Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

In my career I've had many roles. I've been a consensus builder and a disruptive innovator. Sometimes I'm a leader and sometimes I'm a follower.

No matter what I've done in academia, industry, or government, I've been guided by a few basic principles:

*The Boston Globe test (customize to the locale of your choice) - if your actions were published as a front page article, would they seem fair and reasonable to the average reader?

*The Sister Mary Noel test (my second grade teacher at St. James Catholic School) - if you had to explain your actions to Sister Noel, would you pass her sense of right and wrong or be rapped on the knuckles with a ruler?

*The Sunday night phone call with parents test - when you describe your week to your mom, will your actions seem noble?

*The Senate testimony test - when describing your actions to a Senate panel, is there any reason to say "I have no recollection of those events Senator"

*The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number test - will your actions have a lasting impact on your organization, your state, or your country without direct personal benefit. Although it's true that actions on behalf of others can indirectly bring notoriety to you, fame is not the primary motivation for what you do.

Unfortunately, in our modern society many people I encounter seem more interested in their fame, their fortune, and their reputation.

It could be the economy. It could be competition for resources. It could be a biased sample selection.

How many people have you encountered today who put their co-workers, neighbors, and society first?

When the topic of healthcare reform is discussed, the first question is - what will it mean to my benefits, my costs, and my retirement rather than what will it mean for the 32 million uninsured, future generations, and our nation's competitiveness.

We're only on this planet for 80 years. We cannot take anything with us. If happiness can be measured by making a difference during our short tenure, I hope that more people will ask big picture questions focused on the world around us rather than the size of their house, the speed of the car, or the stylishness of their bling.

I'm not suggesting that we have blind faith in authority or that we all embrace socialism as the solution to every policy problem.

I am suggesting that we move beyond a narrow self focus in all that we do. We should evaluate policy with the lens of the greatest good for the greatest number in our communities, states, and country. We need to move past special interest thinking, including our own.

Change is hard and fear of the unknown can be unsettling. As I've written previously in my blog about your Karma account balance , the good guy (or gal) can lead a life where accounts received exceeds the balance due (borrowed from a Janis Ian song)

If we guide our behavior each day based on choices that look good to the Boston Globe, Sister Noel, our Moms, public scrutiny, and our fellow humans, the world will be a better place.


littlewhitedogs said...

Not only do we need more leaders who ascribe to your principles - we need more organizations that reward/encourage and not punish/ignore the front line folks who do so too. Thank-you for this post.

Mark Sangston said...

Noble sentiments indeed, however i think the fundamental problem in what you asking people to subscribe to is so much of that is purely subjective. What is "good" and how would one measure that? What is "fair and reasonable"? What is "noble"?
How do you balance the "good" you may do by putting others first if it potentially does "harm" to you or your family?

The answers you get will vary wildly depending on the specifics in question and the people invovled. And thats the thing; of all the arguments and debates we have been seeing regarding health care and what changes need to be made, what people (at least the ones trying to use logic instead of emotion) are arguing about is the specific details of the "how", not the broad concepts of the "what".

To simplify a lot of rhetoric, if you want people to get behind whatever is being proposed for the "greatest good", you first have to get their buy in that whatever your proposing is actually good, and that doesnt happen by fiat...

WJH said...

Once again we should study the past to avoid our mistakes: the only way to avoid fragmenting our society and thus reducing the legitimacy of our institutions is to minimize what we expect from them.

That was the principal our nation was based on, and which we seem to have forgotten.

Anonymous said...

This is a high-minded and interesting post, John. But let's get practical here for just a moment. What's the right number for us as a collective society to spend on the healthcare industry to achieve health reform goals? I would think that with the U.S. spending $2.26 trillion on healthcare already, that should be enough to cover everyone, and it should not be necessary to spend an additional $900B over the next 10 years. Maybe as a physician and a CIO you're closer to the issues and can tell us what the right number we as a society should pay for quality care that covers these additional 32 million. Even with this reform law, costs are anticipated to rise, so as an innovator and industry insider what's the right number?

RightKix said...

My family is in the 32 million uninsured of which you speak and I am one of millions of unemployed. Also, I am an IT professional that has worked his whole career of 30 years to improve and reform health care. Yet, I can, without reservation, reject the Health Care Reform bill.

It is not that I do not want healthcare benefits - we need them and will have them again when I am employed, God willing, long before the legal battles about this bill are settled. But it is exactly the "big picture" you referred to that I am considered before opposing it. There are so many negatives to this reform bill that I cannot list them here, but I do NOT want another entitlement program that my children will have to pay for. My special interest group is my family and I AM thinking about their needs and their future. And if this bill WERE the greatest good for the greatest number of people, I would support it. I just cannot get the taxes for several hundred million people in this and future generations and the adverse effects of this legislation for millions out of my mind.

Perhaps I am in the extreme minority here, but do not believe it is the government's job to provide us with healthcare, either now or when we are 65. I do believe it is the government’s job to “first do no harm”, so it would have been more beneficial to millions of people if Congress had been focused for the last year on creating jobs. Then, many of us who desperately want to be working in our chosen profession would be able to pay for healthcare benefits. Does our healthcare system need reform? Of course. And many of the needed reforms have been discussed and dismissed. But what scares me about this bill is it will encourage people to leave the medical profession (or not enter it), it will stifle innovation of researchers that make our Healthcare system the place that everyone in the world wants to be if they have a life-threatening illness, and it will have the opposite effect on cost of care, quality, outcomes, etc. In my opinion, this bill is another titanic and we are all on it. Unfortunately, everyone sees the icebergs except those that had vested interests in getting the ship hastily designed and in the water. Don’t worry though, we can fix any design flaws on the voyage.

Jay Vance, CMT, CHP said...

"...I hope that more people will ask big picture questions focused on the world around us rather than the size of their house, the speed of the car, or the stylishness of their bling."

I couldn't agree more. However, what this health "reform" amounts to is giving politicians (who are not known for selflessness) the power to TELL us how we ought to care for our fellow man.

"I'm not suggesting that we have blind faith in authority..."

Unfortunately, that is EXACTLY what we are being told to do by the president. He is telling us to "have faith" that health reform will work; his exact words were "let's wait and see what happens." Really? That's how we make policy these days?

"I am suggesting that we move beyond a narrow self focus in all that we do. We should evaluate policy with the lens of the greatest good for the greatest number in our communities, states, and country. We need to move past special interest thinking, including our own."

But again, we are being preached to by politicians who LIVE AND BREATHE special interests that we ought to give up OUR special interests in order to conform to THEIR idea of what is best for us. As for the notion that we ought to shape policy based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people, that is a slippery slope. Who gets to decide what the "greater good" is? The trains in Nazi Germany ran on time, but they also carried millions of Jews to their deaths--all in the name of the "greater good" of German society. Is that an extreme example? Of course it is. But it BECAME extreme one step at a time.

John Farrell said...

Leaving off the Boston Globe, I agree with all your other tests. (In my case, it was Sister Helen Bernard.)


Anonymous said...

One thing that I don’t hear much talk about in the healthcare reform conversation is reforming our health. As a group, Americans are fat, out of shape, eat unhealthy food, drink and smoke too much. Way too many people would rather get their health from a pill bottle than get on a bike or go for a walk. I think our healthcare system isn’t nearly as broken as our health. Maybe doing something for the greater good would be to take care of ourselves so we don’t need so much medical care.