What’s the big, un-solvable problem in your industry? In your business? Are the suppliers too entrenched, are the products too commoditized, are salaries too low to attract the right employees but too high to generate enough profit? Has the founding management team been in place too long to respond to the changes in the external environment? Are regulations too stringent to enable the kinds of changes that customers really want at a price they will pay?
Because we work in such a wide range of industries, we hear many different types of issues like this, which we might call wicked problems - that is, problems so complex and interdependent and tough that they may defy solution. We become resigned to living with problems like these.
Malaria is a problem like this, but the Gates Foundation decided to tackle it anyhow, and they actually are making headway, which is an incredible accomplishment. There may even be a vaccine soon, according to this New England Journal of Medicine article. The Rotary Club decided to visualize the eradication of polio over 25 years ago, and now they have an ad campaign where people pinch their fingers and say “We are this close” to ending polio. It’s a compelling image.
These are amazing stories, and I would say they demonstrate the value of focus in a world of dizzying complexity – the value of being willing to imagine something big being changed in our lifetime, or even this decade, and the value of being willing to acknowledge the complexity and interdependence of such a wicked problem. Abductive reasoning is needed in solving really wicked problems, because they are so incredibly complex; of course, this is sometimes known as "guessing." But when people focus on a particular outcome, they can make more educated, informed guesses. I believe the key is not getting distracted by the “unsolvability” of the issue at hand.
And the great thing about tackling wicked problems is that, if solutions are developed, they tend to have offshoots. The ramifications of eliminating malaria stretch far beyond the immediate fact of fewer people getting sick and dying. It means that more people will be healthier, and what they will do with their increased energy and brainpower and capabilities is anyone's guess. Maybe the next wave of innovation might come out of Africa – who knows what potential is being sapped by this disease?
So I’m inspired, personally, by these stories of traction against a massive problem. What wicked problems can we tackle, if we have the oomph to give them some focus? What crazy ideas should we listen to, for a change? What in your industry, or your business, could possibly be changed by talented people focusing on it for a sustained period? (Or, what disruptive business led by some highly focused individuals might come in and upend everyone else’s preconceived notions about your industry?)