Bounded Set Thinking vs. Centered Set Thinking

(This is the ninth installment in my twelve-part blog series A Leadership Vision for America.)

In my last post I stated that business and government can’t solve all of America’s problems by themselves. Ideally, our leaders in Washington would involve every sector of society in problem solving. The three sectors encompass nine different domains:

  • The Public Sector, represented by government, military, and education
  • The Private Sector, represented by business, arts/entertainment, and media
  • The Social Sector, represented by the faith community, nonprofit organizations, and families

When Eric Swanson and Sam Williams were working on their book To Transform a City, they come across a very interesting philosophy about problem-solving relationships. Paul Hiebert from Fuller Seminary discovered in the 1970s that when people come together to solve a problem, they often have a “closed circle” philosophy, or what he called a Bounded Set. A bounded-set thinker asks the question, “Do you believe like I believe?”  This becomes a divisive question because it separates those who are in from those who are out, limiting people who are allowed to work on the problem to those who sign off on an agreed-upon belief.  Whether it’s political, religious, or some other type of personal conviction—unless you believe what we believe, you can’t work on the problem. This philosophy doesn’t work because it is exclusive, not inclusive. The weeding-out process continues, the circle keeps getting smaller, and the problem doesn’t get solved.

A more productive way to look at problem-solving relationships is an open philosophy Hiebert referred to as a Centered Set. A centered set has no boundary that defines who is in and who is out. The question that determines if you are part of the problem-solving group is, simply, “Do you care about what I care about?” This philosophy works because it is inclusive of all belief systems and focuses on the matter at hand: Are you concerned about the problem we want to focus on?

How would this work in Washington?  It would be the job of the president and the legislature to first identify the key problem areas that need to be focused on to help keep America prosperous and safe. Next, they would select key people from each of the nine domains, whether inside or outside their own ranks, who care about each of the areas selected. Each of these groups would work with other American citizens to develop strategies to solve each of the key problems or concern issues going forward.

The people working together could have all different kinds of personal convictions about things as long as they were all passionate about the key problem area they were working together on—whether it be the economy, homeland security, unemployment, affordable housing, balancing the budget, improving the educational system, or another important issue.

Identifying leaders from each of the domains to work on each problem highlights the fact that no one segment of the population can solve all of America’s problems. In fact, one of my favorite sayings is, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

A perfect example of someone who lived and breathed this philosophy was William Wilberforce, who helped stop slavery in England. It took twenty years. He traveled the country on horseback and got to know key leaders from all of the different domains. He didn’t care what they believed politically, religiously, or economically—all he asked the leaders was whether they agreed with him that slavery was wrong.  If they agreed, he would help them determine how they could influence important people within different segments of society and get them on the “stop slavery” bandwagon. This led to a number of people from diverse backgrounds coming together to put an end to slave trading and ultimately abolish slavery in their country altogether.

This is the type of process our government leaders need to put into action to deal with today’s pressing issues. Right now, Washington seems to be dominated by the bounded-set philosophy, where “you have to believe what I believe” to even begin to work together on a problem, let alone agree on a solution. So you have one big bounded-set group, the Democrats, at odds with another big bounded-set group, the Republicans.

The only way to get anywhere is through compromise. What makes this third secret for fixing Washington so powerful is that it focuses on sustained collective action by all segments of society.

Next time I’ll bring it all together with the fourth secret for fixing Washington, which involves a practice that’s near and dear to my heart:  servant leadership.

Categories: Community, Government, Leadership, Politics, Servant Leadership, Teamwork, Values, Vision, Vision for America | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Bounded Set Thinking vs. Centered Set Thinking

  1. Outstanding article…this is a fresh leadership point of view for any organization.

  2. Pingback: Bounded Set Thinking vs. Centered Set Thinking « "FEAR NOT" YOU ARE NOT ALONE

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