8 min read

🇺🇸Zenocracy: 5 tweaks to reframe politics and see a better path forward

🇺🇸Zenocracy: 5 tweaks to reframe politics and see a better path forward
Photo by Liz Artymko / Unsplash

🎧 Listen to this episode on the S3T Podcast - Be sure to follow the S3T podcast so you never miss a show!

S3T Special Edition: Making adjustments to our political vocabulary and our thinking about democracy, is the first step on a better path forward.

🇺🇸 This week as the US celebrates its 248th birthday, there's something on everyone's mind, especially with the recent headlines and the upcoming election: its this eerie feeling that something's not right about our democracy but our current political vocabulary doesn’t give us the words to diagnose what it is. Or how to move to something better.

We are steeped in certain ways of thinking and talking about democracy - locked in to the logic of “left vs right“ and “center” or "political gridlock" etc. These ways of thinking - clearly - haven't been getting us the results we want...regardless of what side of the spectrum you may happen to be today. The one thing we ALL can agree on, the one common ground we ALL have is: we aren't very happy with how this works.

So maybe - just maybe - it's time to rethink our vocabulary and conventional wisdom about our democracy. What it means for our individual responsibilities and interactions, and what it means for us all together - in our towns, states and our nation.

So what would help us do that? Call me crazy...

Moving trucks, steering wheels, and rear view mirrors offer some silly simple but powerful hints about how to break out of political dysfunction.

Making a few changes to the words and phrases we use to describe democracy, politics and the experience of being a citizen, can help us start to think and work differently. The ripple effect can be better than you might expect.

a moving truck parked in a gravel lot with trees in the background
Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

...no this is not a placement ad for U-Haul. It was the only photo I could find.

Did you ever have to back a moving truck into a driveway?

You probably approach this task with a certain amount of trepidation. You don't want to hit your mailbox on one side, and you don't want to run over the rose bushess on the other side. You want to get the truck in the ideal position - the shortest path for bringing stuff out of your house and putting it into the truck.

So you use your mirrors yes, the left one and the right one. You also use your steering wheel to turn sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left.

You see where I'm going with this?

You may even have one or two people on each side of the truck so they can help guide you. You do this so you can so you can end up where you want to be, while minimizing the chance of a mishap.

Like I said it's silly simple...but this is the basic skill that seems to be eluding us as a nation. Getting to where we want to be while minimizing risks of mishaps.

Driving your car vs driving a moving truck: the difference holds a few key hints about how to make democracy work in the 21st century.

In this simple scenario you were willing to make 5 tweaks to your normal driving and thinking patterns. These tweaks helped you successfully get the moving truck where you wanted it:

You were willing to make 5 adjustments:

  • Get out of your comfort zone,
  • Engage in a specific, real - not hypothetical - situation
  • Set a clear destination and purpose
  • Use multiple perspectives to help you navigate,
  • Made frequent adjustments based on careful observation.

Let's unpack these 5 tweaks, and see how they offer powerful changes to how we think and work in our democracy.

Get out of your comfort zone

If you're like the average person, you don't drive moving trucks very frequently. They're big and they don't handle the same familiar way your car handles. To top it off, you're having to drive it backwards. You're - in a small way - getting outside of your comfort zone, in order to accomplish something important to you and your family.

If we are to enjoy the benefits of citizenship in a functional democracy, it means all of us have to get out of our comfort zones in order to help achieve things that are important to our families and communities. It means engaging with people who might think differently, or might focus on different priorities than you do.

Engage in specific real world contexts not hypotheticals

This moving truck, in this driveway, today. You are not writing a white paper about moving trucks. You're opening a truck door and sliding into the truck seat. You're not talking about it, you're doing it.

This is key - I've seen it over and over: Ask any group of people about a hypothetical scenario or problem, and they'll have all kinds of conflicting answers. In the hypothetical we all can remain hopelessly and indefinitely at odds. But put us in a specific situation where we have skin in the game, and we can bring our different viewpoints together to solve the problem.

This proves true over and over. Why? Because non-hypothetical situations engages people differently. What if? is different from What next? We are ultimately empirical creatures. We want the facts. We want something that works. We want to see it for ourselves. We want to watch what's happening and then make adjustments. We want to experiment and solve. We want to see stuff get fixed.

Unfortunately ad-driven news channels don't let us work this way. Instead of giving us avenues of action, they give us prompts for ads and anxiety. They flood us with alarmist messaging intended to keep us glued to our phones or TVs for endless periods of time - not so we can be informed active citizens, but so we can be paralyzed anxious consumers, clicking ads & spending cash to make food and stuff show up on our doorstep.

So the answer is get out of the hypothetical and go work with other people on solving something real. Steer clear of political discussions over distant situations that you have no empirical ability to interact with. The emperical and the hypothetical don't mix. One understands scarcity, consequences and the power of action driven learning to solve things people thought couldn't be solved. The other is content with all talk and no action.

Have clear goals

Once you get out of the hypothetical and start working with others on fixing real problems, you come to the next tweak: having a clear goal and outcome vs something vague like "never let the other side win." That kind of vague notion could materialize in a lot of ways that all sides will regret. Clear destinations...this is what we want by this timeframe.

In the moving truck example, your goal is to position the moving truck at the best possible point for loading, without having a mishap. You had a specific goal and specific limited time to get it done.

Establish a clear vision of where we want to go as a nation on specific opportunities. What's the outcome. Where do we want to be? What do we want to be like? What will it take to get there?

Let multiple perspectives guide you

A truck that can only steer right, or only steer left, is doomed to go in circles. Likewise mirrors on the right only, or the left only, leave us with huge blind spots.

We need multiple perspectives to navigate and solve the complex problems we face today. This means we need to make it possible for people of all educational backgrounds to participate in the political process. By fostering inclusivity and valuing diverse perspectives and encouraging broad engagement, we can create a more vibrant and effective democracy.

One more thing: Leading the conversation is not the same as dominating the conversation - or doing all the talking. Leading the conversation means making sure a good conversation happens. Having a respect for the different kinds of problem solving skills that diverse sets of people can bring. As noted in The Upside of Wicked Problems, complex issues don't yield to single disciplines or simple recipes.

People abandon centrism and shift to far right or left ideologies when they feel like their needs aren't being met. For these individuals and communities, centrism offers little more than a useless exercise find a middle between ideological extremes - Placating, pragmatic, lacking principal and focused on appeasement and ending up with casseroles of compromise that don't effectively address the root causes.

Adding the element of navigation can give us a different position to think and work from: Back to the moving truck analogy. The goal was not simply to be "in the middle of the driveway." The goal was to get the truck in the best position for loading it up, while minimizing the risk of a mishap like hitting the mail box or the rose bushes.

Remember Navigation Not Centrism: This is not about being a centrist or "finding middle ground" ...locating some compromise that is the average of all least offensive proposals. Navigation means finding the best route forward, which often involves integrating diverse viewpoints and adapting to new information.

Make frequent adjustments based on careful observation

When you're backing the moving truck up the driveway, what are you doing the entire time? Watching. Taking it slow. Using your mirrors. Checking with the 2 people who are signaling if you're getting to close to one thing or the other. And signaling when you need to stop so you don't hit the house.

In other words, you're moving intentionally, and making adjustments - steering the wheel to the right, then to the left, then back...all based on constant careful observation and feedback about how you're progressing. You're making frequent adjustments based on continuous careful observation.

This continuous observation and frequent adjustments was one of the key best practices of the Omaha 360 project - an effort in Omaha, Nebraska that reduced gun violence and is being emulated now in other cities.

Omaha has significantly reduced gun violence, homocides and police complaints thanks to Omaha 360 a collaborative effort that brings local government and community stakeholders together on a regular basis to listen, share updates, and decide what issues to focus on in the next 7-10 days. This profile shares an overview of the working processes, and this Omaha 360 web page has contact information.


The fundamental challenge of democracy in the 21st century is find an inclusive and effective ways to solve problems and manage risks on a large scale. This requires that we introduce new key words and concepts into our political vocabulary. I think it would be exciting to explore and lean into a something we might call Zenocracy, the next generation - better more engaged and effective - version of democracy that embodies the tweaks discussed above. A recipe for happiness in an age of complexity.

In conclusion, change starts with a willingness to think differently. And this can start by being willing to introduce some new words and concepts to our political vocabulary. By moving from an opinion-based to an empirical, problem-solving approach, setting clear goals, and fostering inclusivity, we can navigate our political landscape more effectively and create lasting, positive change.

As we reflect on the events and memories that shape our national story this Independence Day weekend, I want to thank you for your commitment to learning about change leadership - what is most likely going to be recognized as the most critical skillset of our age. And thank you for the positive beneficial change you are working hard to bring to the communities and customers wherever you are. I hope you have a wonderful weekend and a great week ahead!

A group of four different colored flowers on a black background
Photo by Buddha Elemental / Unsplash

Thank you for reading and sharing S3T. If you are enjoying S3T please give it a like or repost on LinkedIn or other platforms where you learn and share! This helps us with our mission of encouraging change leaders and innovators in their vital work.

Opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not reflect the official positions of companies or organizations those individuals may be affiliated with. Not financial, investment or legal advice. Authors or guests may hold assets discussed.