Pictured above: Karen Winterich, Professor of Marketing, Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow, Smeal College of Business and Alicyn Rhoades, Associate Professor of Engineering, Plastics Engineering Technology, Penn State Behrend at Materials Day 2019
Many speak about the need to look at problems from many perspectives in order to solve them.
The recent impeachment hearings are an attempt to understand a problem from multiple angles. But this kind of facing off tends to entrench views rather than entwine them. Conferences, workshops and summits are another attempt as they feature "expert panels". But this kind of facing out--differing views expressed outwardly to an audience--populates a room with perspectives but doesn't force them together. If molecular hydrogen and oxygen aren't allowed to react together, you never get water. It's the combination that matters, the soup of ideas stirred together with the right amount of heat.
“The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”
― Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation
The multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary view is actually key to solving our world's toughest problems. This can take three different forms which I call: facing off, facing out and facing in.
We won't hang out here for very long, but "facing off" is when multiple perspectives come with minds closed, swords drawn, and pre-written Twitter posts with thumbs hovering over the "send" button. We approach with self-righteousness and a lack of curiosity. The current impeachment hearings are an easy example. When perspectives "face off" in this manner, it reinforces tribalism and hardens the walls and defenses, keeping us from our best selves and best solutions.
This is what we often see at conferences (at least those I am familiar with). People with differing opinions are on a panel in a stuffy conference room in the city of Anywhere. They are trying to keep people's attention on them and off their phones. There is a moderator who attempts to weave together strands of discussion into a garland of new insights while inviting a few audience members to grand stand with perhaps one or two actually asking a poignant question.
I applaud these attempts to entertain differing perspectives but they don't create the catalytic force needed to merge ideas. Panel discussions can be a necessary and appropriate way to explore an issues from differing perspectives.
The issue is simply that "facing out" isn't enough in order to generate new thinking and new action-taking.
In 1989 Barbara Gray, Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior at Smeal, wrote Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. In it she wrote:
"Finding creative solutions in a world of growing interdependence requires envisioning problems from perspectives outside our own."
-Barbara Gray, Smeal Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior
Lately I have been reading Gray's latest book Collaborating For Our Future which she co-authored with Jill Purdy, Executive Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at University of Washington - Tacoma. I have been reading about collaboration because our new Center for the Business of Sustainability will increasingly feature collaborations of many kinds and between many different groups. This is an area for not just our own practice but an area where we might also be able to help others.
What if the center had expertise not just in content (research and teaching the business of sustainability) but in method (collaboration)? What would be required of us to genuinely practice and build expertise in collaboration? What kinds of events and programs would we organize?
As we wrestle with these questions, I keep thinking of facing in: moving beyond panel discussions to roundtables and small, diverse work teams, and even longer-term multi-stakeholder partnerships.
A recent foray into collaboration gave me a clue as to what is possible. At Materials Day 2019, we worked with the Materials Research Institute to convene a panel of experts to explore plastics from across three disciplines: marketing, engineering and chemistry.
The Materials Day panel was outstanding and I was humbled by the expertise of the panelists:
Karen Winterich, Professor of Marketing, Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow, Smeal College of Business
Alicyn Rhoades, Associate Professor of Engineering, Director of AREC-USA, Plastics Engineering Technology, Penn State Behrend
Enrique Gomez, professor of chemical engineering
The audience was equally impressive and represented large companies, smaller research groups, faculty and students.
The discussion only scratched the surface, but showed what is possible: the intersecting of ideas that usually turn in separate orbits beginning to challenge conventional trajectories of thought and action. When a marketer becomes more aware of deep challenges in polymer science and an engineer about the vagaries of consumer behavior, old assumptions shift and new questions arise. It became evident that understanding and addressing issues associated with plastics could not possibly be done in isolation. That was a win. However, the panel also showed me that it is relatively easy to convene a panel, to allow a great discussion to feel like action.
I longed to break the room into small, diverse work teams and give them the afternoon to work on solutions (policy solutions, technical solutions, consumer engagement solutions, supply chain solutions) and bring them together at the end of the day. But all that potential was left unrealized. We broke for coffee and snacks and headed to the next session.
Facing out as a panel was easy. I am indebted to the panelists and the Materials Day team. It was indeed a great discussion. But I was left wondering what might be possible if we went beyond the discussion: facing in and working together, challenging each others' views, prototyping new solutions, and testing them with customers and other stakeholders?
After all, what is needed for our most wicked problems is enough force to shift something off its axis, to "change the equilibrium" in the words of Roger L. Martin and Sally R. Osberg from the Skoll Foundation. in their book Beyond Better about social entrepreneurship. This requires, according to Martin and Osberg, a profound understanding of the problem and clear vision for what is possible. These are things not easily won. They must be wrought out of considerable dedicated and consistent effort over time.
What might be possible if we went beyond the discussion: facing in and working together, challenging each others' views, prototyping new solutions, and testing them with customers and other stakeholders?
In closing, this week we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. In many homes, different generations and perspectives and stories will sit together. We can learn a lot about collaboration from Thanksgiving.
In Barbara Gray's new book, she is emphatic that simply intending to work together does not guarantee success. Be warned, she seems to say, collaboration is tough work! Gray says that achieving collaboration requires "generating an appreciation for the diversity of viewpoints that multiple parties bring to a problem (or opportunity) and, at the same time, corralling and channeling this diversity into problem solutions that all parties can accept."
I suggest Thanksgiving can give us clues on how to achieve this blend of appreciation (of views) and direction (toward a solution).
Thanksgiving includes food, attendees are bound together (through family), sitting in circles, playing games, sharing food, and doing this every year (commitment over time). Collaboration to address our world's toughest challenges will require no less than what we see at Thanksgiving:
I see a future where the center hosts unique kind of events--many in person but online as well--where people come together in refreshingly creative and incredibly productive ways.
We might just become known NOT as "thought leaders"--an increasingly empty term that has had a nice run--but as "action leaders" or "results leaders" with collaboration as the way we work.