The Problem With Constantly Finding Problems

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever.

Anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail

Abraham Maslow or Abraham Kaplan (attributed)

Earlier this week I was challenged about my overuse of the word ‘problem’.

It’s a fair cop – innovation and design types are fond of saying you shouldn’t go looking for great ideas, you should unearth great problems.

If you jump straight to answers two things can happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Indeed many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

My experience shows me that a lot of leaders simply don’t like problem definition, or even the word problem.

See, people don’t like admitting that organisations , or their departments, even have problems. One of the reasons for this is that is it runs counter to the narrative of the heroic leader. Admitting that you don’t even know the problems you face, never mind the solutions to them, is a definite blot on your copybook.

However , there is a problem with obsessive problem seeking.

As Pat McCardle writes, seeing people as a series of problems to be solved can lead to an epidemic of mass fixing. “The expectation is that everything from noisy neighbours, exam stress, misbehaving kids, sadness, unhappiness, everything that we experience as negative in our life, must either be solved by a service, state intervention, or a drug.” As she says, when we have evolved cultures and systems that are only designed to solve problems we risk focussing on weakness and deficits. We become very efficient hammers searching for vulnerable looking nails.

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever. This in part explains why people feel the world is getting worse despite almost every measure confirming our planet is safer, happier and less violent than ever.

At organisational level this presents an issue – as we can unknowingly employ lots of people whose job it is to find problems that either don’t exist or aren’t a priority.

There are lots of examples of this that we see in day to day life. David Levari gives us the scenario of a Neighbourhood Watch made up of volunteers. When a new member starts volunteering, they raise the alarm when they see signs of serious crimes, like burglary. Overtime though the neighbourhood watcher may start to make relative judgments which keep expanding their concept of “crime” to include milder and milder transgressions, long after serious crimes have become rare. The ‘problem’ expands even as the original problem appears to have been solved.

The reason for this, as Daniel Gilbert says, may lie in a phenomenon called “prevalence induced concept change”. In a series of experiments they showed that as the prevalence of a problem is reduced, humans are naturally inclined to redefine the problem itself. The result is that as a problem becomes smaller, people’s conceptualisations of that problem become larger, which can lead them to miss the fact that they’ve solved it.

In some cases, Gilbert says, prevalence-induced concept change makes perfect sense, as in the case of an Accident and Emergency doctor trying to triage patients. Someone who has sprained an ankle will have longer to wait than someone with a head wound. But on a quiet day the sprained ankle could take precedent over other less serious issues. The context changes the priority of the problem.

In other cases, however, prevalence-induced concept change can be a problem.

As Gilbert outlines “Nobody thinks a radiologist should change his definition of what constitutes a tumour and continue to find them even when they’re gone.That’s a case in which you really must be able to know when your work is done. You should be able to see that the prevalence of tumours has gone to zero and call it a day. Our studies simply suggest that this isn’t an easy thing to do. Our definitions of concepts seem to expand whether we want them to or not.”

So if you’ve ever faced:

  • The overzealous IT Infosec person who constantly raises security concerns.
  • The Health and Safety team who create more and more training courses for people to complete.
  • The Research team who keep telling you more research and more resource is needed.
  • The Design team who tell you that your latest service needs to go back to problem definition as it hasn’t been implemented correctly.
  • The CEO who wants another change programme.

You could be facing cases of prevalence-induced concept change.

As Gilbert says – anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done.  

This is something our businesses have to get better at, as not knowing when to stop is the the prime driver of organisational overreach. But as the studies suggest – simply being aware of this problem is not sufficient to prevent it.

What can prevent it?

That’s another problem.


Photo by Jules Bss on Unsplash

The Problem With Finding Answers

Don’t Look for a Great Idea. Look for a Good Problem – Greg Satell

Yesterday I spent five and half hours in a room with my colleagues Carole and Simon trying to get to the root of a problem.

Three colleagues – over 16 hours of valuable time, just thinking.

It was worth every minute. We’d missed at least two crucial questions in our service design and were perilously close to jumping straight to answers.

If you jump straight to answers two things happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

16 hours of thinking time – with no measurable outcome – is likely to be questioned as an indulgence.

At the same time many of us will spend a lot of this week in meetings, most of which will be about creating activity rather than deliberation.

John Wade is surely on to something when he talks about a different kind of meeting where people rarely speak…and if they do they never try to assert their ideas or opinions over others. Maybe we just need more listening?

More Agile, More Problems

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off.

In the social sector addressing wicked problems is never going to be fast. It’s not just about a launching a new app, or customer ‘portal’ (cough).

We need to question some fundamental assumptions about how our businesses interact with citizens. And that may require unearthing some entirely new problems.

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 07.53.38

The Problem with Solutions

If we don’t nail the problem, and fully explore idea generation, we put all our efforts into actions.

This looks good in a project plan because it appears to reduce uncertainty.

Right now people are getting a little nervy as Insight and Innovation at Bromford are expanding the range of options to consider. Our list of questions, our multiple lines of enquiry – grow daily.

But if, as Tim Kastelle says, you’re disciplined enough to be able to live with that ambiguity for a while, you usually end up with a better answer to your problem.

Show Me The Data!

Here’s the thing: most of what we know is bullshit.

We presume that the way our organisations’ operate is because of some profound truth or deeply understood purpose – when often we have just built upon past behaviours and (sometimes false) assumptions.

Amazon talk of a truth-seeking culture. Of a belief that there’s an answer to every question and the job is to get the best answer possible. No PowerPoint is allowed at meetings. Six page word documents are read in silence at the start and never distributed in advance. This is to encourage focus, attention and establishing the facts.

In our session yesterday we stopped many times and asked:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Building a culture around evidence and enquiry might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.

Ask a better question, get a better answer.

How Do We Know Our Organisations Are Really Succeeding?

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.

 

1600x-1

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

%d bloggers like this: