Monday, June 7, 2010

A Lesson Learned at Reunion

Last week I went back to college--but just for reunion. But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot just by going to college.

One of my class's speakers was Bud Alpert. Bud's a doctor out in the Bay Area; what he talked about was his experience going into Iraq one week after the fall of Baghdad (and the famous fall of the Saddam statue) to help organize and teach Iraqi docs how to upgrade and modernize their care.

He passed on a couple of remarkable lessons.

The first was that Catch-22 is alive and well.

Here's what that means.

According to Bud's experience, the only way the U.S. policy makers could possibly devise a sensible policy for U.S. involvement in Iraq, is to meet with real people and find out what they think, what they want, how they feel. (To do that, Bud says, go to 4H's: hospitals, houses (coffee houses, houses of worship), homes, and hair salons.) U.S. policy forbids U.S. policy makers from going out and meeting with real people. They are thereby forbidden by policy from doing the one thing they need to do to make sound policy.

Sounds like a Lewis Black routine!

But when I thought about it, it explained more than our ill-advised adventure in Iraq. It explained the debacle on Wall Street: as long as the traders didn't have to think about the actual real life consequences of their financial adventures, they could continue selling garbage--because no real people's lives were being destroyed.

It explains how so many corporations explain away their environmental and social disasters--they never saw the people whose lives were being ruined, they never visited the waterways, the forests, the fields that were being destroyed.

It explains how political leaders blithely vote for measures that harm real people but reward interchangeable lobbyists: they see the lobbyists, they never see the real people.

We live in a society, an economy, where things are getting more and more attenuated. Where connections are distant or non-existent; where creating a financial time bomb has no more meaning that playing a video game; where you never have to see the real consequences of your self-serving choices.

Leaders think their time is too valuable to waste rubbing shoulders with real people; corporate jets and limos, appointment books and private elevators are reality buffers.

Bud was talking about Iraq and policy on the ground there.

But he could have been talking about corporate policy, university policy, any policy that emanates from an organization that has gotten so big, its head is in the sky and its feet no longer touch the ground.

Want to know what's really going on? What makes sense for your company, your organization, your career: go visit a hospital, a coffee house or house of worship, the home of an average person, or a hair salon.

Your feet will be back on the solid earth in no time flat.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb