During the difficult days of World War II, one of the most popular songs on everyone’s lips was an up-beat, optimistic, “sunny-side-of-the-street” tune by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer called Accentuate the Positive. Introduced by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in the 1944 movie, Here Come the Waves, it was sung in the style of a sermon preaching that the path to happiness would be found by emphasizing the positive side of life.
Here are the words to the first stanza:You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don’t mess with Mr. InBetween.
Who could disagree?
Accentuate the positive? Yes, of course! Eliminate the negative? Make it happen! Latch on to the affirmative? Go for it! Don’t mess with Mr. InBetween? Sounds good, but wait a minute, not so fast…. Not messing with Mr. InBetween turns out to be not such a good idea. Why? Because “InBetween” is where most of our most serious problems can be found. Most of the problems that trouble us, that stop us from moving toward our goals, that interfere with good relationships, that insure the persistence of dysfunctional teams, that lead to failures in business and in government, are right there with Mr. InBetween:
- In between our good intentions and the consequences of our actions;
- In between what I think is the problem and what you think it is;
- In between our stated values, and what how we actually act;
- In between what we know we should do and what we end up doing;
- In between my thinking you are responsible for the problem, and you thinking that I am.
- In between what we say we will do and what we actually do.
It is only by getting acquainted with “Mr. InBetween” that we can come to understand what the problems really are, and then decidewhat we can do about them.
T. S. Eliot, in his poem The Hollow Men, was aware of the importance of “in-between” places. His metaphor of ” Shadow” focuses our attention there:
Between the idea
and the reality
Between the motion
and the act
Falls the Shadow
Between the conception
and the creation
Between the emotion
and the response
Falls the Shadow
The “Shadow” is that dark unknown place – between what we imagine we will do and what we actually do, between the “the motion and the act,” between the “conception and the creation,” between our feelings and our responses, – where we find many of our problems. If we want to see improvements, then we must move into the “Shadow,” make sense of what we find there, and then decide what to do. It’s in Eliot’s Shadow that Mr. InBetween lives!
The idea of “in-between” suggests the existence of a Gap, that space, large or small, between where we are and where we want to be. As I have suggested before, adopting Gap Language is one of our best opportunities of understanding and defining problems. We frequently use the term”Gap” to signal the presence of difficult and important problems: The Gender Gap, the Achievement Gap, the Diversity Gap, the Income Gap, the Education Gap, to mention only a few.
Two of the most troublesome Gaps are The Knowing-Doing Gap and The Not Knowing -Doing Anyway Gap. The Knowing-Doing Gap is where we know what needs to be done, or what we should do, but we don’t do it. Even more problematic is The Not Knowing-Doing Anyway Gap, where we don’t know what to do, but go ahead and do something anyway! These gaps are the territory of Mr. InBetween, and unless we are willing to get down and dirty and”mess” with him, we have little chance of narrowing these Gaps and making things better.
Structure Trumps Good Intentions Every Time
Everyone wants to see their problems get solved, yet frequently we do not go beyond our good intentions. If we are serious about addressing problems, our good intentions are not enough. Too often people say, ”Yes, of course we need to do something with this problem, and we will. So let’s all do the best that we can,” and let it go at that. Vague intentions not only don’t help, they may make things worse by creating unrealistic expectations. What is needed to “mess with Mr. InBetween” is to get into the Shadow and wrestle with the problems that reside there. And success over time in this wrestling match requires structure: It is only through a well-executed sequence of planned and tested activities that will actually lead to change.
Here are two excellent examples from the business world:
GE’s Work Out:
First, a brief definition of the GE Work Out:
GE Work Out is an internal process with clear rules and procedures for identifying, naming, and addressing the most important organizational problems by involving the people who have first-hand knowledge of the problems and by clearly assigning responsibilities for taking action.
The Work Out was developed during the 1980′s as way for GE to become more agile and successful in solving organizational problems. Work Out began as an open and straightforward process of identifying real problems in real time. Over the years, Work Out approaches have become more complicated as they were expanded to confront complex, embedded, long term problems.
Here is a simplified version of how it works: A group of people reporting to the same boss gather together with the clear understanding that they are going to identify and, when possible, take action on their most important problems. Team members are invited to describe their perception of the problem. The boss’s role is to listen carefully to these problem statements until he or she understands them, and then respond with one of three options: One, “I can fix this and I will.” Two, “I need more information before I can make a commitment. I will do some research and get back to everyone in three days with my decision.” Three, “This problem is one I can’t tackle by myself since it involves other areas in the company. I will get a team together in the next week and we will see what we can do.”
What the boss cannot do is dismiss the problem as insignificant, minimize its importance, or retaliate in any way against the people who have presented it.
Making Work Out work with ever more complex problems requires ever more complex approaches. But the fundamental principles are sacrosanct: Leaders send a clear message that they want to hear about problems; they demonstrate a willingness to understand them, and are committed to taking action; people feel free to raise problems without fear of ridicule or retaliation; and once a problem is identified and accepted, then all share the responsibility of following-up with appropriate actions, and keeping one another informed.
Google’s approach for messing with “Mr. InBetween” became known as TGIF. Early in its history, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin institutionalized a weekly meeting that featured a no-holds-barred Q & A session with whoever showed up. People would bring questions and problems that concerned them, and Larry and Sergey would deal with them, one by one. As the company grew, and the logistics accompanying expansion became difficult, they created a system called Dory (though no one could remember why it was called Dory). People would put their questions online, and then others would vote on which were the most important. When they got to TGIF there would be a queue of questions on Dory that had been ranked by Google employees as to their importance. The rule was that Larry and Sergey could not cherry pick the questions they wanted to address, but had to start with number one and move down the list. In their book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg describe an interesting innovation that raised the stakes. TGIF attendees were given red and green paddles and were encouraged to wave the red ones if they didn’t believe that a question was fully addressed. When the system was upgraded to a digital version, anyone watching could register a green or red opinion on line.
Climb, Confess and Comply
Former CEO Eric Schmidt summarized Google’s approach for “messing with Mr. InBetween” as “Climb, Confess, and Comply,” modeled after the training given to airline pilots when they run into a serious problem. The first step is Climb: Get out of danger and make sure that a disaster is not about to happen, The second step is Confess: Talk to whoever is involved, especially to those who are offended, accept responsibility for having “screwed up, and explain clearly and non-defensively what happened. And finally, Comply: Decide together what needs to be done, and then get busy doing it.
Climbing, confessing and complying was Google’s shorthand way of signaling that people are expected to bring problems to the table and that they deserved a positive response when they do. “When someone comes to you with bad news or a problem,” says Schmidt, “…[and] they are in climb, confess and comply mode, they have spent a lot of time considering the situation. [Y]ou need to reward their transparency by listening, helping, and having the confidence that the next time around they will nail the landing.”
These examples of creating structure to get into the middle of problems come from organizations. Creating and using structure to attack problems is equally important in intimate relationships, friendships, and families.
Problems of all kinds, and especially wicked problems, are best understood, and best attacked when those involved are able and willing to “mess with Mr. InBetween.” It is only by understanding the Gap between where we are and where we want to be that productive work can occur. And this is best achieved by having in place and implementing a structured approach for “messing with Mr. InBetween.” When dealing with problems there is always room for spontaneous and unrehearsed experiences and events, especially when the problem exists between individuals, but organizational issues respond best over time to a structured approach that is effectively executed.
So, here’s our new updated version of the song: ”Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, Latch on to the affirmative,” and plan on “Messing with Mr. InBetween!”