A Few Words About Problem Solving

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a bit obsessed with words. Not just words themselves, but how we use them, what that shows us about how we think, and what it means when their definitions creep. It’s a side effect of having been trained as a lawyer and a journalist, I think. Or at least, that’s what I blame it on. Either way, it’s gotten me thinking about something. We have to change the way we talk about solving problems. Let me explain. We, at FrontlineSMS, are very lucky to have a lot of friends,users, and partners who are trying to fundamentally change the way that we, as a world, operate. Many of these friends, over the years, have been recognized for their incredible work using just about every buzzword out there, from innovators to entrepreneurs to technologists to… you get the point. While I join the rest of the world in applauding the work they do, I worry about what it means that we lionize people who understand something we should all realize: problems are almost never solved and one solution almost never works for everyone. Somehow, acknowledging a state of constant change has became synonymous with a sprawling new vocabulary that tries to categorize people who solve problems.


I’m all for recognizing those who catalyze change- I’m just also concerned that by celebrating them as unique, we externalize what they do and, in some small way, absolve ourselves of responsibility for pushing change in our own contexts. Lots of people have recognized the extreme diversity of problem solvers- I’ve found them everywhere.

One of the common things that I notice in almost all of the people who are changing the world is that they recognize the evolving nature of problems and the contexts in which they happen. I’ve found these people in government, non-profits, and, of course, business. Entrepreneurs were, prior to a few years ago, people who made businesses. They were not vanguards or innovators or harbingers of the brave new future, they were people who made their business in, well, business. There wasn’t an ‘entrepreneurial’ way of looking at the world, there were just people who identified market opportunities and worked within growing investment markets and business models to meet them. The thing is, all that really describes is problem solving with a profit motive, and people have been solving problems with varying degrees of profit motive for… as long as we’ve been around. The way we use these terms loses the forest for the trees.

More important than the use of the words, though, is what it says about how we think. So let me be clear about some of my core assumptions and what I think they mean:

1.) Things are now, and have always been, changing. Technological evolution, scientific breakthroughs, climate change, urbanization, and globalization (to name a few), shift the circumstances in which we live and make decisions, requiring us to constantly reconsider the way that we solve problems, provide services, share knowledge, and act as collectives. What has changed beyond precedent, though, is the rate of change. Things are invented, distributed, contextualized, fragmented, broken, and reinvented so quickly now that the only thing that is constant is change. The only stable assumption is instability.

2.) Humans are inherently path-dependent creatures. From the very beginning of learning how to solve problems, we find a solution, learn it, and then stop looking for more solutions to that problem, until it doesn’t work anymore. In the meantime, though, everything around the problem changes and by the time we’re seeking a new solution, so much of the context has changed that we struggle to understand the larger concepts (i.e.- having to explain the whole Internet in order to show someone how to pay a bill online). The difficulty of teaching people new habits is one of the largest obstacles to the development and deployment of new systems to solve problems.

There are a number of major things that have happened in the last hundred years that make this even more complicated, such as the doubling of human life expectancy (meaning that we have to solve problems over a much longer span and a lot more changes to try to process) and the exponential growth in information and human connectedness (increasing the amount of information we need to process, the number of problems we encounter, and the complexity of the contexts in which they exist). Human nature is increasingly ill-suited to navigate the reality that it is creating.

More fundamentally, though, we need to break the cognitive habit of developing path dependency, at least to the degree possible. It’s only by building fluid problem solving habits and institutions that are inclusive of multiple approaches across diverse contexts that we’ll be able to manage the incredible complexity that our changing, collective problems create.

3.) Institutions and markets are the systems that we’ve developed to solve problems. The problem is, though, that they have grown at very different rates. Institutions and governments have the dual responsibility of supporting (and regulating) markets, while establishing and enforcing protections for individuals. Conversely, markets now evolve at a rate that institutions aren’t structurally designed to manage, let alone bridge the growing gap between businesses and people.

Government by Design
Government by Design

In most countries, governments institutions are, very intentionally, charged with controlling the rate of change of everything from cultural norms, business practices, currency, etc. in an effort to make sure that it results in the collective good. We have given governments and organizations the responsibility for identifying our needs and teaching us, collectively, the habits and behaviors that meet them. Obviously, success varies, but most institutions have not built the learning processes or internal mechanisms necessary to keep pace with the accelerating environment around them.

There is no question that there’s a need to change the way we solve problems, but that doesn’t necessarily require a profit motive. You do not have to be an entrepreneur to fix a system, you have to understand the problem it solves, the context of that problem, and the ways that new approaches can improve that solution.

There is an emerging term for people who are focused on new ideas within organizations: intrapreneur. The term refers to people who bring new ways of doing things (although, more commonly, just new ideas) to an existing organization. In my opinion, the term acts to the detriment of the ideas it intends to support- but more on that in the conclusion.

It is imperative now, more than ever, that we explicitly begin building flexibility into institutional and governance mechanisms. Likely, this will mean creating institutional processes capable of continuously generating new paths to the same outcome and finding ways to consolidate their outputs into a single process. And while market viability matters, it’s important that we don’t confuse managing change with being motivated by profit.

4.) There is a quote by William Gibson, given new life by Tim O’Reilly: “The future’s here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” I’ve always loved this quote for how it captures the challenge of the spreading future, but it speaks to a vision that I struggle with.

There is no one future. And we don’t appear to be getting closer to one future, at least not in how we communicate with information and each other. The world around us is fragmenting, not coalescing. There are more countries (and governments), technologies, and types of infrastructure than ever before. The ways that we publicly and privately invest in infrastructure, business practices, and regulatory reform is driving a more variable, not uniform, landscape for human interaction. In order to manage the wide range of challenges posed by this fragmentation, we will all have to become better at managing complexity, contextualized design, and constant change. We must fundamentally change how we see problems- they are not ever solved, they are just waiting for a better solution.

The increasing use of words like “entrepreneurialism,” and “innovation,” is a sign of the creeping cultural recognition of the importance of system improvement. At the same time, entrepreneurialism implies a profit motive that artificially limits and externalizes the motivations and approaches that attract people to solving problems. Markets will likely continue to be better at recognizing opportunities, supporting solutions, and compensating growth, but it will take all of us to build institutions and governments capable of supporting that growth. That will probably require us to change the way that we think, learn, and interact. It will certainly require us to take responsibility for changing our own habits and contexts for the better. I’m not suggesting that everyone is an entrepreneur, then the word would lose meaning. In a world where we will all have to learn to identify opportunities and participate in problem solving, thank goodness everyone isn’t.