What’s the solution for solving the health care mess? Global warming? The economy? OK, these are bad examples, obviously if we knew, and if it were that easy, they’d be solved. But the question I want to ask is, why do we wait to tackle our problems until they are so complicated, so messy, so escalated that they require Herculean efforts?
This past summer I read Paul Tough’s book Whatever it Takes about Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, an integrated set of preschool, afterschool and charter school programs designed to end the cycle of poverty in Harlem by closing the achievement gap between black and white school children. Now there is a complicated, messy and escalated problem. Billions of dollars and decades of programs have done virtually nothing to successfully close that gap.
Tough spent five years shadowing Canada, learning everything there was to learn about the achievement gap between black and white students. He (and Canada) found that the achievement gap begins when they are infants. By the time a child enters pre-school, at the age of 3, the gains white middle class babies have made and the disadvantages poor, black students have accrued are enough to create an irreversible condition. The only solution is the earliest possible intervention – and Canada begins before birth- with Baby College, a 9 week course for expectant mothers, many of them unwed teenagers.
Canada is having great success, but unfortunately such early interventions are the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, when I am asked to solve conflicts, the scenario presented is way past the point of a sensible intervention. Many of the conflicts I am asked to facilitate have very simple beginnings, often involving one or two people. Yet when I step in, it has escalated to the point where dozens of people are involved, retaliation and revenge have entered the picture, aggression and hostility rule the day, and no one even remembers how it all began.
Finding the right time and place to intervene is key. People routinely ignore or marginalize difficulties; we set our pain point way too high. By the time we seek help for problems, they require triage. Intervening at the most symptomatic and escalated stage of a conflict means throwing enormous amounts of resources at the problem which doesn’t solve the problem; at best, it just reduces its most visible symptoms.
While people are at fault for not ringing the alarm bell sooner, helpers, facilitators, and consultants are equally complicit in maintaining this dynamic. Rushing in to save the day is heroic and thrilling. Leaders are lured by the opportunity to be a hero. We like heroes; we equate real leadership with big heroic and dramatic acts. But this keeps the cycle going, leading to escalated problems, passive and disempowered followers, and solutions that require heroic, but ultimately unsustainable solutions. Leadership should be a subtle business, not only a dramatic and heroic one. As Lao Tzu says, to see things in the seed, that is true genius.