The War on Drugs. The War on Poverty. The War on Illegal Immigration.
Fixing a dysfunctional board. Team-building to boost employee morale.
What do all these things have in common?
If you answered, “None of them have solved the problem,” you would be right. Decades of fighting drugs, poverty, illegal immigration; decades of trying to fix “the problem with boards,” or any other organizational problem – if these problems had been solved, we wouldn’t still be hearing about new efforts to fix them!
Yes, an individual user has gotten off drugs. An individual organization has become financially solid. An individual single mom has raised herself and her family out of poverty. But overall, the problems these initiatives have sought to solve are all still with us, leading the most jaded among us to just give up.
“Boards will never change.”
“The poor will always be among us.”
“Employees anymore just don’t care.”
Problem-Solving Doesn’t Solve Problems
There are many reasons problem-solving does not solve large systemic problems.
For one thing, what we call “problem-solving” is really symptom-solving. Drug use is not the end problem but a symptom of something larger. The same is true of illegal immigration, of employee morale.
Yet we continue to problem-solve narrowly, sometimes myopically. We take problems out of the larger context that created them, addressing them in a vacuum that ignores all the interdependent and interconnected issues that create and maintain that problem.
Sometimes we create these narrow “solutions” because they are all we can wrap our minds around. Or because the rest is outside our mission. Or because there is no funding or political will to do more than that.
And sometimes those narrow solutions spring from well-intentioned “Eureka” moments by folks who truly believe they have found the answer. (The latest poverty-fighting example being micro-lending.)
By definition, problem-solving is reactive. As we move forward in those reactive plans, new circumstances arise for which we did not plan. We then react to those circumstances, often entirely scrapping the old plans to fit this new information.
It should therefore be no surprise that the law of unintended consequences seems to negate virtually every problem-solving step we take. As we try to predict what might happen, things change before our eyes. When we throw up our arms and decide to just do something – because doing “something”has to be better than doing nothing – that “something” fails to hit the mark.
And the cycle of “things will never change” and “we’ll never be able to do enough” continues.
The Problem with Problem-Solving
The real problem for those of us doing Community Benefit work, though, is that we aim at problem-solving as if it were the holy grail. The ultimate, almost whispered Pollyanna-ish goal is to dare to dream of ending poverty, ending disease, ending misery and suffering.
And while those dreams are admirable, they are zero-sum dreams.
Grade school math tells us that eliminating a negative does not achieve something positive. -1+1 does not equal a positive number; it equals zero.
Ending poverty. Ending hunger. Ending homelessness.
Ending drug use. Ending illegal immigration.
Ending board apathy. Getting boards to stop micromanaging. Finally meeting our budget.
When we are problem-solving, the best result we are aiming for is zero.
BUT wait, there’s more!
Because we assume we will never reach our ultimate goal (ending poverty), we create incremental plans, hoping to “increase our ability to meet the demand for food boxes by 50% over the next year.”
The result, then, is that problem-solving is a reactive, incremental approach that at best aims at zero as its final goal, and more often aims below zero as its best possible outcome.
So – now that we know what doesn’t work, what will work? Find out in Part 2!