Why Our Government and Schools Are Doomed

Despite all the talk of Government 2.0 and transparency, is it really possible to change the current system from within to tackle the challenges of our day? Perhaps not. One leading expert has expressed serious doubts.

We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. – Abraham Lincoln, Address to Congress, December 1862

Why is it that we seem completely ill-equipped to handle the central issues of our time? I believe it is because we misunderstand the nature of design and execution and in important, tangible ways we have abandoned design in favor of only execution. This has removed an important weapon from our arsenal, and it is unclear that we can afford to live in our world without it.

Design vs. Execution

What do I mean by Design (big D) in the context of government? The founding fathers were designers. They set out to imagine a governmental mechanism that would outlive them and ensure the core values that they held dear. So, in a real sense the American constitution (and all such similar instruments) is a design object, and executing against it produces a variety of effects. Most of these effects are positive (free speech, equal protection, etc), while some are negative (a silly disproportionate influence of corporations in politics, corporate personhood).

Execution, by contrast, is the everyday operating of the governmental machine as it was designed. This includes the daily activity of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, and the like. Sometimes these entities engage in design behavior (making laws, interpreting them, creating policy, setting precedent by imprisoning people without trial) but mostly they do the quotidian business of government: services, revenue collection, law enforcement.

Our government is now 234 years old. Is it possibly time to reconsider some of its basic precepts? Could we possibly engage in new, first-principles design work that would alleviate some of the most undesirable effects of our system?

Arguments Against New Design Activity

James Fallows in a recent article in The Atlantic suggests that the cumulative corrosion of so many special interests on the machine of government has brought it to a standstill. He suggests that it may be time for something like a new Constitutional Convention, but points out that any attempt to conduct such a convention would be a freak-show of unprecedented proportion, and he’s probably right. If you think the special interests are bad now, wait til you give them an opportunity to participate in a founding document!

In the state of Maryland, every 20 years we have the opportunity to vote to have a constitutional convention. This year is one of those years. But while some are calling for such a convention, most politicians consider it “an exercise in futility,” citing cost as the key factor. Why cost? Because so many people would need to be involved.

But this is surely a bad state of affairs. The Maryland constitution is huge, much bigger than the US Constitution, a burden on everyone that has to execute against it, and loaded with unintended effects. Yet, the critics are probably right: if we approach our design activities with the same appeal to the lowest common denominator as we have our execution activity, a new design would be a circus.

Fallows and Maryland Senate President Mike Miller both suggest that we plod along with our broken foundations because it is the only moral thing to do and even though we may have a tough time executing our way out of our design shortcomings.

Gaining Clarity About Design vs. Execution

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about how our educational system is broken, and at the end I cited several bullet points suggesting “core values” for the design of a new system.

Several people shot back in the comments with ways in which the current system does embrace some of the core values that I suggested, at least some of the time.

And it has struck me: we’re talking about two different things. I was talking about a new, imagined design. Some people thought I was talking about how the current system needed to change its execution. Those are two very different things and it began to dawn on me: our historic aversion to new design activity has caused us to push Design Thinking out of our political debate entirely.

Today, all political debate is around execution (activity) and not design (legacy).

We Must Disenthrall Ourselves

Lincoln said it best in 1862. We must disenthrall ourselves; disenthrall ourselves with the strengths of our system’s design, and disenthrall ourselves with the notions of the past. In order to move past where we are, we need to engage in new, imaginative design thinking and do something with it.

While new constitutional conventions are probably not the most productive approach, we must make ourselves open again to talking about design activity and understand the difference between execution and design. We must try to understand how we can conduct design activity through execution of our current system, and we must gain clarity about the limits of that prospect.

It is entirely possible that we cannot meaningfully affect the design of our system by execution alone; we may need to appoint some Great People to revise our system in a way that we all can live with. While this is a frightening thought when considered from inside the confines of our current government, it may well be necessary.

Jefferson anticipated this conundrum and believed occasional revolution would be necessary. Can we prove that we’ve learned something from his design and rise to the challenge of repairing it without bloodshed?

Thanks to Sir Ken Robinson, from whom I stole this very apropos Lincoln quote which he cited in his recent talk at TED 2010.

Design for Behavior: Part 1

The First Church of American Business teaches that virtue accrues from execution, and that the ability to manage big, complex to-do lists either personally or via delegation is the key to getting ahead in business.

From there it also holds that competition is all about having and managing longer and more complex to-do lists, and beating out the other guy who’s presumably doing the same thing. Books with titles like “Execution,” “Getting Things Done,” and the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” depict the business world as a crazy-making self-perpetuating scheme of testosterone-fueled competition, which ultimately aims to canonize its Saints the way the sports world does its highest trophy winners.

Business book writers have it particularly easy; they go back and look for the “winners” of this apparent competition (Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt) and assign them all manner of superhuman qualities. Occasionally they come across somebody who somehow managed to get on top without shaming (and presumably out-executing) all of his or her peers, and they shrug in disbelief and assume that they must have “the vision thing” and canonize the schmuck anyway; the last thing the high priests of productivity would want to admit was that they didn’t see someone coming.

My deepest wish is to go back to 1960 or 1985 (maybe both) and gouge out the eyes of these practitioners with their own tassel loafers. We’ve seen how this all worked out; this approach to business has led us to the only place it could: a testosterone-fueled sham of an economy.

Certainly execution is important. But in the rush to assign virtue to execution itself, we’ve lost sight of what it is we’re executing – that “vision thing.”

Design is the most important force for good in the world today. Overstated? I don’t think so. Design indicates intent. I believe humanity has good intentions for the world; therefore I believe that design is the way in which we will manifest those good intentions.

Many people are confused about what design is. They confuse it with industrial design (iPod, Beetle, Aeron Chairs) or graphic design (packaging, advertising, marketing, websites), or simply assume it’s one of those “art things” that they don’t have to worry about because they didn’t study it in business school.

But in fact, people design things every day. We are all designers of our lives. In the simplest choices, we are signaling our intentions about how we want to interact with the world and sending subtle cues about the kinds of interactions we desire.

Getting good at design is a little bit like becoming a Jedi master – it comes from a place inside where less is more and where silence is more powerful than sound.  It’s about looking for the reasons why something will work rather than the ways it might fail. It’s about finding the line, the melody, the art, the poetry in mundane transactional details and teasing it out to make it serve you. It’s tough to explain, but over the next few days, I’ll be reviewing some recent, unconventional examples of design in my own experience.

Design is all about executing a small number of the right tasks.