Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Where Democracy Is Still Potent

Recently during a public hearing in southwestern North Carolina, the head of the state association for outdoor billboards tried to argue that North Carolina was a safer and better place in the 1970s when it didn’t have roadside trees.

Of course that wasn’t the case, but his point was that cutting down all of the trees along the state’s roadways and especially around billboards would make them safer.  Of course, that isn’t true either.  Current setbacks for trees along roadsides have long been calibrated based on meticulous safety research.

However, those who might fall for this faulty reasoning, which unfortunately may include far too many legislators coupled with copious amounts of campaign donations, might be surprised to learn that it was proven at the dawn of motorized vehicles that cutting down roadside vegetation actually made roadways less safe.

This phenomenon was first observed in the English countryside where early roadways were often lined on both sides by very tall hedgerows.  However, when the hedges were lowered, it was found that drivers then increased speeds and drove more recklessly because they “felt safer.”

Andrew Zolli, co-author with Ann Marie Healy of the 2012 book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, included that tidbit in a presentation recently.  He also shared findings that when bicyclists wear helmets they may wisely be protected from the occasional fall but the fact is that when they wear one, drivers feel they can move closer to bicyclists at higher speeds increasing the likelihood of accidents.

Zolli is the executive director and curator for a fascinating organization known as PopTech, a collaboration of social innovators and scientists dedicated to investigating, prototyping and growing social innovations and breakthroughs.

In my opinion, at heart he is a futurist.  In a recent presentation Zolli noted that one reason we’re so lousy at predicting the future is a condition he calls “novelty bias.”  When we think long term, we take what is newest and make it the dominant feature of the future.

We’re doing that now with many technologies.  Today smartphones and tablets are toppling desktops and laptops but that doesn’t mean they won’t be just as rapidly toppled.  Thinking long term means looking beyond today.

Zolli notes that we have a tendency to focus too much attention on fast-moving threats such as terrorism, and not on far more powerful slow-moving threats such as climate change.

For instance, he cites that we’re spending trillions on the 1 in 28 million chance we’ll be impacted by an act of terrorism but zilch on the 1 in 6 chance we’ll be impacted by climate change.

Too often this misdirection is fueled by media frenzies that give us very unrealistic expectations.

The same phenomena can be fueled by social media such as neighborhood listservs.  On one level they can provide a useful heads up on suspicious activity, but on other levels they amplify and recirculate alarm to the point that many subscribers tune out just when they should be tuning in.

In organizations of every size you can see “novelty bias” undermining strategic thinking both at the management and board governance levels.  As Dr. Michael Porter argues, ninety-five percent of executives are too focused on operational effectiveness.

Governing boards often spend far too much time on compliance and not enough on strategic thinking.  This results in what Porter cautions is trying to mimic and then best the competition.

Truly strategic thinking should lead them instead to “compete to be unique.”

I find it disingenuous that many of the people who trash government regulation as ineffective are adherents of the ideology that has gutted its capacity over the last forty years.

But I agree with Zolli that regulations often become far too complex to be effective, primarily made that way, in my experience, by lobbyists who continue to pollute the regulatory process on behalf of special interests long after the legislative mandate.

A wry example Zolli gives is that BP had stringent rules for being careful with the handling of coffee while something obviously wasn’t working as intended with higher risk requirements such as proper capping of wells.

Regulations need to be more nimble and resilient to be effective and that starts with far more adequate enforcement by executive branches at every level. Regulations must also protect the process from legislative and special interest meddling.

Strategic thinking begins with executives and governing boards being aligned on the true purpose of the organization.  This isn’t, as the authors of Can’t Buy Me Like argue, just a mission or vision statement.

Purpose has more to do with intent.  Who is served?  How are lives touched and improved?  What is the organization’s ethos or character?  Purpose according to the authors is the core that informs every move.  It isn’t just about marketing.  In fact, they point out that an organization’s true purpose may never show up in its marketing.

If as consumers we only valued organizations, brands and products with passion, maybe we wouldn’t need regulations.  The author of Red Thread Thinking defines passion as drive connected to the heart of what the organization is all about.

Since the 1980s, anti-government partisans have largely gutted the effectiveness of regulations.  Today their work perverts true democracy by demonstrating that six people for whom only a few of us were permitted to cast ballots can thwart things supported by 90% of Americans or North Carolinians.

However, we are not powerless.  There are companies such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, that even as meat inspection has been eviscerated, has firmly stood for “food with integrity” and a core purpose illustrated by the commercial at this link and in this article in Onearth magazine about the pork growers who inspired it.

A tool I use and hope to help improve by factoring in companies that use desecration marketing such as outdoor billboards is GoodGuide which is most useful in the form of a smartphone app.

It ranks companies, brands and products by a 1 to 10 scale for how they treat society, health and the environment.

This is where true democracy can still  be potent.

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