Thursday, April 29, 2010

Decoding Goldman

Sitting this morning at Fuel, we had the most interesting discussion regarding the folks at Goldman-Sachs and what should or shouldn't happen to them in response to their contributions to the current financial challenges facing the US.

We discussed the morality of what they had done, whether or not it was legal, whether or not the laws were themselves moral, who controlled the laws, notions of just punishment paths to reconciliation. Here are some ideas I took away from our discussion.

Codes in Conflict
As our discussion began heating up, Mickey spoke of the amoral nature of the folks at Goldman and of the Wall Street community generally. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that they were not in fact amoral, but instead that they operated within a different moral framework. My statement was received with, "How can you call anything that they did moral?"

Of course, having moral framework doesn't imply that you have good or bad morals; a moral framework is simply the system of beliefs each of us uses to determine what we consider to be morally acceptable or morally unacceptable. I would posit that, when person A does something that person B considers to be morally repugnant, it's the result of person A having a different moral framework than person B; it's not the result of person A deciding to do something that he considers to be bad.

Having worked within a community that shares many moral tenets of Wall Street, I first posited that the Wall Street moral framework is based on what is legal versus illegal, not what is right versus wrong. But as I thought about it, I realized that this was not the case. Instead, I believe the framework is one of what you can get away with versus what you can't get away with. Indeed, within that community, the people who are considered to be reprehensible are the stupid ones, the ones that get caught. It would also be considered morally repugnant to turn someone in or blow the whistle, causing him to get caught. Getting caught is the bad thing.

Further, there appears to have been a shift in the framework of late. Previously, folks working within the framework seemed to have been morally obliged to get as much as possible for the investors they represented (without getting caught.) Nowadays, it appears that the highest calling is to the company. I'm sure that even Wall Street types would have considered it a violation of ethics to have stolen from the company (caught or not).

So what? Well, if you're trying to work to reconciliation or to restitution, you'll never get there by insisting that the other party operated immorally. Doing so will launch an argument with no end. Instead, it would be best for each party to understand the framework under which the other operated.

Perspective First
So, it seems that the first challenge in reconciling people operating under conflicting moral frameworks is recognizing that it is their frameworks that are in conflict, not the people. The next is figuring out how to reconcile the frameworks.

Mickey mentioned published emails from people at Goldman cavalierly talking about "widows and orphans were being forced out of their homes" as a result of their activities and priding themselves on being "so smart" and the people from whom they were taking money, "so stupid."

Of course, this autobiographical depiction of their activities didn't play well for my reconciliation idea. But then it occurred to me that the problem was one of distance, of being removed from the people affected by their actions.

Gaining Practical Perspective
When I was first assigned to manage a software development group at AT&T, the engineers began complaining to me about how stupid the operations people were: the people sentenced to use the software they'd developed. I asked questions about what they meant and elicited examples. I talked to the operations manager getting her perspective on the situation. The perspectives were conflicting to say the least.

Then it occurred to me to effect what I called a hostage exchange. However, in this case the exchange was designed to take hostages, not to free them. As we approached the delivery date for a new software release, I volunteered several of my engineers to accompany the software to the operations center where they would use the software they'd developed along side the operations folks. Several of the operations folks were volunteered to work with the engineering group, fielding support calls from the operations center and participating in the software design and development process.

The first hand exposure to the other side had an almost immediate effect. The engineers who were now forced to use the software they'd created quickly ran into insurmountable challenges imposed upon them by the software. They watched as the formerly 'stupid' operations people quickly and brilliantly figured out ways to work around the limitations of the system. They began using phrases like stupid and f**&ked up to describe the systems they'd developed.

The operations people discovered that life is different when you don't punch out after eight-hours, that you get to leave when the job is finished. They learned how it can be much more challenging to design and create something than to critique something that already exists.

I was thinking that there might be an analog here for Wall Street. Perhaps every commodities trader could spend a month working in Asian rice fields prior to being allowed onto the trading floor. It would be great for people working the securities industry to hand deliver eviction notices for a month, to see and hear the people affected by their decisions in the back office.

One Code
Armed with the notion of codes in conflict versus people in conflict and perspective before discussion, I think we could make great headway in addressing so much of what challenges us. The last thing I took away this morning was the notion of One Code.

As our discussion progressed, Anthony mentioned that there are codes for business and codes for personal conduct. Hearing this, I wondered aloud, "Why?"

I understand that each of us tends to wander about with multiple, conflicting codes that we adopt situationally and that most of us would agree that this is necessary. But is it?

What would happen if each of us adopted the goal of operating within a single, fully-reconciled and fully-integrated framework? How would the world change?

Well, those are my musings from the Coffee Shop. I feel really blessed to be challenged by such interesting folks here and to be able to share my thoughts with you.

Happy Friday!


  1. Before I try on the idea of One Code, I had a couple comments on the other points you raised. I completely buy the idea that conflict is more often between codes/systems, than between people. In fact, recognizing that makes it very easy to not judge people or even behaviors. The problem, then, often reduces to fixing the system, typically by setting up rewards/compensation for the desired behaviors.

    What would happen if we adopted the goal of working within one fully-reconciled integrated framework? That would be nothing short of nirvana, in my opinion, but minimally, that would solve the energy crisis. An enormous amount of energy is currently spent overcoming the friction that exists between all the different frameworks people operate in.

    Now for One Code. My first thought is - that's not possible. Not because it's utopian, but because I'm thinking every human being has a right to think differently and have their own goals and their own path to those goals. I certainly think there could be One Code governing large arenas of human endeavor - say sports (excellence and sportsmanship over purely winning) or business (focus on some definition of the 'common good' over plain profit, etc).

    I was thinking about tennis the other day. The way a match is set up, there's no way for the two, say Wimbledon finalists, to do Win-Win.

    Fun stuff.

  2. How about starting easy with an intra-personal version of One Code? If each of us became internally consistent, I wonder if the rest wouldn't just take care of itself?

    Regarding the intra-personal versions, I agree that the key is in the area of reward/compensation (not just financial, but across the board). I believe that the best codes (the ones that work and stick) are the ones derived through mutual benefit and not from moral mandate.

    Perhaps we take a quantum leap to One Code universally. In fact, I'm not sure that would be a good idea. But, I think we can make a a great step forward by recognizing conflicts as a result of incompatible codes, not bad people. If we then endeavor to understand the code of others and look for mutually beneficial resolution, we could certainly do much better than we do on average.

    Maybe the Win-Win does occur at Wimbledon, just depends on what you consider winning?

  3. Each one of us getting internally consistent would certainly mitigate a great deal of internal conflict that currently arises from having different 'codes' for different situations.

    In fact, I was thinking about that in an earlier post (by Faith, I think), where she said something along the lines of formerly being focused on just getting one's way. Which is likely the way most people view the world; people and things exist to get us what we want, and we do unhappiness when we don't get the things we want. But when the focus changes to say personal growth, it's amazing how effortlessly we can view detours/obstacles as welcome opportunities for personal growth. So, in this instance, our code now universally prioritizes process over results.

    Win-win at Wimbledon - sure, we can always have our own value system, (we may choose to appreciate a good sportsman semifinalist more if the eventual champion used questionable tactics), but I meant the system intrinsic to the sport, since that largely drives (& skews) the behavior of everybody tied to it.

    You wrote "I believe that the best codes (the ones that work and stick) are the ones derived through mutual benefit and not from moral mandate."
    My 7yr-old proves this every day. The moral mandate route is either useless or outright counter-productive with an intelligent, curious and strong-willed child.

    By the way, why do you think that one universal code might not be a good idea?

    P.S. that first comment was mine too.

  4. The more I think about it, the internally consistent code might address 90% of global challenges. When I think about how differently people treat friends versus "enemies" or family members versus "outsiders", I can only begin to imagine what would happen if each of us simply started to treat everyone we encounter in the manner we treat those whom we love most.

    What if we deem Faith's approach the "It's all good!" approach? A lot of unhappiness results simply from the disparity between reality and expectation.

    I was thinking about the Wimbledon model in the context of playing music. When I think about musicians, great players win just getting to play together. There are exceptions to this of course, but its tends to be the fans and the critics who become concerned about who's "best."

    My only concern about one universal code not being a good idea is that I have a hard time not imagining it going all religious.

    Ahhh what we can learn from 7-year-olds...

  5. I'm not sure it would adress all the challenges.

    I have started to become known for being honest - and not holding back on my opinion. This goes for work as well as for private friendships.

    This week I have experienced with the two different friends that we were talking about a person who were not present, they said something about how they experienced the person, followed by "and I expect this to be something she will not hear". Both times I did not want to make that promise - which seemed to upset the person I was talking to.

    I do not have any interest in passing on what they said - to me that is just their personal opinion about other people, but next time it happens I will ask if that is how they want me to treat them personally.

  6. The way I see the wimbeldon analogy is misunderstanding the game:

    The game is not only about who is winning and who is loosing - it's about enjoying some great tennis. There is only a conflict about the winning part if you are unhappy loosing. You can be happy playing a great game.

    Developping software is just as much a competition: you want to make it better than some other programes, you want to make it more effective. Do you get unhappy if someone else were making a better code? or do you try to learn from them?



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