Three Reasons Why We Fail To Solve Problems

At the beginning of April 2020 the World Health Organisation made a public declaration of collaboration that attempted to unify hundreds of scientific communities around one single goal: to speed the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19.

The pandemic is far from being ‘solved’, and may indeed remain unsolvable. However, one particular part of the problem was addressed just eight months later with people getting the very first vaccines, a process that normally takes years.

So how come we’ve not solved , or even made decent inroads, into problems that have beset us for decades like the housing or social care crisis?

How come you’ve likely got the same problems in your organisation that you’ve always had?

Or you thought you’d solved a problem but it just returned, in a mutated form?

The Importance of Constraints

One of the most recurring reasons for a problem not getting effectively solved is that it was never clearly defined in the first place. We’ve been doing some work at Bromford around effective team collaboration, and my colleague Carl Sautereau often talks of the ‘freedom of a tight brief’. In my language – he’s talking about the importance of a really well defined problem.

“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” was originally invoked by advertising legend David Ogilvy, as a requisite requirement for unleashing creative brilliance. Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

It reminds me of the work of Dr. Caneel Joyce, who says that “giving people too much choice limits creativity, just as giving them no choice at all does… just enough constraint incites us to explore solutions in new places and in new ways.”

She uses the analogy of a playground as a starting point for understanding the whole concept of constraints. Research found that when a fence is put up around a playground, children use the entire space to explore and play; the fence giving them a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, if that fence is removed from the playground’s border, the limits become unclear and the children stay toward the middle because that’s where they feel safe. Importantly, in team work within organisations Joyce found that the absence of clear constraints actually created conflict stemming from the unarticulated assumptions that people brought to the table.

One of the reasons for the rapid vaccine development is it had the tightest of tight briefs before it was deployed to multiple teams to solve.

Failure to Build Consensus

Another reason problems continue is where we fail to get sufficient support and don’t build a coalition around a solution. The housing sector , for example, has struggled for years to get traction behind what is a compelling argument for more affordable housing. In that case there are multiple actors involved in solving the problem , the same as vaccine development, but people have many different views on what the solution should be. Should it be more home ownership, shared ownership or rented? What’s the right mix? What does affordable even mean? Isn’t this just about too much immigration anyway? It’s a subject that can get very political very quickly, particularly in such a class conscious country as the UK.

You’ll have similar issues at organisational level, where barriers emerge at every step of the way. There are a number of ways to build consensus, but one I have found personally useful is the Japanese concept of nemawashi which means quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project.

A typical western approach would be to work up an idea or project, propose it to the boss or executive and if the idea is good enough, it will be chosen. Even assuming that approach is successful it then has numerous barriers ahead as you’ve got to negotiate the organisational antibodies designed to repel anything new or foreign.

In nemawashi the potential solution is prepared in very draft form but this time we check in with any colleague with a significant organisational position, not just bosses, to build consensus.  It takes patience and highly developed political nous but:

  • It reduces the risk of the idea by involving key people, and developing it, in the process of making it real.
  • Although there’s an upfront investment it time it reduces the time required overall, as it moves any potential conflict to the front end.
  • It increases people’s involvement in the idea, they are then personally invested in making it work as it is ‘theirs’
  • It increases the likelihood of success, because the idea has been refined by the many rather than the few

We’ve all resisted ideas because we weren’t asked or it landed outside our front door without us granting it permission. It’s a natural human reaction.

The Timing Isn’t Right

Timing is everything. A few years ago I remember doing Lab experiments on the use of QR codes for getting information to colleagues and customers. It failed.

At the time, QR readers were not built into most smartphones – it required the download of an app. Additionally, QR code use was so infrequent people were not in the behaviour of using the scanners. It had too much friction.

COVID changed all that. After a decade of mockery and dismissal, it took a period when nobody wants to touch anything apart from their phones to bring them into widespread use. I don’t know who invented the QR code , but they probably spent 10 years wondering why no-one was listening to their bright idea.

A tight brief that nails the problem and builds constraints around it , the building of consensus on a solution and the timing of the execution – all necessary components of solving problems.

Innovation isn’t about ideas. It’s about the right solution, for the right people, at the right time.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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