equalism – for a fairer world

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Who you gonna call? A qualified answer

Who you gonna call? … Ghost-busters is who you’re gonna call if you’ve got ghosts to bust. For other problems, who are you gonna call?

If you don’t have a solution yourself, you’ll wanna find someone with know-how. Someone you can trust to do the job. Someone qualified.

Don’t worry – we will get to equalism later.

Qualified vs under-qualified

A short video (30 secs) makes a basic point: A small qualified team beats a large mob of under-qualified people.

3 qualified vs 100 under-qualified. Click for video (30 secs)

The skills and outcome on a soccer pitch are unmistakable. And it’s easy to imagine what it takes off the pitch to manage, prepare and select qualified players.

The goals in other sectors of life may be just as clear as scoring goals on a soccer pitch – jobs like train-driver, manufacturing, or running a business.

Often the goals are far less clear. The skills may be obscure. They may be so specialist that they can’t really be explained to the average outsider. It may be radiology or rocket science, for example.

If you’re desperate, you may just have to trust and hope that the qualified worker knows what they’re doing. In fields that are to do with human psychology and human relations, including politics, law, helping professions, therapies and social services – where we’re dealing with life experiences everyone has some access to – strangely, the skills and goals are often more obscure, not less.

Big words and small print

How can people be bamboozled in areas they know about, not be brave enough to ask more questions, even though it’s their own problem being sorted? Perhaps we’re too stressed, confused, in uncharted territory. We cannot understand the big words or the small print. We need more support but often have no option but to accept the certificate of professional qualification and the warm ‘Trust me – I know what I’d doing’. It’s what cowboys and conmen say too.

Worst of all is when the professional standards aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. A problem-solving chasm opens up between client and professional. By signing a contract you’ve sealed your trust in with your fate.  And – if you survive to tell the tale – your complaint or feedback is often most unwelcome.

So, the basic point may be blindingly obvious – that a qualified person beats armies of under-qualified people. But it is widely forgotten and trampled under other priorities like “We’ve always done it this way. If you don’t like it, go away. We’ve all got to make a living you know”.

Even some more honourable human concerns – like rights and responsibilities, fairness and diversity – can get muddled up with the basic problem-solver’s good outcome.

The basic problem-solving approach is so basic and universal that academia can take it for granted and fail to teach it. James J Sharp wrote that “Engineers think of themselves as problem-solvers. Unlike scientists … etc ” (1991). “The fundamental elements of the [engineer’s] design process are the establishment of objectives and criteria, synthesis, analysis, construction, testing and evaluation.”

He gives an example of good engineering problem-solving: Government want engineers to design a road bridge across a river; but the problem is to get traffic from A to B. There may be several other solutions to that problem than building a bridge.

Don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut

The sign of a trustworthy professional is to recognise their own limitations, to turn down work they aren’t qualified for, to explain why, maybe to direct the client to someone better able to solve their problem. The engineer above could remind the government of its commitment to reduce traffic because of accidents, pollution and climate change, proposing a simple pedestrian and cycle based solution. That could solve the problem though it loses the engineer the contract.

Turning down a job when that’s how you earn a living requires high ethical standards. Since the barber is very likely to say you need a haircut, best think hard for yourself or ask someone without a vested interest.

Especially for complex services, codes of conduct emphasise ethical principles that are supposed to stop gullible or vulnerable clients being led into paying for solutions that are a waste of time and energy. For example, that lawyers should act within their competence, or that doctors or psychologists should do no harm.

I have met a single family lawyer in Scotland who followed his code (B1.10). He stopped doing court child welfare reports because he knew he was not qualified. Otherwise family lawyers in Scotland do these reports. They are pretty much a monopoly and are not required to have any qualification at all for the reporting task that qualified professionals take many years to learn.

If there is no competition ‘on the pitch’, clients who don’t know any better, no one with any role or power to take action, simple incompetent custom and practice like those unqualified Scottish family lawyers can go unnoticed whatever a code of conduct says.

Apart from engineering, universities tend to assume that those who enter a profession there can go straight into lectures on the details of their specialism without any introductory check on whether they do in fact have a grasp of the problem-solving process that any client and professional uses throughout their work. The outcome of this academic blindness can be: clever professionals who are not wise, street-wise, or useful.

The 3 vs 100 soccer metaphor provides us with a qualified answer to these confusions too. The trick is to separate the goal-scoring on the pitch from other goals that are best worked at off the pitch.

Problem-solving

Fun or serious, easy or challenging, problem-solving has a universal order. The logic is simple enough. A summary keeps us right:

The problem solving model (p150, Sharp 1991 – click image)

Here’s the same in a more modern form from Wabisabi Learning:

Solution Fluency (click image for short video on the six Ds)

Most obviously, we can see in the 3 vs 100 video the value of qualified staff versus under-qualified staff in any job. To solve problems, you do not want people without skills or solutions.

A football team scoring goals is clear. But many problems in life are far more complicated. The people who solve them have a complex job to do. Some problems can be simply removed (like a surgeon or car mechanic’s operation). Other problems cannot. Then the help may be for a client to solve their own life problem or live with it. Often teams do better than a single helper can.

Here’s an expanded problem-solving process – but mostly budgets, contracts and workloads impose cheap short-cuts instead:

Clarify the need and the problem, the outcome we want;
Identify the ways we might get there … This is a phase of uninhibited invention; then ruthlessly
Choose the best solution to
Do it yourself if you can, or
Find, select and appoint people who’re known to have the know-how to do the job or can help … Look for evidence of effective manner, aptitude, qualification and skill for the particular job.
If you need help to define your problem and choose a solution together, you may need to find those with know-how from the start.
The client gets a detailed explanation of the proposed solution from the expert before
Agreeing to ‘sign the contract’ and
Work together to follow the plan through, usually needing to
Negotiate adjustments to the original agreed formulation of the problem and solutions, and
Ensure that the solution does produce the expected outcome.

Basic but not always simple

This fuller description of problem-solving still looks basic. But, outside of engineering, it can get much more complicated.

Take child and family psychiatry for example: An overactive child may be lazily referred as ‘?ADHD’. The standard expectation is a tick-box assessment to confirm that view of the problem, followed by a prescription of pills as the solution. It may not be clear who the client is: child? parents? school? social or benefits agency? several of those? Readily started, the easy label and pills may carry on forever, regardless of this poor problem-solving.

A full assessment for ‘ADHD’ explores the wider picture, the factors behind the behaviour, the solutions already tried and the motivations of carers and interested parties. The client family may not want their problem seen or treated in this less simplistic way despite the more ethical personal and health benefits of finding other solutions than medication.

Uncovering the child’s or the family’s emotional stress, or maybe even abuse, creates yet another new problem description. It requires professionals to share concerns of risk with others in a way that is definitely not what most clients expect.

So the professional skills required in a case like that range seamlessly across many modes of assessment and help for children and adults: medical, psychological, developmental, educational, individual, relational, liaisonal, social and legal. You can imagine the complexities this process can cause everyone as they “negotiate adjustments to the original agreed formulation of the problem and solutions”!

That example echoes Sharp’s description (p 149) of the complexity of an engineer’s task:

The problem itself is not always easily identified;
Problem-solving is open-ended – there are many alternatives to be considered on the way to finding the ‘best’ or most suitable solution; and
There may be a significant lack of information – so further intelligent information gathering and selection is a key skill.

Elsewhere we will look at a more troubled example of a complex problem that was not tackled competently, is not easily identified, should have engaged much more intelligent information gathering, looked at many more alternative solutions before opting for the best one, and has (through the decades) not had the necessary re-negotiation and adjustment of a major re-formulation of the problem and the best solutions now.

This troublesome problem is: What do troubled separating families and their children need – who and what can best provide a system to solve the problem? Family law across the world has become central but often ineffective and unintentionally harmful. Family law’s dominant contribution to the system means it is as clumsy as a typewriter attempting to juggle.

A thorough problem-solving approach is worth it, even decades late in the case of the most troubled family separations and family law, because the simple basics of problem-solving still underpin these complicated situations. For any competent problem-solving you work on the problem and the desired outcome and shape everything else to serve that purpose. If we don’t focus on problem-solving, we will focus on some other outcome –  like money, power, quick-fix or ideology.

Team work

The football video is a great metaphor for team work. It is much easier for three qualified footballers to score a goal against a mob of under-qualified footballers than it would be for one qualified player alone. The one may just be mobbed.

In many fields – and especially in complex ones like child and family psychiatry or a functional family law system – the teamwork requires multi-disciplinary and multi-agency workers to be integrated into an effective permanent or temporary team. The quality of the work then depends on organisation, communication and planning. And it depends on the weakest link. If one worker is under-qualified, the whole system will be affected. If the tar-man fails with his ha’porth of tar, then the ship will be lost however well the rest have built it.

Equal opportunity vs equity of outcome

Of most relevance to equalism now, the metaphor shows that there is qualified work to be done ‘off the pitch’ by managers, funders, coaches, selectors, organisations, rule-makers etc in order to get the best qualified team ‘on the pitch’. This is a great way to contrast equal opportunity versus equity of outcome as ways to achieve good solutions as well as diversity in the workplace.

When appointing the qualified team, it’s important to operate ‘equal opportunity’ to ensure that the appointment gets the best qualified people for the job. That means eliminating selection bias. If black or female or LGBTQI+ footballers are the best for the job, you’d want to make very sure that they can apply and be appointed. They will score more goals.

Nowadays, a fairer diverse world wants everyone to be free and encouraged to train and qualify for any job or activity they’re interested in, whatever their group or individual (intersectional) identity. But we can see how, if you want to ensure that qualified people are ‘on the pitch’ doing a good job at scoring the goals, the training of those still under-qualified must happen ‘off the pitch’ on other training pitches.

Having under-qualified diversity in your team on the pitch may encourage more diversity, but the downside might be no goals get scored at all.

GOAL!! Click for video

Some characteristics mean a person just cannot be enabled to do a particular job or activity. The 3 vs 100 video shows that less trained young kids aren’t as big, skilful or strategic as the adults.

Often it’s less clear cut: One gender may not be generally as fit in some way for a job or sport as another gender. But generalisations don’t apply to everyone: Some men are small, weak, unfit and unskilled; some women are big, strong, fit and skilled.

Individuals may compensate in other ways too. An overweight unfit squash-player cannot run about the court but  may place the ball so skilfully they beat their sweaty opponent. And special arrangements allow those with disabilities to excel on a special pitch. Here’s blind football at the Paralympics.

Stranger problems loom too: Changes to include transgender athletes with their new gender identity now threaten to destroy the gender categories themselves. A solution may be Paralympic-style ability-categories based on relevant hormone levels in the blood not just gender identity. This concern also impacts on established female athletes who have male biology. This is a fair debate about fairness that helps us all think more clearly about biology, sex and gender, identity, ideology, diversity and sport, while protecting the main goal that athletes train for and that crowds and media companies pay to watch.

The point here is that qualification is not something a person unilaterally decides, announces and expects everyone to accept. “I am a great soccer player because I say I am”. More or less formally, other people are part of deciding. Even identity is a social thing. Coming out as gay or transgender appeals for the acceptance of others. Evidence is usually expected, to go with the declaration. Qualifying for a role or a job ‘on the pitch’ entails more than just a personal declaration and social acceptance. A more formal selection process leads to a more formal contract. Preparing for that happens ‘off the pitch’.

Off the pitch vs on the pitch

Off the pitch – on the training pitch anyway – any and all identity groups can have the opportunity to learn, train and qualify – and can be encouraged in every way. And then, if they are qualified and they want, they should have an equal opportunity to apply for and to be appointed to the ‘on the pitch’ job.

For any skilled job, it is plainly unwise to put under-qualified people ‘on the pitch’ merely as a way to make it look like proportional representation of society’s diverse groups. That makes the outcome or goal of the exercise something rather different than scoring soccer goals. Why bother with training, qualification and skills if some other characteristic gets you the job? Why bother building a quality service and then appoint under-qualified staff?

If a job is really life-savingly or money-savingly important, then promoting under-qualified diversity on the pitch is to sacrifice people’s lives and money for an illusion, a short-cut shallow pretence of an ideal society. Diversity without skill and goal-scoring ‘on the pitch’ won’t attract ticket-paying club supporters. But it might be wonderful fun ‘off the pitch’ for an amateur kick-about on the park.

A good example of a drastic diversity mistake is in the USA. The goal of increasing diversity in air traffic controllers – a life-saving job if ever there was one – meant that those with an aptitude for the job were disqualified in favour of people with minority identity characteristics but no great aptitude or skill for the job.

Equalism is about inclusion and diversity. But we can achieve this best through equal opportunity to get qualified people ‘on the pitch’ promoted by training and encouragement of all kinds for the under-qualified ‘off the pitch’.

Who you gonna call?!

A last thought about the most difficult and important modern job. It’s close to ghost-busting.

If there’s something strange in you neighbourhood …
If there’s something weird and it don’t look good …
If you’re seeing things running through your head …
An invisible man sleeping in your bed …
If you’ve had a dose of a freaky ghost baby
You better call, ghostbusters

This non-fictional job now is a kind of ghost-buster who can create reasoned debate that distinguishes the real from the unreal, the true from fake, false allegations from facts, gossip from genuine:  How do we know a qualified from an under-qualified person or team for that kind of ‘ghost-busting’? Qualified answers on a postcard please … or comment below.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

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About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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