Would Practical Wisdom Improve Customer Service?

Barry Schwartz spoke at TED this past February about “practical wisdom,” a classical term that Schwartz redefines in a modern context as knowing when and how to make exceptions to every rule, and when and how to improvise. His point, largely, is that a lot of modern life would run more efficiently, and more justly, if people would stop blindly following and enforcing rules when they become absurd.

Schwartz notes that when things go wrong, we either go for rules or incentives—but that neither “are enough to do the job.” If you rely too much on rules, moral skills are chipped away, and the desire to do “right” atrophies. If you offer new incentives to get something done, you risk undermining the original incentive. Instead, you have to acknowledge and celebrate moral exemplars. Can you imagine if a call center shifted away from overscripted, factory-style rules and instead pushed its employees to serve the interests of both the business and the customer as well as possible, with guidance from trained experts? Those employees would even carry that wisdom with them to other jobs—or be promoted up within the company.

Schwartz also points out that knowledge without wisdom is not very useful to mankind, which of course anyone who’s seen The Dark Crystal already knows.


It’s a 20 minute talk, so if you want to download it as a video or mp3 file, go here.

Yeah, we know, we missed this the first time around a couple of months ago.

“Barry Schwartz: The real crisis? We stopped being wise” [TED]