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Friday, July 31, 2009

Barry Schwartz Promotes Practical Wisdom

Barry Schwarz originally uploaded by Jesper Rønn-Jensen.
Barry SchwartzBarry Schwartz, best known for the Paradox of Choice and the need for simplicity, shared new wisdom during the MarketingProfs B2B Forum in Boston. This time, he discussed Practical Wisdom and the remoralization of professional life, the subject of an upcoming book.

You see, our over-reliance on rules and regulations, procedures and performance incentives have essentially undermined our wisdom and ability to improvise. We need to relearn the virtue of practical wisdom [phronesis] as defined by Aristotle:

+ Know when and how to make exceptions.
+ Know when and how to improvise [i.e., wisdom is the equivalent of moral jazz].
+ Know how to use skills to pursue right ends.

A wise person - or Mensch, a person of integrity and honor - is made not born!

Schwartz shared the example of a hospital janitor whose job duties, although copiously detailed, included no mention of patients or customers. Yet, to better care for his patients, he exhibited moral will to do the right thing and moral skill to determine how to do it right. Not captured in the job description, but certainly a function of his own virtue and beliefs, and which added to the overall quality of the patient's experience.

Shortly after hearing Schwartz, I encountered a New Jersey Transit Bus Driver who displayed amazing customer empathy: a frazzled woman got on the bus with her kids; she hadn't purchased her ticket ahead of time, had insufficient cash on hand [she missed the bus at the previous stop] and had parked her broken down car in an incorrect spot. Rather than tell the woman 'tough,' this driver accepted the cash, suggested she leave a sign under her windshield wiper about the breakdown, waited for her to do so, gave her a bus depot number to call [to prevent the car from being towed], and encouraged her to relax. Practical wisdom at work.

Too often, in our zeal to document and orchestrate specific behaviors, we forget about human components - kindness, care, empathy. Rather than encourage wisdom, experimentation and independent thinking, we prefer instead to rely on excessive supervision. How often have you heard "we hate to do this, but we have to follow procedure" or "those are the rules" in situations that might benefit from some flexibility?

Virtue and character supersede rules. Without virtue and practical wisdom, we wage a "war on wisdom" and ensure mediocrity, says Schwartz.

Think of situations you've been in and how you learned. How did you deal with uncertainty? Did you take a risk? Did you try a new approach? How did you react given a specific incentive? Did you try to work the system to meet those requirements? Did the incentive lead to a superior result? How did you make sure you did the right thing?

Think of Zappos' business and customer service culture. Can you imagine it existing without practical wisdom? I can't. BTW, they don't do call scripts or fixed customer handling times. [Read Paid Content Profile: How Zappos Became An Expert On Customer Service Culture, and a Publisher.]

I've been reexamining my immediate world from the perspective of practical wisdom. My 7.5 year old daughter just finished a series of four weekly scavenger hunts. She required that I participate with her in the first and the second. By the third, tension built: I was supervising her too closely. She stated that she would do the fourth and last on her own.

During the fourth scavenger hunt, she had to figure things out: pay close attention to the directions, organize herself and approach authority figures for information. She gained experience by herself. Although she didn't win one of the top three prizes [she came in fourth], my daughter was more proud and satisfied from her experience than when she earned 3rd place in an earlier hunt. My rules and guidance had stifled her creativity.

She learned and so did I.

Now, there's much more to practical wisdom. Barry Shwartz reminded us that we need strong upright exemplars and heroes [i.e., Menschs] like Atticus Finch or Interface's Ray Anderson, who has committed to reducing his company's environmental footprint and make it completely sustainable by 2020. Practical wisdom affects one's attitude toward performance, life, health and work [is it work? a career? a calling? or just a job?]. It adds meaning and engagement. It remoralizes all that we do. So, each and every one of us should nurture virtue and character, embrace practical wisdom and give others enough room to be human beings.

My reaction: this fits into the zeitgeist of the times. We yearn not just for simplicity, but also for truth and trust, authenticity and long term focus to get our world back on track. It's what I admire and appreciate about the tools of social media which facilitate transparency, interaction, engagement and conversation with other human beings. I believe that many of us truly want to do the right thing.

Aristotle's Virtues [the link includes an interesting chart with an overview of the virtues as does this link to Aristotle's Ethics] include the following:
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Pride
  • Good Temper
  • Truthfulness
  • Wittiness
  • Friendliness
  • Modesty
  • Righteous Indignation
These virtues had me thinking about the "little virtues" of St. Francis de Sales that my high school now overtly integrates into its curriculum. I've detailed them here, based on Seven Salesian Virtues To Make The Ordinary, Extraordinary:

1) To others' little acts of selfishness and unfairness - ENDURE PATIENTLY.

2) Amid your shortcomings and limitations - SEE THE BRIGHT SIDE.

3) When others are curt with you - SHOW GOOD HUMOR.

4) At the tiresome tempers of others - STAY CHEERFULLY EXCUSING.

5) When someone turns you down - PUT ON A GOOD FACE.

6) If someone helps, when you'd rather do it yourself - BE APPRECIATIVE.

7) When answering others - SPEAK GENTLY AND SHOW COURTESY.

All virtues that I would love for my daughter to take to heart.

Experience Barry Schwartz' Practical Wisdom presentation for yourselves in TED Talks Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom.

And, in this video interview with MarketingProfs - Barry Schwartz: Practical Wisdom as a Business Tool, Schwartz puts practical wisdom into a greater business framework.

What do you think about practical wisdom? How would you incorporate it into your personal and business lives? How do you go about ensuring that you do the right thing?

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