Monday, March 29, 2010

Problem solving is the problem

A quote I have been coming back to frequently is this one from H. L. Mencken:
For every complex problem there is always a solution that is clear, simple and wrong.
This seems to be more and more true as we face issues and conditions that require an approach different from what know as problem solving.

Problem solving has us believe that things can be clearly defined and are discrete in themselves. It also leads us to believe that to solve a problem, all we have to do is look at the issue in the narrowest context and apply a short-term, straight-line fix.

Although there are issues and conditions that can be successfully addressed this way, fewer and fewer issues and conditions will respond to this approach—and certainly not the most important ones.

Nearly every problem faced by an organization is exceedingly complex. Yet we act as if simple cause and effect is at work. We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong.

When we consider the truly critical issues of our time such as environmental deterioration, poverty, endemic ill-health, urban blight, social polarization, etc., we find it virtually impossible to view them as problems that exist in isolation --or, as problems capable of being solved in their own terms.

The reason the important problems do not respond to simple, problem solving solutions is that they entail much higher levels of complexity:
  • Things are much more interconnected and interrelated. Our actions and their results are now widely separated in time and space.
  • The future is unfamiliar and unpredictable. Solutions cannot be calculated in advance based on what has worked in the past. Emergent solutions have to worked out as situations unfold.
  • People involved look at things very differently because of greater diversity and lower trust. Solutions cannot be given by authorities; the people involved must participate in creating and implementing solutions.
High complexity demands new ways of solving problems. 
When there are low levels of complexity, simple, straight-line solutions often will be enough to stay on track. Simple problems can be solved using processes that are familiar:
  • focus on the parts of a problem in isolation,
  • rely heavily on what has worked in the past or elsewhere (“best practices”), and
  • participants  are open to solutions proposed by leaders or experts.
As we focus on lasting change in groups, organizations and the community, we are dealing with increasingly high levels of the three types of complexity where success only comes through using processes that:
  • focus on working with all the parts as a single system,
  • accept that solutions emerge as situations unfold, and
  • involve the people concerned in developing the solutions.
The problems we are seeing today are more and more the unintended result of the solutions implemented during the last round of problem solving.

We can draw our lesson from Einstein:
A problem cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which it was created.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Lead with clockware AND swarmware

When life is far from certain, lead with clockware and swarmware in tandem.  

Balance data and intuition, planning and acting, safety and risk, giving due honor to each.

“Clockware” is a term that describes working ways that are rational, planned, standardized, repeatable, controlled and measured. In contrast, “swarmware” refers to working in ways that explore new possibilities through experimentation, trials, autonomy, freedom, intuition and working at the edge of knowledge and experience. The idea is to say just enough to paint a picture or describe the absolute boundaries, and then get the people in situations with high levels of complexity active in trying whatever they think might work.

    “For jobs where supreme control is demanded, good old clockware is the way to go. Where supreme adaptability is required, out-of-control swarmware is what you want.”—Kevin Kelly

    “Cohesive teams are needed for day-to-day issues. Spontaneous learning networks that have open conflict and dialogue are vital to handling strategic issues.”—Ralph Stacey
It is not a question of saying that one is good and the other is bad. The issue is about finding an appropriate mix for a given situation. Where the world is certain and there is a high level of agreement among people—where people have to repeat the same process over and over to get the optimal results, like the activities in the operating room during a routine surgery—clockware is appropriate. In a clockware situation, agents give up some of their freedom and personal mental models to accomplish something they have collectively agreed upon. The group displays less emergent, creative behavior, and begins to act more like a machine. There is nothing wrong with this.

However, where the world is far from certainty and agreement (near the edge of chaos) swarmware is needed with its adaptability, openness to new learning and flexibility. Swarmware is also needed in situations for which the old clockware processes are no longer adequate for accomplishing the purpose, in situations for which the purpose has changed or in situations in which creativity is desirable for its own sake.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts on Changing the World

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  -- Margaret Mead

It is almost impossible to know how we accomplish such monumental tasks.
But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and it continues, step by step by step. Mahatma Ghandi said you must become the change you want to see in the world.
Every action throws concentric rings, like a stone thrown in a pond.
Here is a story from One Thousand and One Nights:
The Caliph Harun al-Rashid, of Baghdad was walking in disguise, when he saw an old man planting a date tree. Date trees take at least 50 years to fruit, so there was no chance the old man would ever benefit from it.

The Caliph went over and asked why he was doing that.

The man replied, “For my grandchildren.”

The Caliph gave the man a gold dinar. The man recognized him, and said, “Behold, my Caliph! Not even in the ground yet, and this tree hath already borne fruit!”

The Caliph laughed, and gave him another Gold dinar.
The man said, “Behold a miracle, my Caliph! Not even in the ground yet, and this tree hath borne 2 crops in a single year!” 
Why tell that story? Stories are about patterns.
More often than not, when you get totally committed to a really difficult task, it doesn’t take as long as you expect.
Somehow, things start snowballing.
The first time is always the hardest time, then things get easier. Get started. Do anything. Do what you can where you are with what you have.
Ghandi said to do what you must, and not worry about the fruits. We won’t see rewards for this kind of work, but do it anyway.
Nothing frustrates the naysayers more than persistence and success.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thoughts on healthcare reform, systems and transformation

Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of a healthcare reform bill and a set of “fixes” that will go back to Senate for approval.

Here are two questions that this long national exercise raises for me:
1.  In what ways is healthcare in the United States a system?
2.  What kind of change are we getting? Is it transformation?

U.S. healthcare as a system?
Healthcare in the U.S. is and is not a system. (Duality, paradox, ambiguity--you can’t avoid it.) The way healthcare is delivered in this country is so fragmented that virtually no one would call it a coherent or sustainable system. Yet everything is connected to everything else, so in that sense it is a system.

All of the fragments work to optimize conditions, outcomes and benefits for themselves. Sometimes this is in competition with other fragments, often it is in isolation from other fragments, only rarely in cooperation or collaboration.

So what we have is a many-headed monster that we have had difficulty even perceiving, let alone taming.

If you accept the axiom that all systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results they get, then the facts that we pay far more for healthcare in this country and get less than best in the world results should come as no surprise.

What kind of change are we getting?
There was a lot of rhetoric last night about this. The voices against the plan that passed said this change is too much, too fast. I ask is it big enough and fast enough?

Changes can be viewed as incremental, transitional, or transformational.

Those who were against the plan that passed said they favored an incremental approach: fix a few of the fragments, slowly over time. Although this approach may be problematic for a number of reasons, let’s look at the systems ramifications.

The best way to get unintended consequences is in trying to address in isolation small fragments of a complex systems. Since everything is so interconnected and incoherent, it is almost impossible to see how actions in one part will eventually have consequences later. In fact, many current problems are the unintended and unanticipated effects of the last fragmented fix.

A really transformational approach that would completely change the system, viewing it as an interconnected whole, making it coherent was not on the table. One  transformational approach to healthcare is the single payer approach called Medicare for All in H. R. 676.

This plan, in bill form, is under 30 pages long. It completely transforms the whole healthcare system. And because it is addressing the whole system, it gets to the simplicity and elegance that lies beyond the complications trying to bring coherence to a collection of disjointed fragments. It is really worth reading if you are interested in a transformational, systems approach to a wicked social problem.

Find H.R. 676 at

What we are getting in the healthcare legislation that is now moving through Congress is a transitional change. It tries to bring the fragments into a more coherent alignment without really transforming the system. It seems to be based on a sincere effort to comprehend the whole system, rather than look at fragments in isolation, but it does not rise above the complications of maintaining a system that is inherently fragmented.

A commentator on the BBC last night characterized the healthcare bill as just a piece of consumer legislation.

Let’s hope it is at least that.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Eight key learnings in transformational change

Over the course of my working with individuals, groups, organizations and communities on transformational change, some things happen often enough that they demand attention.

Here are eight lessons I have learned from my work about what makes change happen:

  1. The vision powers and unites everything.
  2. It takes people with a passionate commitment to the vision to ignite progress. But it does not take a lot of them in the beginning.
  3. If we want new results, we will have to do new things. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results—Einstein.
  4. People support what they create. Local ownership and a meaningful role in decision making are necessary for energy, creativity and commitment.
  5. When partnership members are diverse, able to adapt to individual conditions, and united by common vision and values, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It will look and act more like a social movement than a chain of command.
  6. When committed people self-organize to solve common problems, new solutions may emerge. But we cannot control or predict what those solutions will be or when they will happen. Prepare to be surprised.
  7. Small actions can produce enormous results.
  8. Results can come surprisingly quickly once a tipping point is reached.
Here's the elevator message on transformational change:
  1. A few passionate people can ignite progress.
  2. People support what they create.
  3. Small actions can produce enormous results.
What lessons have you learned?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

People who have conversations that matter are happier

According to a new study reported by the New York Times, people who spend more time in conversations that matter are happier than people whose conversations are more about small talk.

So not only do conversations that matter lead to better solutions, wiser action, and stronger community, they increase the quality of people's lives.

Here is an excerpt form the article:

March 17, 2010
Talk Deeply, Be Happy?

Would you be happier if you spent more time discussing the state of the world and the meaning of life — and less time talking about the weather?

It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

“We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr. Mehl said.

But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

“By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world,” Dr. Mehl said. “And interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

Read the article here: Talk Deeply, Be Happy?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

We live in a new world.

For every complex problem there is always an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken

These are unprecedented times. It has simply never been this way before.
Our world had never been more interconnected and interdependent.
In order to understand and function successfully, we need to deal with high levels of complexity, and situations loaded with abstraction, diversity, ambiguity and paradox. Our familiar mental models do not equip us for this.

It is hard to see beyond the horizons of the short time spans with which we usually work. Next month, next quarter are less important that next year, next generation.

Few people are trained to recognize and work in high levels of complexity. Our mental models are based on short-term, straight-line ideas of cause and effect. Before we can recognize high levels of complexity, we have understand what it is. We can’t see it until we believe in it.

This blog is about how to function and flourish in this complex, interconnected world.