.”

Leadership is seeing clearly and saying clearly where the water flows. People will know the truth when they hear it and be grateful to go where the water goes.

My friend also said, after practicing karate and mistakenly hurting a friend one night who tapped his shoulder, “Make sure that what you practice is what you want to do, because what you do when you don’t have time to think is what you have practiced.”

(3) These thoughts lead to the three-legged stool which I believe supports all successful organizations. mutuality, feedback, and accountability.

Mutuality means learning, working, and acting in concert, because we can’t do it alone, Business or labor, government or private citizens, any single niche alone will skew toward the self-interest and distortions of its members. Cross-talk broadens the perspective.

Feedback must increase in the face of radical change. Feedback loops inside any system and from that system to other systems calibrate our plans to what is really happening. Since what is happening is rapidly changing, more and more feedback is needed  to align our path with our ultimate intentions, like sailors tacking back and forth across the wind.

Accountability requires frequent alignment of our actions to our clearly stated intentions and goals. Without it, we drift. A minor difference in direction if left uncorrected can result in being many miles off course.

(4) We can face courageously the fact that our culture – mostly rooted in eastern and northern European immigration. although changing as American changes –  has assimilated us like the Borg in Star Trek and deeply influences our choices and behaviors, often unconsciously. That’s just how cultures are. Margaret Mead said it took her a full year to learn as much in a new culture as she learned in a week because of unconscious assimilation  This means:

(5) We MUST listen to “outsider” voices because they see our culture in ways we cannot. Robert Galvin said that when a group gathered to discuss a challenge, if it agreed at once on a solution, it was always wrong. That’s because the solution was a jigsaw puzzle piece that fit the collective groupthink that had developed in the past. Note that this insight – and its corollary, that all breakthrough ideas that changed Motorola for the better began as minority opinions – came from a legendary businessman who knew his stuff.

Therefore we must build in an openness to heresy. All great ideas, as G. B. Shaw said, begin as blasphemies.

(6) All of this suggests a multiplicity of approaches must be used, not just one. We continue with mobilization of what already exists – the  GMC, the MMAC, artistic organizations, non-profits, political leaders. But that won’t be enough. We need alternative routes, too. Lincoln said, when you come to a stump in the field, plow around it. We need heterodox approaches powered by people who do not exercise “structural authority” currently. Organization, the canny use of powerful technologies (as the Obama campaign illustrated), the willingness to believe –bear fruit.

(7) It begins and ends with reality – the courage and will to look at what’s happening “out there” as well as “in here.”

And what is reality? Reality, said Philip K. Dick, is that which, when we stop believing in it, refuses to go away. New global structures – meta-national corporations, dissolving boundaries, new forms of warfare, technological engines that redefine human identity, political  realities that require us to stop using the frames of the twentieth century as if they alone persist – make up that reality. Only the incorporation of everything we learn in cross-disciplinary ways will enable us to forge a future for the city we love with intentionality and power.



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