Best practices

Lessons from the Iran Negotiations

Most of my work is with groups making decisions. Typically those are strategy decisions being made in uncertainty.

This week I was struck by the reporting of what resulted in a tentative nuclear deal between the rest of the world. It was painful, wrenching, intense, and eventually somewhat successful. In the months ahead more of the same will be necessary to put something in writing.

By U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the story I read from the New York Times:

There were several areas where pragmatists who deal with or participate in group dynamics and the best practices of decision-making could take lessons:

The resolution of the two sides to stay engaged was key. Both sides need a deal. Iran wants to relieve the oppressive burden of sanctions. The implications of an ability to produce nuclear weapons by a Shiite nation has driven fear to the top of the scale for Mideast nations, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, used a white board to track agreements and record problems and hurdles to overcome. Seems old school but an ability to put big print in front of groups is where I live. It’s essential. It also points up the need for somebody to be organized, to hold feet to fires, and to not let go until solutions emerge. One uses what works. In Sherman’s case it was brilliant. A failure to keep the group accountable would have led to failure.

The negotiation group also realized that artificial deadlines are a detriment to good decisions. The end of March deadline came from the Obama administration. The French pushed back. The wrangling will go on the months ahead but the spirit of the deal is there and came a bit after the imposed deadline.

It’s much the same when I work with strategy teams. In a couple of weeks one of my clients has an issue involving systemic risk that will involve painful and contentious discussions that have a long history in their region and organization. While I think we’ve set aside enough time, my goal is to have the big pieces of an agreement in place and let the word-smithing discussions to take place after contemplation. Important decisions can always benefit from a bit more time for consideration.

Learn what you can from Lausanne. Keep engaged. Keep organized. Have a driver in place that won’t lift eyes from the road to the goal. Work steadily and painfully, if necessary, toward agreement. Get creative. Don’t hesitate to extend deadlines when the goal is in sight.

Your Major is What?

A while back I observed that the most e-mailed story from the New York Times online edition was about the popularity of philosophy as a major at Rutgers and other universities. Philosophy majors and graduates doubled over the past five years. It’s a trend that is evident at other colleges and universities according to Winnie Hu, an education writer for the Times.
There are more colleges than ever before offering philosophy majors. In schools with well-known programs like UMass, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Texas A&M the number of majors has doubled just like Rutgers.
The attraction? Surprisingly pragmatic. Students say the major is equips them with tools for success.
David Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association says, “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking.”
That gets my attention as a futurist and it’s a parallel with the courses I teach in executive education sessions that target leaders at large companies. It identifies two of the most common shortcomings I see in those executives:
1. The lack of perspective for the big picture. Myopic expertise and a lack of awareness of how major forces are affecting their own functions, teams, and organization is too often present.
2. An obsession with quick and often reckless problem solutions and especially fast action when confronted with a challenge. An emphasis on speed over contemplation is a bad practice. But I see it again and again in corporate America and, too often recently, in our political decision-making.
We can all use a better grounding in the principles from philosophy.
Philosophy programs have changed over last couple of decades. Today the major is less about old texts and more about cutting edge, interdisciplinary fields like cognitive science. It’s often followed as a double major by students planning on careers in the law, medicine, finance, and even investments.
Students say philosophy has a couple of other attractions. It helps them make sense of the big questions that face society like globalization, the environment, war, and technological adoption. Even more pragmatically, it is a field that helps them with a set of skills that can be applied in the range of uncertainty that faces many graduates.
Want to be more valuable to your organization, your colleagues, your family, yourself? Build skills that help you make excellent decisions in uncertainty.