Multifinality, Commander’s Intent, and My Household Chores

Sometimes, in solving social problems, the how doesn’t matter so much.

But you wouldn’t know it by our advocacy.

We spend so much time arguing about the ‘how’.

I’m not going to assert that the way in which we arrive at a particular conclusion is always immaterial, certainly. I mean, if we want to prevent unintended pregnancies, universal sterilization gets us there, right? But no one’s going to argue (I should probably check NCSL’s updates on state legislatures before I go out on a limb there) that that’s a good approach.

But, at the least, there is usually more than one viable path to a particular policy outcome, which means that it would make sense to spend at least as much energy debating those desired ends as the means, especially since there’s a value in trying multiple roads.

  • Reducing child poverty? The Earned Income Tax Credit helps, but so do generous parental leave policies, improved access to affordable childcare (so parents can work more and at better jobs), guaranteed child support, living wages, and child allowances.
  • Increasing college attainment among targeted populations? We know financial aid makes a difference, but so do college retention programs, high school reforms, and even requiring students to apply for college before they graduate high school.
  • Closing the educational achievement gap? It means addressing equity in school finance, for sure, but what about adult education programs, teacher training, and testing reforms?

My favorite social work theory concept is the idea of multifinality, that there are multiple ways to reach the same desired end.

Embracing that truth could revolutionize the way we approach policymaking, by requiring us to focus on where we want to go, instead of putting all of our eggs into the ‘how we’re going to get there’ basket.

Imagine a state legislative session that featured lengthy discussions about the different ways to address a need for health care among low-income children, for example, instead of a protracted and often nasty fight about this or that particular tactic (different kinds of provider licenses, different reimbursement rates, streamlined eligibility determination, more outreach investment for Medicaid…).

The authors of Made to Stick refer to this as the Commander’s Intent, a military practice of spelling out a concrete goal and then letting the process unfold, in terms of how we arrive there.

It’s strengths-based, in that others are empowered to shape the journey, as long as the destination is fixed. And it’s consistent with how we understand people to be motivated, and with how we know that systems work, too.

And, I was reflecting the other day, it’s how I parent, too, especially when it comes to getting the kids to help around the house.

See, it is completely ineffective for me to tell the kids exactly how I want something done. They’ll usually either refuse to do it or give up in the face of daunting instructions. Either way, I lose. Instead, when I can present them with a vision of what it needs to look like, and emphasize the freedom they have to figure out how we get there, their circuitous paths usually end up delivering us right where we need to be.

The parallels to the legislature are obvious:

“You all need to clean up this mess. How do you do that is up to you, but it must get cleaned up.”

Where do you see multifinality at work in your practice? And how do you signal your Commander’s Intent–in your organization, in your advocacy, and in your life?

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