Blame and Ban, Easy and Satisfying

Blame and Ban, Easy and Satisfying: Going deeper than “darn right”, by Mark Chussil

The three words that begin the next paragraph are three words that I never thought I’d use to begin any paragraph, let alone one offering strategy advice for businesses feeling their way through the financial crisis of our times. Mind you, the three words merely begin the paragraph. They are not advice in themselves, which we’ll get to later.

Governor Sarah Palin was asked in the vice presidential debate who was to blame for the subprime lending crisis. She answered, “Darn right it was the predator [sic] lenders.”

There’s a lesson there for business strategists, and for politicians. A lesson we can use to help us move forward. However, the lesson has nothing to do with predators, lenders, lending, crises, or governors. It has to do with solving problems effectively.

Say we blame the predatory lenders. If you’re a predatory lender, consider yourself blamed. Problem solved? Not exactly, although we did get to enjoy some righteous indignation.

Say we blame the predatory lenders and throw them in jail and/or confiscate their ill-gotten gains. Problem solved? Not yet, although we might add a few pennies (relative to the size of the crisis) to our righteous indignation.

Say we blame the predatory lenders and ban predatory lending. Problem solved? It depends. It depends on whether predatory lenders and lending were the problem, or at least enough of the problem that a ban would solve the problem. It depends also on whether “solved” means undoing pain already suffered or preventing future pain.

As easy and satisfying as it is to explore blame and ban, that isn’t the point. The point is about identifying the problem and its potential solutions. If we see predatory lending as the problem, we will contemplate action, and perhaps take action, about predatory lending.

Tangent: Note that the ease and satisfaction of doing something quick and clear — blame, ban, etc. — is part of the problem. (I haven’t read this book yet but I like the title: Don’t Jump to Solutions, by William B. Rouse.) End of tangent.

But blaming predatory lending, on-target as it may be, begs another question. Where does predatory lending come from? What if it’s due to human nature? What if it’s implicitly encouraged by lax rules? What if it’s the result of greed on the part of lenders, bosses, or investors? What if it comes from more than one of those sources? What’s the problem we want to solve? Different options.

And those explanations beg other questions. Where did lax rules come from? A sincere belief that deregulation works best, a surrender to lobbyists and campaign donors, a decision (perhaps purposeful, perhaps not) to ignore danger signs, an inability of human beings to anticipate every way that deregulation can be exploited? Different options again.

Tangent: in “Name That EconomyJacob Weisberg identifies no fewer than 14 variations on capitalism and other economic models, each designed (intentionally or not) to solve particular problems. End of tangent.

In business and in government we make decisions about the decisions we’ll make. In other words, we decide first on what the problem is, and then we decide what to do about the problem. We humans like to solve problems, and we like action: we reward action without thought more than we reward thought without action. And so we are prone to speed through the first decision, especially because the problem may seem so darn-right obvious, and jump to the second.

My point is not that there is a single right choice for that first decision and that our job is to find it. After all, options for the what’s-the-problem decision for a bank on the brink of insolvency are probably narrower than those for a technology company, a toy company, or a shipping company wondering about market demand.

My point is that we must make our first decision — the one where we choose the problem we want to solve — well, especially because the issues we face today are so complex and consequential for the world banking system, corporations’ ability to compete, and families’ financial futures. It’s essential that we think rigorously, guarding against deceptively easy and satisfying assumptions. Watch out for “either-or” thinking, unsupported or ideological “it’s obvious” statements, and blaming a single cause for complex problems.

It’s not all bad, far from it. As I said in my essay “A Dark and Stormy Night,” you have an opportunity to make great strategy decisions. Turmoil can give you a chance to distinguish your business (and yourself) from your competitors. The good news about a crisis is that leaders find people receptive to change. What if you think not only about how to “get through” the current crisis? What if you think about how to build customer loyalty, strike up new partnerships, revisit your business model, or redefine your business? Darn right there are major benefits to probing, to creative debate, to looking through different glasses, and to asking what if.

I wish to acknowledge Jay Russo and Paul Schoemaker, whose excellent books Decision Traps and Winning Decisions taught me about key points about “framing” decisions that I made here. If you like what I wrote, please give them credit; if you don’t like what I wrote, please blame me.

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Thanks for writing this.