Every day, organisations promise to make the world a better place.
How do we know they are really succeeding?
The National Health Service we are told is the world’s best healthcare system. Yet the NHS has a poor record on one fairly important indicator – actually keeping people alive.
We often hear that housing associations prevent homelessness , but in the 50 years since Cathy Come Home rough sleeping has increased from about 965 people each night to over 4000.
We have a ‘world class legal system’, but at the end of last year 77 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. By contrast the Netherlands has a shortage of prisoners , and is turning prisons into boutique hotels and temporary homes for refugees.
Perhaps it’s time to move away from soundbites and spend a little more time at the source of the problem.
Health is an interesting one – there’s a big difference between quality and availability of healthcare and actual outcomes. The UK ranks only 23rd on the Bloomberg Healthiest Countries list. Another report by the Nuffield Trust indicates that, compared with other countries, the UK’s healthcare system is no more than ‘better than average’.
Italy , with plenty of doctors in the country and a diet full of fresh vegetables. fish and lean meats, is the place to be. Maybe it’s easier to solve problems with pasta and olive oil?
The issue of course is that problems like health, housing and offending fall into the category of what Professor Horst Rittel termed ‘wicked problems’.
Wicked problems are difficult to define. Many possible explanations may exist. Individuals perceive the issue differently. Depending on which explanation you choose, the solution takes on a different form.
Tame problems, by contrast, can be clearly written down. The problem can be stated as a gap between what is and what ought to be. There’s usually pretty easy agreement about the problem definition.
Tame problems might still need a high degree of creativity to approach – but they are ultimately solvable – often by one organisation acting alone.
Wicked problems on the other hand aren’t amenable to a single organisation with its top down instinct to define, analyse, dissect and process.
And that’s why more money for the NHS won’t make us any healthier, and more prisons won’t stop reoffending. And if you want to solve homelessness the worst thing you could do is create more housing associations.
Simon Penny (who I’m delighted to say is soon to join Bromford Lab) writes that many of our trickiest social issues can be thought of as wicked problems because of their complex nature – and this means that finding solutions to them often isn’t easy. Especially in a world where organisations and even internal departments act in isolation.
The chance of solving wicked problems whilst acting alone is virtually zero.
The issue we face is that many of our organisations are driven by top down metrics that attempt to solve things through quite a narrow lens. Because we don’t employ a rigorous process for understanding the dimensions of the problem, we miss opportunities to address the underlying strategic issues.
This gives our organisations the illusion of solving problems – but we rarely do. In fact we often create more problems for others.
Wicked problems are forever interconnected. You can’t solve them at organisation or even sector level. The challenge is connecting the various players and closing the gaps.
Perhaps if we stopped thinking of people as problems to be solved we’d turn our organisations upside down.
There are problems in communities but there are even more opportunities. Even if people do need ‘help’ they are just as likely to find what they need from a friend or a neighbour as they are from a ‘professional’.
Oh, and before you pack your bags and leave for Italy, consider that it too has failed to join up problems. Youth unemployment – at a staggering 40.3% – is twice the European average. It’s saddled with one of the world’s highest debt loads and most of those doctors that have kept the country so healthy are nearing, or even past, retirement age. The country is sitting on a time bomb.
The problem you are tackling today doesn’t start with your organisation, and neither – so it seems – does the answer.
Photo Credit: Anton Nikolov
5 thoughts on “How Do We Know Our Organisations Are Really Succeeding?”
Do you think wicked problems should be renamed wicked symptoms? It seems to me that their ‘wicked’ nature is a product of the prevailing approach to how we design and manage our organisations; that’s where the really wicked problem lies.
That’s a very insightful comment and worthy of follow up discussion!!
That’s kind of you, Paul. I’d love a follow up discussion; I know I’d learn loads from it. I’ll DM my details to you on twitter in case you can find the time.
Drat! And I was just packing my bags to move to Italy! Although I’d like to see the figures for road fatalities there
Hey Paul, interesting provocation!
I’m interested that you zeroed in on organisational metrics as an acupuncture point. What got you to that realisation / analysis?
I wonder how much organisational metrics are a symptom of other drivers, and if so – what are those drivers?
I’ve done a few root cause analysis sessions and keep coming back to one or two root causes of most wicked problems, so I’d love to hear what you see underneath most of these challenges?