The Problem With Chasing Zeroes

Stowe Boyd posed a very good question in response to my recent piece on colliding crises.

What if crises are not of the sort that can be attacked and surmounted in a ‘short period of time’? The US housing crisis (and UK) is likely to require decades of focused effort to overcome. In the business context, how long will Boeing take to rework its foundations and return to an engineering-first culture? Likewise Volkswagen? A decade?

The climate crisis will take 1000 years to get ‘back’ to the temperatures of the 1960s. Can we stay in crisis mode that long?

It’s a great point. Part of the problem is it’s very easy to set a goal date for solving something or eradicating an issue. Actually mobilising the various people, players, industries to take action whilst allocating them sufficient resources is another thing entirely.

It is common in most companies and sectors for unrealistic goals to be set.

This should not be a surprise to us, as organisations are simply a collection of people – and in our quest to lead better personal lives, we often set ourselves unattainable goals.

And whilst the persistent pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals can lead to higher achievements (via breakthrough innovation or just incremental improvement), it can often make matters worse when a failure to reach the desired results leads to wasted time and resources or a lack of motivation.

The fact that we are so quick to label every problem a crisis leads to conflicting crises all vying for attention and can lead to a belief they be eradicated entirely.

It’s notable that eradication as a realistic goal has become something of a commonly held belief.

Net Zero.

Zero Covid.

Zero Tolerance.

Number one and two of the UN Sustainable Development Goals are:

1 – End Poverty

2 – Zero Hunger

Easy huh?

The downside of this kind of super aspirational goal setting is that it can create entirely new categories of problem as efforts to eradicate one issue create a new one or exacerbate another. We’ve seen this with attempts to reach zero- Covid for example where the Chinese policy appears successful in keeping deaths low but has profoundly affected the country’s economy.

It’s a controversial point to argue, but an extreme commitment to Net Zero can result in other important goals falling by the wayside. Certainly, Sri Lanka, which scored 98 out of 100 on the “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – criteria for investment, is an example of what can happen when one goal (sustainability) is valued over another (eliminating hunger).

Most of these issues on their own fall into the category of ‘wicked problems’ —issues so severe and so complex that finding answers almost seems impossible.

However – by attempting to place Net Zero next to Zero Hunger next to Zero Poverty you create a super wicked problem. This is where chasing zeroes can get you.

Wicked problems themselves are difficult to define 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, when 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.

Many of our problems appear impossible but rather they are nijute (not impossible , just too expensive.) In the social sector this is more likely to be too expensive and just too complicated as well.

How To Tackle Impossible Problems

It’s actually fine to set big audacious goals as long as you encourage a number of experiments than can attempt to solve aspects of the larger problem. Let’s remember that breakthroughs emerge from the accumulation of numerous advances—some big and many small.

This is why all organisations should maintain an innovation pipeline that tracks all efforts to solve problems from different perspectives. It means casting the net wide and sometimes pursuing dead ends.

Innovation tends to start by generating ideas, but the hard work is selecting the best ones and prioritizing them, testing them, connecting them or killing them.

Sticking a big fat zero on the problem doesn’t solve it. It can inspire new thinking and galvanise people to a cause. But a singular focus on achieving nirvana can make our other problems immeasurably worse as well.


Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

Why We Try To Solve Problems By Adding Complexity

“Most geniuses—especially those who lead others—prosper not by deconstructing intricate complexities but by exploiting unrecognized simplicities.”

Andy Benoit

When companies want to change they almost always add something to the mix. A new team, a new senior leader, a new process, a new system.

We’re obsessed with adding new elements as a way of attempting to solve problems.

That’s why, at Bromford, we created a design principle that mandated that as we add something new we should also decommission something old.

I would be lying to you if I said it was wholly successful. It seems that when we want to change something, we are predispositioned to add things rather than subtract.

The authors of an article for HBR go some way to confirming this. They found that even when stakeholders suggested hundreds of ways to improve an organization, fewer than 10% of those improvements involved taking something away. Across a series of experiments, they found ‘that people systematically overlook subtractive changes, instead following their instincts to add’. They go on to say that ‘there is nothing inherently wrong with adding. But if it becomes a business’s default path to improvement, that business may be failing to consider a whole class of other opportunities’.

So, to improve a piece of writing, few participants in experiments produced an edit with fewer words. To improve a jam-packed travel itinerary, few removed events to allow them to enjoy the trip more. To improve a Lego structure, almost no one took pieces away.

Humans solve problems by adding complexity, even when it’s against our best interests.

In Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, Leidy Klotz describes why we do this. Often it is just signalling that we’ve done something, our innate desire to add our impression and build upon what has gone before. As he says “The problem is that it can be harder to show competence by subtracting….No matter how beneficial an act of subtraction is, it’s not likely to leave as much evidence of what we’ve done.”

Seemingly, subtraction is not the way to climb the corporate hierarchy.

When Less = More

Subtractive design is the process of removing imperfections and extraneous parts in order to strengthen the core elements.

Many of you will know that during the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman conducted a series of radical experiments on how road traffic could be managed. He stripped them of signs and other traffic controls in the belief that if drivers and pedestrians are confused, they are likely to behave more cautiously. And the evidence suggests that he was correct.

Chaos = Cooperation?

At the time, most of his colleagues believed in adding more traffic controls on the grounds that the better informed drivers and pedestrians were about the condition of the roads and how to use them, the safer they would be.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What looks like chaos can sometimes produce cooperation.

When we first designed the role of the Neighbourhood Coach that was principle we attempted to follow. What if we stripped away the policies and the procedures, the rules and regulations, the back office support colleagues and stripped a role back so it could perform its purpose unfettered of bureaucracy and interference?

A couple of weeks ago I got to go out with one of our coaches , Amy, in a neighbourhood I’d worked in about 15 years ago. It was what we once called a “Bronze Estate” , one of those places that was beset by a range of social problems and the resultant indicators of high rent arrears and anti-social behaviour.

What was clear to me is that Amy was succeeding where we had failed. Rather than adding things (specialist teams, additional budgets, new policies, more ‘professionals’) she was fostering community connections, bringing people together to solve problems and empowering individuals to do things for themselves rather than being done to.

She was strengthening the core elements rather than adding in new and temporary resources.

We often find it easier to face a complex problem than a simple one. However, by taking time to seek out those unrecognised simplicities and resisting the temptation to add more stuff we may solve those problems in an easier and much more sustainable way.


Header image by CongerDesign

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