Progress at the Speed of Trust

Stephen Covey originated this idea in his book The Speed of Trust (Free Press, 2006).  Progress is limited by the extent to which key stakeholders trust in the endeavor of interest and support its pursuit.

There are multiple levels of trust.  At one level, we are concerned that leaders and other authorities will not mislead or lie to us.  We want them to be looking out for our interests, not just their own or vested interests.

At another level, the concern is with the extent to which the vision and plan they are articulating makes sense and is likely to succeed.  Is there any trustable evidence that the plan will work? What are the risks of failure?

Yet at another level, can we trust those involved to actually execute the plan?  Do they have the commitments and resources to implement their plan and achieve their vision?  What are the risks of execution difficulties?

Consider how these notions of trust apply to the pandemic, the economy, and climate change.  Let’s start with sources of evidence that can be trusted.  For the pandemic, I would include the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), more broadly the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  They spend billions of dollars on keeping track of what is happening and likely to happen.

For the economy, the US Federal Reserve tracks the Consumer Price Index, Gross Domestic Product, Employment, Housing Starts, Stock Indices, and numerous other metrics.  The European Central Bank (ECB) does the same thing for the European Union.  There are, of course, numerous business news outlets that report on stock prices, business earnings announcements, new product releases, and mergers and acquisitions.

Regarding climate change, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports a wide range of metrics. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and its numerous subsidiaries, track and project changes.  The US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) regularly issues reports on climate, health, and a wide range of consensus studies.

Digesting this wide range of materials can be an enormous undertaking, but publications such as The Economist, New York Times, and Washington Post, to name just a few, often highlight findings of these governmental organizations.  Much less trustworthy are Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  There is no assessment of the credibility and veracity of such postings.  Consequently, outrageous lies, proliferating rumors, conspiracy theories, and outright misinformation are rampant.

So, there is pretty good basis for achieving the first level of trust.  The second level – the vision and plan for moving forward – is more difficult as it involves moving from assessments of “what is” to projections of the consequences of “what if,” e.g., outcomes of choices of particular strategies or policies.

The governmental organizations noted above might provide well-reasoned speculations on how to move forward on health, the economy, and climate change.  However, such projections are laced with uncertainties about what will really work and how well it will work.  This is often addressed by asking, “How accurate have their past projections been?”  This is akin to relying on a baseball pitcher’s won-loss record and earned run average.

The third level of trust is also a challenge.  Will the commitment and resources be available to achieve success?  This is a political rather than technical challenge.  Health, the economy, and climate change involve many government actors who have to authorize policies and appropriate resources to implement these policies.  In recent years, in particular, these actors have been unwilling to appropriate resources to maintain physical infrastructure, for example, before it fails.  Colloquially, they just kick the can down the road.

Combining the misinformation on social media, the uncertainties associated with alternative plans forward, and demonstrated inabilities of governmental actors to commit to plans, it should not be unexpected that the public does not trust society to deal with health, the economy, and climate change.  These impedances are surmountable with concerted educated-focused communications, as long as politicians and pundits do not undermine the process.

Beyond trust, there is another consideration.  Are people willing to behave in the ways needed to support the success of plans?  The pandemic has a mixed record on this.  Many people, perhaps most, are agreeing to facemasks, social distancing, and washing hands, yet a reasonable large number of people see it an as infringement of their rights.

Much more abstract is people’s willingness to align their lifestyles with good health and well being.  The prevalence of chronic diseases associated with poor lifestyle choices decreases quality of life and life expectancy, while also greatly increasing healthcare costs.  Of course, there are many social determinants that influence the prevalence of chronic diseases.

Our economy is gong through a transformation as automation and artificial intelligence enable replacing humans in many routine jobs.  At the same time, emerging new jobs provide opportunities, for example, as coal mining jobs disappear, two of the fastest growing jobs are solar panel installation and wind turbine maintenance.

We need to create educational opportunities, likely via community colleges, to create the skilled technical workforce that can perform these millions of new jobs.  At the same time, people need to be open to being retrained for these new opportunities, many of which will be well paid.  This will increases those with good middle class wages enabling, for example, making tax-deferred contributions to retirement savings accounts.

Addressing global warming, as well as mitigating the impacts of global warming, will require decarbonizing our economy.  We will need to move from fossil fuels to clean energy, such as solar, wind, and possibly nuclear.  We will need to increase use of public transit, which is much more energy efficient than individual transportation.  We will need to reduce waste, particularly packaging and plastic.

These will require major changes. People have long exploited natural resources and come to depend on the benefits of these resources in terms of both consumption and employment.  Consequently, changing consumption habits will be very difficult.

Beyond individual consumers, processes for extracting, refining, and utilizing fossil fuels are well developed, employ millions of people, and represent trillions of dollars of stock market capitalization.  Further, the vested interests in energy extraction, refinement, and use are enormous and are naturally inclined to sustain status quo business models, and the benefits these models provide to these organizations.

Finally, consider government.  Elected officials have great difficulty trading off short-term versus long-term costs and benefits, due to a large extent to the concerns, values and perceptions of their constituents – citizens and companies.  Thus, many people do not trust government to do the right things.  Evidence is ignored, commitments are continually delayed, and problems grow.

We need a restart focused on the three levels of truth outlined earlier.  Business as usual – muddling through and kicking the can down the road — will no longer be an acceptable, albeit mediocre, practice. It is much too late.  We need to rebuild a society-wide foundation of trust that will enable a consensus on visions, plans, resources, and execution.

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