Blank-Slate Thinking: The End of Collaboration?

Written by Mike Shapiro | | May 11, 2017

(In this article I have used the posturing and tone of the conversation in the health care debate as an example of Blank-Slate Thinking. No opinion is expressed or implied on the substance of the debate.)

Imagine if every time someone wanted to improve something — a law, policy, process, procedure, they kicked-off discussions by brazenly insulting everything about what’s already there and the people who invented it!

Sounds hostile, arrogant, wasteful and counterproductive. But isn’t that essentially what we’ve been hearing from national leaders talking about health care legislation?

We’d expect to hear something like “We have some ideas on how to improve on what we have.” But instead, what we’ve heard is “Repeal and replace!”

Then, after the new thing has actually passed the House, you’d think we’d hear from Senate leaders something like “Now let’s move that along through the sharpening and tweaking process.” But no. What we hear is “We’re going to start over.” And this is from the Senate leaders of the same party that sponsored and passed the House Bill!

What’s going on here goes way beyond traditional partisan rhetoric. Instead, the national dialogue has plummeted to a “not-invented-here” attitude. A petulant “my-eyes-are-closed-and-I-can’t-hear-you” position that says anything that’s come before is of no value. (Think: “There’s nothing here to build on. Nothing to modify. Nothing to respond to. I’m going to act as if it doesn’t exist. If we want anything good, it has to be done from scratch. And it has to be us (not you guys or all of us working together) who have to do it.”)

Blank-Slate Thinking = Ignoring or disregarding everything that’s gone before, assuming it has no value; believing the only way forward is to start over from scratch.

The use of it in the health care debate should concern us: How to pay for the spiraling costs of health care will require the best minds in the country, using the very best idea-generation and negotiating and compromise techniques in an environment that encourages cooperation. It’s pretty scary to think that the whole process is being held hostage to an insidious new strain of “we-they,” “not-invented-here” posturing that can only mean a waste of time, energy, money and good will.

But this kind of talk — and the atmosphere it has created — has broader and even more disturbing implications. As much as we complain about Congress and politicians, the way our leaders talk and behave, blasted at us incessantly in the media, tends to set an example — a model that people in state legislatures, in business, in the schools and universities will gradually begin to emulate.

The real-world implications of any new law, regulation, university policy, corporate practice, procedure or customer management technique aren’t known until it goes live.

With any big policy or process, affecting millions of people in a multitude of scenarios, it’s virtually impossible to get it done right the first time!

Imagine if this thinking gets into the state legislatures trying to fix a problem of inequitable application of a law, a university with hiring, tenure or admissions practices, a corporation facing unintended consequences of a process affecting thousands of employees or millions of customers!

The path to improving anything big is seldom easy, but pretty simple:

  1. Bring stakeholders together and come up with what looks like the best plan you can imagine with the data and information then available.
  2. Implement a plan.
  3. Watch and listen carefully to what happens.
  4. Fix unintended consequences and make improvements.
  5. Repeat 3 and 4.

Any place can be a starting point: The ideas or work product of a colleague, a competitor. Why alienate a potential collaborator — or, for that matter, any other human being –and deprive everyone of  the benefits of this hard work by pretending there’s nothing there?

Collaborating to build on what’s already there is fundamental to ultimately getting things to work right. There’s so much to do. There’s not enough time, money or good will that we can afford to waste it starting over.