Finding Zero Gravity in Big Messy Social Problems

500 volunteers "move a mountain" 10 cm with spades, art performance by Francis Alys
I recently worked with a team who has been tasked with a massive problem in federal government. The problem is so huge, if you ask every person on the team to explain it, they will each give you a different answer.  They have less than a year to somehow tame this wicked problem.  I was brought in because with a problem so big and ugly, no one could agree on the team how to start dealing with it.

We all know that whenever someone says "well I'll tell you the real problem," you might as well stop listening to him because that person has no idea whats going on. First, there is no 'real' problem. There are only perceptions of problems, evidence to be found, and theories of how those perceptions and evidence match or do not match.  To define a big problem is hard, and sometimes impossible, but one needs a path forward and isolating everything through one concept is not the way.  To find the best path forward requires discovering the most opportune point of entry into the problem and the only way to find this is for everyone in the room to stop thinking.

In the past, I've written about the necessity to have clarity of your personal values regarding the work that you do and also the necessity to not inject those values in the work.  These statements may appear to be contradictory - but they are not.  You need to stop thinking about the problem, and identify where you stand, so as to better separate yourself and engage it on its own terms. Clarity of values is essential to ensure they are not integrated into your thought process and avoiding integration is essential to inform better thinking about the problem.

Its like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car on every street, but before you bought this car, you never saw it anywhere.  When you let personal values exist with your attempt to engage a problem - that x is good or bad, that x is desirable or not, that x is the right solution - that value is surrounded with a gravitational force that will pull other ideas and ways of working near it. Like just like seeing your new car over and over, you will see things that align with that value, and everything else will be less obvious. You might see every Black Toyota Corolla on the street and fail to see the Black Prius.  If you approach the problem stripped of values, it will be necessary to construct strategies to observe and measure ideas/insights, and these strategies will exist only in relation to the problem - not the other stuff. You will develop a better way to see cars.

Another thing that can derail the ability to deal with a big problem is when the problem/solution is to advance alongside a desired side-benefit.  If I approach a problem with the goal "this solution will be so excellent it will impress lots of people, generate a 10 million dollar contract, and therefore advance my career" then every idea and option will be weighed against that 10 million dollar contract.  A lot of people make this mistake and I used to do it all the time which led to more  frustration than happiness.  Approaching a problem in this way, you forget that there are a million external unknown factors which also will determine the acquisition of the reward, and if it doesn't happen, you will still not see them - believing that your solution was somehow a failure but unsure why.

The bigger problem with this approach, is that the solution generated is not likely to be the ideal solution for the problem because it was affected by the gravitational pull of the reward.  With the reward in the review mirror, I will lose sight of the fast and simple solutions in front of me. I will get distracted. I will lose others on the road. Under the stress of all these new conditions, I will generate an output that meets the reward criteria, but the output will not structurally align to the demands of the problem. It will only create a new set of problem conditions, eventually passing the problem to someone else, and potentially making the problem bigger.

There a place where your values come back into the problem - when the job is finished. The reward of this process does satisfy personal values, but on account that the process has generated the best viable solution that checks as many boxes as possible.  Since these boxes are determined by the demands of the problem, the problem has been crushed, and even if it continues, it is only a whisper compared to the previous chaos.  To watch something terrible change from chaos to whisper is truly satisfying.

To work in zero gravity is to be liberated.  Solve the problem according to the demands of the problem and the other things will likely happen anyway. Success, however you measure it, because you will leave a path of crushed problems behind you and others will eventually notice. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter because you've done something extraordinary that speaks for itself.