Let’s Solve Problems

Let me paraphrase Clay Shirky here. Let’s talk about problem solving. When it comes to solving big problems, we assume that problems really worth solving can hardly be solved by one person alone. We need to join forces, energy, knowledge and skills of many people and coordinate the efforts of those people towards the collective solution of the problem. And there’s nothing wrong with that logic.

Now the question is, how do you coordinate such a collective effort when people live on their own? Well, the traditional answer is creating an institution: a common ground where all the persons involved in the problem solving effort can be at the same place at the same time so that communication cost is reduced to a minimal. That’s what companies, governments, associations are made for.

The problem is that those institutions tend to create 3 major side-effects. First, since people are used to live their life on their own in a very individual way, it’s not natural for them to coordinate. Hence you need to hire some more people who don’t participate directly in the problem solving effort, but merely help them to come to a consistent and viable solution. Second, because institutions are like some sort of engine, you don’t only need fuel to run it, and lubricant to compensate for the friction, but you also need a structure to hold it, a vehicle to move forward. And that is administration, taxes, financial stuff. Finally, in addition to management and administration byproducts, maybe the most important side-effect is goal shift: in some sort of fractal way, most institutions eventually shift their goal from whatever it was supposed to be at the beginning, to survival. It’s as if the institution became a being of its own, trying to survive at all costs, and making it necessary to group institutions into even bigger institutions.

The consequences of these evolutions are many, but most of them revolve around inefficiency. Since you literally move people from wherever they’re living to the institution, assuming it’s impossible to be at several places at the same time (right?) then it’s very hard to belong to several institutions. Hence institutions are highly exclusive, which means they keep hold on people from other institutions who might need their help, and keep people for themselves even when they don’t really need them. This ends up with a massive waste of force, energy, knowledge and skills. Another aspect of the problem is that management, administration and politics (institutional manifestation of survival instinct) create such overhead that some choices have to be made in terms of the scope of the problem the institution was created to solve. In other words, because of this overhead, most of the time it is just unrealistic to solve all of the problem, so you end up using 20% of the resources that are enough to solve 80% of the problem. And of course the next question is: can a problem considered to be solved when it’s only 80% solved? Maybe some problems more than others. Maybe we think that it’s sufficient because we were told it’s enough. What if climate change, financial crises and all those big problems we’re facing today were the byproduct of those 20% we left off of all our solutions?

In his presentation, Clay Shirky correctly notices that it might be time to reevaluate the roots of the institutional response to problem solving, that is coordination costs. Now that we have the Internet, VOIP, cellular networks and so on, communication costs have never been so low. In this era, do we still need to be at the same place at the same time in order to join forces? Of course not! Those changes have already influenced our professional world with video-conference, corporate collaboration systems like emails. But what if this is just the beginning of a massive transition, comparable to the one initiated by the printing press, or the one started by the mechanization of agriculture? Well, Clay’s vision (that I totally share) is that the professional world is slowly moving away from institutions and towards more collaboration for problem solving. No need for people to be at the same place at the same time anymore, so no more administration overhead. And since the beast is only virtual, there is less chance for it to turn into a monster who wants to survive at the cost of its initial purpose. And since such collaborative groups would not be exclusive anymore, maybe we could get back those wasted resources in order to actually solve those 20% of the solution we were missing.

Now of course, there’s no miracle, only evolution. And if we have to recruit managers today in order to help people coordinate their efforts, it’s very likely that we will need to find ways to help people collaborate more efficiently tomorrow. My assumption is that this issue is part of those 20% we left off yesterday because it was cheaper to teach a few managers how to coordinate efforts for others, rather than actually bringing this knowledge to every single individual. What if even that became possible tomorrow? Instead of creating specialized institutions for teaching some people how to solve problems, others how to coordinate problem solvers, and yet others to run the problem-solving structure, what if we educated people through the same collaborative groups, the purpose of which being to expand the knowledge and skills of people as well as teach them everything they need in order to gradually evolve towards solving concrete problems?

That’s what I thought when I read Bruce Eckel’s article about Edupunk (and other stuff, but this part struck me the most). Now I don’t know how or when, but this could very well become a major breakthrough in my personal and professional life somehow. So if you agree with me, what do you say we join our forces and collaborate on that? Let’s solve the problem of expanding our global knowledge and skills in a collaborative way?

3 thoughts on “Let’s Solve Problems”

  1. Often the most obvious is also the most startling. What a great observation that great organizations came together to solve a particular problem, had a mission, a vision that was bigger than the idea that we need to survive. In my work with corporations and non-profits I have often witnessed cases where the problem that the organization was to solve is either no longer there in its original form or the organization is no longer geared or capable of addressing it and the only reason it continues to exist is because the founders are gone and followers just want to keep it going. Net result – inefficiencies, low morale, terrible work environment, politics, and everything else that comes with it including a workforce consisting of unhappy workers (kiss productivity and especially innovation goodbye!)

    So yes, independent and individual decision on collaboration does sound like a better alternative than an organization. However, the collaborating groups will need to address issues of administration, finance, etc, which caused organizations to lose their sense of identity in the first place (as staying operational over shadowed staying true to vision). Perhaps the solution is similar to what organizations already tried – in Druker’s words (his advice to Jack Welsh) – ‘make sure your back office work is someone elses front office work’. Does that mean Collabs (collaborating groups) to meet problems of existing Collabs? One Collab to solve world hunger and another Collab to address its organizational structure, another to manage Finances and so on?

    The other possibility is to have a Collab comprising of individuals who can manage themselves, are visionaries, are honest people who can work on a task without being influenced by self-interest…. Very unlikely. So although I understand and can relate to the appeal of Collabs I am not clear on their functional and operational model and how over time they will not become burdened with similar problems as their Organizational counterparts.

  2. One of the most difficult aspects in reinventing how we work and collaborate is forgetting all (and only) the rules and constraints that we have come to accept as natural and unavoidable even though they were created out of the institutional solution.

    For example, I personally believe that money was put forward as the one, only and most important value in our institutionalized society partly to make up for the complexity of our institutions. All the free market philosophy seems to be based on the assumption that yes, our companies are complex, but if money is the sole exchange artifact, then it will be in the best interest of everyone to earn as much money as possible, and everything follows. Of course, we can see now how this very principle is too simplistic and has turned the system on its head. Hear me right: I’m not one of those revived socialists who would like us to go back to the other extreme. What I think is that we should get the system back on its feet, and use what you call Collabs as a way to put less emphasis on the means and more on the end. Let’s simplify our structures and elaborate more on our goals. We want to move forward, we want to create value, but value should not be limited to money. What about human value? What about environmental value? What about technological value?

    What Clay Shirky is talking about (and I agree with him) is a complete change, not only in how we work, but also why we work. I don’t think we can separate one from the other.

  3. I, for one, won’t be disagreeing on this point. What I am heart broken about (and what I would like to fix and revive) is that many of today’s crazy organizations (oblivious to most social aspects in view of achieving higher share price) once started out as implementation of a great vision to improve upon human life quality, community interests, and great place to work (value above price). However, they faltered on the way because along the path the visionaries dies or passed the baton and many of those who remained had joined the organization to make a living rather than explore a life.

    Earlier this year I quit my promising IT consulting career to explore this very fact – is there a way to make a living which is in harmony with how one wants to live one’s life – in consideration of human value, environment, community, and all other aspects that we (or most of us) would like to leave as a legacy. Five months down the road I am still struggling to find such an environment in the corporate sector. I am sure it exists but I have not yet ‘stumbled upon’ it.

    It is good to ask questions about value. It is even better to answer them with sustainable and realistically viable options. IT has become a field of much chatter and hype where each day we find some everyday operational common sense getting patented or named with a jazzy new term, where the vendor’s product rather than the organization’s problem dictates what solution will be put in place.

    A great thing about upcoming technologies, Web 2.0, etc is the increased quality and quantity of collaboration at all levels of society. At this stage of IT and society, it is important to witness that people are coming together, regardless of what they are coming together for, independent of organizational or governmental or even societal structures. It is my fervent prayer and hope (dare I use that word) that this will eventually lead to tearing down of bureaucratic walls and narrow mental/physical/geographical divides that keep a problem from meeting its optimal solution effectively and efficiently.

Leave a Reply