In the grand scheme of writing this blog, one of the most interesting things that I think I’ve ever written is this whole idea of “micro” vs. “macro.” Basically, you can get consensus among one group (say, a senior leadership team) and that’s at the macro level. When that team breaks up and goes back to their individual teams and communicate the idea, you need success at the micro level (the day-to-day). Those are often not aligned. So “macro” — big picture — is often set, but then it falls apart when we need to actually get it executed at the “micro” — granular — level.
Phrased another way and going in the other direction, there’s a very real concept whereby daily deliverables (the micro) murdered strategy (the macro) in most organizations. This essentially happened because everyone is allowed to run around believing how busy they are. As such, no one can think long-term; everyone just wants to knock out what’s currently on their plate. That’s most people I’ve ever worked with, honestly.
So far we’ve been talking about this idea of “short-term” vs. “long-term” or “micro” vs. “macro.” This factors in to another concept called “inter-temporal discounting.” Essentially, that means you focus on the short-term and immediate things, even if you know it’s bad for you in the long-term.
Here’s an example: you had a bad day at work, so you hit happy hour and down a bunch of beers and some nachos. You know it’s bad for your health long-term, but you’re chasing a short-term solution.
Here’s a much more relevant/terrifying example: you go to turn on your shower and the water comes out, so you think all this drought talk is nonsense. You grab that 17-minute shower, baby! In 40 years, though, does the water come out of that tap? You’re thinking short-term, but the issue is long-term.
This type of stuff happens all the time in all our lives. Literally probably hourly. We sacrifice a long-term concept for a short-term goal/solution. Families do it all the time too.
Here’s some new research from UPenn on these exact topics:
The key takeaways from this particular paper are that unless you can develop some short-term incentives to get people to think about a long-term issue like climate change, it’s going to be very hard for them to take measures today Twitter . We have been looking at two elements in this respect. One of them has to do with energy efficiency, and the challenges that people have in terms of adopting measures that can reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, but may cost them more money up front to actually invest in. Similarly, we are looking at protection against floods and the use of flood insurance, and also adapting measures that could be fairly costly to reduce the damages in the future. Unless we can develop strategies for dealing with that, we’re not going to be able to get people to do them.
Obviously that sequence is more about climate change — and those are some interesting ideas — but you can easily apply this to almost every work context too. All the time companies make short-term decisions (especially publicly-held companies, because they tend to operate on a quarterly reporting system) and sacrifice long-term goals as a result. I had a co-worker who calls it “looking for nickels in the couch cushions of your industry.” The even less-relevant form of it is simply chasing bullet points.
Here’s another section from UPenn that might make you sad:
I think that the conclusion that surprised us the most was that people expected others to take these measures, but they weren’t going to take them themselves. They expected that people should be concerned about climate change, and that other people might be concerned, but they themselves had less of a concern with respect to adopting these measures. And I think that’s what led us to really say, we’ve got to figure out some ways that they, themselves, will pay attention to taking these steps, rather than thinking that others may do that, but they, themselves, would not.
Hardcore diffusion of responsibility there, eh?
Something can be right in front of another person, and they’re like “Well, I’m cool with Jim over there doing it, but I don’t know … I just don’t think I have the time.” That’s a low water mark for humanity (literally, because we all might flame up in a drought in 100 years).
So the whole goal here is two-fold then:
1. How do you take long-term goals and tie them back to short-term decisions so that people focus the right way?
2. How do you make people care about short-term and long-term things they could be doing (in work, environment, life, etc.)?
It’s a complex issue and probably one that’s a bit too reserved in academia and not enough in the day-to-day world, because more people — corporate leaders, but also public policy experts, governments, civic folk, etc. — need to be thinking about this.