Why Do We Believe In Silver Bullet Solutions?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf or witch. In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

Why do we believe in silver bullets?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf.

In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

On Wednesday evening I was invited to do a talk to a group of leaders assembled by Greenacre Consult. One of the best questions I was asked was ‘why, given it’s seemingly so obvious that exploring problems and starting small makes sense, are we so enamoured by silver bullet solutions?’. I gave a rather long and rambling answer – ironically searching for a silver bullet response – so thought I’d put some thoughts down here.

Silver bullet syndrome is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s or persons problems. Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, in recruitment campaigns, in advertisements.

If only we had a person like this our problems would be solved. If only you followed this particular diet your weight concerns would go away. If only the public did this instead of that, this damned virus would disappear.

I believe there’s a strong link between how our businesses are organised and their propensity for silver bullets. In 1909, Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” In this, he proposed that by optimising and simplifying jobs productivity would increase. Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimising the way work was done. This optimisation focus arguably led to the creation of narrow specialised teams and what Phil. S. Ensor later termed the functional silo system. The contention from Ensor was that these siloed teams were indeed efficient at repetitive tasks but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

There are many advantages to silos but they can mean we become focused on narrow organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms. Chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context and cross organisational problem solving can break down. Through the silo system, as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs the ground is laid for the emergence of silver bullet solutions.

In an era of management fads and leadership worship it’s also bizarrely easy to sell these one-shot solutions. It’s soothing for us to believe that organisational tourists can arrive to save your business by doing a perfectly pitched PowerPoint with a clearly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

Pitching up and saying that an organisation most likely can’t solve this problem on their own, that you need everyone’s creativity and input, that the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail – isn’t so attractive.

The idea of a silver bullet is appealing. That new Exec hire, that restructure, that new change tool, will solve it. We are all optimists really, and we want to believe that the world is simple.

We all want the fastest and easiest solution to any problem, but as Chris Bolton and Matt Wyatt have observed, silver bullets should actually be called silver boomerangs – because they just keep coming back.

Complex problems are hardly ever solved with shiny exciting bullets. As Matt Ridley writes – breakthroughs emerge when we have a “willingness to put in the hours, to experiment and play, to try new things, to take risks— characteristics that for some reason are found in young, newly prosperous societies and no longer in old, tired ones.”

This applies to our organisations, not just societies.

The way to solve our greatest and most persistent problems isn’t glamorous at all – it’s actually quite mundane. Success is best achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet.


Photo by Itay Mor on Unsplash

How To Keep Focussed (And Remain Sane) In A World Of Complex Problems

In our heart, we know the solution does not lie in reforming silo by silo but in organizing our silos the way people organize their lives, so that the neighbourhood becomes our primary unit of analysis and change – Cormac Russell

I’ve spent two days this week with both the Connected Places Catapult in London and the Energy Systems Catapult in Birmingham. I’ve had long conversations about climate change, automation, the ageing society, housing shortages and technological disruption. And that’s before we got to health inequality, crime or poverty.

My brain is a little fried. 

We are faced with countless wicked problems in the world—issues so severe and so complex that finding answers almost seems impossible.

And yet right now as I write this there’s a politician on my TV claiming they’ll have ‘solved’ four or five of these by 2030. Good luck with that.

In truth every single one of this intractable problems will affect our organisations to some degree. How do we respond without going bankrupt (or insane) in the process?

First of all – let’s take a deep breath before we launch any new initiatives.

Earlier in the week I learned that for all the millions spent on smart metering and fuel initiatives precisely nothing has changed in our behaviours. We still use the same amount of fuel.

It’s valuable to look at the outcomes we are getting before launching something new.

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 odd 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 most of our prisons are overcrowded.  By contrast the Netherlands has a shortage of prisoners. 

How can it be that so many sectors face such crisis at exactly the same time. Is it rising demand? Lack or resources? Or the impact of years of austerity?

Or is it something more fundamental. A deeper design flaw.

Perhaps we are too keen on firing magical silver bullets – that look like attractive ways to solve deeper problems.

As Chris Bolton has written – in organisational life the term Silver Bullet has come to mean anything new that can miraculously solve difficult problems. But as he says silver bullets should actually be called Silver Boomerangs, because they fail to address the problem and keep coming back. How to avoid them? Well, I’m with Chris , if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

My reflections on this week is to return to themes that I, and many others, have written about before.

How much of our impact across the social sector is diluted by our lack of connectedness?

How much of our impact is wasted through by-passing the process of facilitating citizen-led discovery, connecting, and mobilisation? 

When all of the bullets are being fired by disconnected organisations at disconnected individuals it’s hardly surprising that most of them miss their target.

Why don’t we have seamless health, care and housing that isn’t compartmentalised, siloed and rationed across disparate organisations?

And how much of our collective resource is tied up in back office ‘management’ rather than pushing ourselves ever closer to the community?

What would it take to make such a radical shift?

In a provocative piece Adam Lent makes the case for a new law that would shift power from public institutions and into the hands of citizens. If institutions are reluctant to drop their paternalistic mind-set,  handing power and resource over to communities to solve their challenges themselves – why not force them to through legislation? 

Placing unconditional devolution and a duty to collaborate on local authorities and institutions may sound radical, but it shouldn’t be dismissed given the challenges we have.

Whether we legislate or not we need to see a transformation in leadership within our organisations. People simply aren’t prepared for a world requiring citizen led change. As I’ve written before, there are reasons for why we don’t collaborate, and our organisations are largely complicit with them.

To paraphrase Cormac  – it is time to awaken to the fact that we don’t have a health problem, nor a social care problem, nor a climate problem, nor a housing problem, we have a neighbourhood problem.

The worst two things you can do in a crisis is panic and throw money at the problem. Pausing, reflecting and doing some deep problem definition, could be the least exciting but most radical thing we could do right now.


 

Image via Straighten The Maze

Complex Problems Require Rapid Experiments

“Multiple iterations almost always beat a single-minded commitment to building your first idea”Peter Skillman

Most of you will have taken part in the Marshmallow Challenge or a variant of it. It’s the team exercise where you get a load of spaghetti, some tape, a marshmallow, a piece of string, and 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure.

Peter Skillman, who devised it, found something fascinating when he tested it on multiple participants.

Children out performed most groups – including business school students and CEOs.

When Vicky Green repeated this experiment in Bromford Lab a couple of years ago – the team that did worst were…..our Project Managers.

Marshmallow-Challenge-Are-You-More-Creative

How is it that a bunch of kids can beat trained professionals at a fairly basic task?

First of all they are unconstrained by assumptions. In one of the tests they did something that no other group did – they asked for more spaghetti.

Instead of wasting time figuring out team roles and who should do what they jumped straight in and started creating. They experimented endlessly, and just built the tallest tower they could.

Essentially – they didn’t waste time with status games, they were willing to experiment and they weren’t afraid to look stupid and fail.

Messy problems require creative exploration, not management toolkits.

Lessons in Change and Transformation

As part of a work project I’m involved in we’ve been kicking around a problem for the past few months: how do you turn around one of our most demand led services from reactive to pre-emptive?

I’ve come to a realisation over the past couple of weeks that despite all the knowledge and expertise in the organisation – none of us really have a clue. The only way out of it is to start experimenting.

The art of management is an endless search for silver bullet solutions.  For certainty where there is often none.

Chris Bolton has written a great couple of posts recently on management fads and silver bullet syndrome.  This is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s problems.

Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, and in the final week of UK election campaigning – on every single news bulletin.

It’s actually very easy to sell Silver Bullets. To stand in front of people and do a PowerPoint presentation with a perfectly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

It takes real bottle though to say you haven’t a clue how to resolve this.

That you can’t solve this on your own.

That you need everyone’s creativity and input.

That you know the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail.

It used to be cool to pretend you had all the answers but today’s complex problems require rapid experimentation not silver bullets.

If a problem has existed in your organisation for a long time it’s almost guaranteed not to be solved at your first attempt.

I’m looking at a test plan from Tom Hartland and thinking how to sell it. It essentially says “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue – I’ll tell you after the first 20 tests”. He’s right.

The best way to combat uncertainty is to spread your bets with small experiments.

None of us can afford to wait for the opportunity that’s perfectly safe.

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