Why do we do things the way we do—health care, mortgages, credit/debt, US Senate rules, voting rules, foreign policy, and so on?

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done them,” comes the response, couched in educated certitude and embroidered into the fabric of the flag.

It’s why we require 60 votes to block a filibuster—that’s not a law, it’s just the way we’ve always done it. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in the 1890s) that changes to Senate rules could be achieved by a simple majority: “The constitution empowers each house to determine its rules of proceedings,” so we could change this old rule any time. We just have to decide to do it.

To question these things—for some—is sacrilege. Or worse. For others, to question the system seems daunting, complex, unpatriotic even. For yet others, questioning the status quo poses a serious threat to those who reap benefits from the way things are currently done.

But at a time when so many of our systems are on the brink of breaking, are breaking, and are already broken, some step-changes—not incremental ones—might offer the best solutions for our families and our nation.

I was raised in Canada and I remember when the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, led the country to break away from England in 1982. Before that, Canada was governed by a constitution that was a British law! That was a step-change.

Pierre Trudeau does a pirouette at Buckingham Palace five years before he breaks away from Britain.

There is no blanket answer that will solve all our problems. We will not unearth an economic or social panacea. Our economy is a vast system—not unlike Avatar’s bio-botanical neural network that Pandora’s Na’vi are connected to—interconnected not only from within but also to all other economies around the globe. We’re very interdependent today; we act alone at our peril.

Also, it is very possible (likely) some of our fundamental values and systems are fatally flawed (like Canada’s Constitution had become).

But short of a panacea, there is something each of us can do, which can have a large impact, and give us more understanding of the issues, and provide better control and focus to fix things for the long-term.

We can stop sniffing the horse’s ass!

Stop accepting the stock responses we give and get.

Roma!

The Horse’s Ass, in fact, was a key dimension in early Western vehicle design: In Rome, when chariots were the chassis of choice and horses were the state-of-the-art power-plant that pulled them, design was all about the width of the horse’s ass.

Note: Width of chariot's axle = width of horse's ass.

The question, though, is: Why do we still design vehicles the same width (almost exactly) today as we did two-thousand-plus years ago?

Watch:

You’re driving on a road today. It has ruts—made over time by the weight of trucks and cars, all of which were designed with a similar wheel-axle width.

But why that width?

Well because, of course, the roads were designed to accommodate that size, that’s why!

But why?

Well because, of course, before cars were invented those roads were carriage roads, and that’s how wide they were built, that’s why, silly!

But why?

Well because, of course, before carriages were invented for the masses the roads were used by Romans who rode in chariots, and they were that wide, that’s why, silly!

But why?

Well because, of course, Romans designed chariots to be pulled by a horse, silly, and they designed them as wide as—you guessed it—the horse’s ass, that’s why! (I’ve adapted the horse’s ass myth a little for poetic effect.)

A horse’s ass in the ointment

“Why do companies exist?” is a question we ask a lot in business school. And news reporters often ask it after a scandal breaks at a well-known firm, when evidence of “creative accounting,” or fraud, is brought to light.

In the final trimester of our 20-month EMBA—we’d built up to that lofty pinnacle by studying Organizational Behavior, Statistics, Finance, and Marketing first—our cohort studied “Strategy.”

Oooh. Ahhhhh!

Everyone in the class was excited to dig into the texts, read the cases, and discover enlightenment.

That weekend, as I finished Chapter One: Strategic Management: Creating Competitive Advantages, I found this little gem among the exercises and ethics questions at the end:

“A company focuses solely on short-term profits to provide the greatest return to the owners of the business (i.e., the shareholders in a publicly held firm). What ethical issues could this raise?”

Ah, great question, I thought. Finally we are getting to the good part.

I immediately started flipping through our strategy tome looking for the chapter that would address this question.

Baffled, I discovered the chapter did not exist.

Follow the horse’s ass

And we—collectively—beat up Corporate America for its failings, scandals, and that pesky 400-to-1 top-earner-to-bottom-earner salary ratio in many of our firms today.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some firms put caps on top earners. At Whole Foods, for example, “No one at the company can have a salary more than nineteen times what the average team member makes.”

Whatever else you might want to label Whole Food’s monetary reward practices, it is an example of the planned abandonment of the standard way of rewarding executives.

Whoa! as you would say to a horse when you want her to stop:

People who studied business texts lead our businesses today, so maybe we should draw a line from those leaders to another horse’s ass:

Maybe our business schools—our professors, committees, and chancellors—and the governments, corporations, and large publishers that subsidize them, are not ready to admit the textbooks we write and curricula we develop are too narrow (or wide) for the global road we’re on.

Why do companies exist?

A business student will always answer, “It depends.”

But if you ask your own children, or a small-business owner, or someone from a different country, the answers will have something to do with customers and their needs and wants.

So now customers are part of the value chain of the horse’s ass.

We (customers) save our hard-earned money to put little Jenny into the very best schools our money can buy. The ones—that’s right—that are teaching the wrong stuff at the wrong time to the wrong generation to solve the wrong problems.

Uhg!

It’s difficult to change a horse’s ass, but you may change horses if you like

Peter Drucker (1909-2005)—a writer and business management professor—developed the notion of “planned abandonment,” by observing how business and government tend to cling to “yesterday’s success” rather than seeing and accepting when something no longer works well.

Peter Drucker...planned abandonment.

Peter Drucker...planned abandonment.

It’s easy to understand why we “cling to yesterday’s success:” It takes time to build a company, a country, and an economy. It takes massive investment—of capital and human resources—and deep commitment.

When we finally build something and really get it humming along with a good revenue growth curve, or GDP, it’s hard to say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t any good any more; let’s change it!”

Yet the pace of change in the world is unprecedented today, across all dimensions: From 1986 to ’96 China had the second highest economic growth in the world (11.4%), but from 1996 to ’06 seven new countries had even higher growth than China; and there’s Moore’s law, which describes the long-term trend of how computer processing speed and memory capacity doubles every two years, driving more, newer, and faster changes in society, enabling new kinds of change, powered by social media, micro-loans, and global economies; and we are using our natural resources faster than ever as more nations emerge as buyers and sellers in the global marketplace.

Planned abandonment is about seeing, accepting, and doing something about the situation, rather than giving—and/or accepting—a Horse’s Ass answer, taking a Horse’s Ass approach, and becoming a Horse’s Ass.

When your gut tells you there’s a Horse’s Ass standing in front of you, don’t just stand there: Put on protective eyewear and call, “Horse’s Ass!”

If you don’t, you may as well be looking in a mirror.

© 2009 John Dila

Advertisements