Saturday, August 18, 2007

Simplistic solutions in such complex situations can have undesirable side effects or even backfire

economic times 9 Aug, 2007
The dominant, ‘left-brained’ mode way of solving problems is deductive, logical, and rational. Managers are taught to break up complex tasks into parts and assign responsibility for each part to the best expert, set up task forces and provide resources. A plan is made and time lines with review points established. This approach is complicated by the task hand-offs ‘over the walls’ between the various experts and task forces. And when the parts begin to compete with each other for resources and recognition, the manager must get tough and impose authority. Thus, when complex problems are tackled in this way, the need is felt for ‘tsars’ — strong, dictatorial authorities — to take charge. Hence there are homeland security tsars, anti-terrorism tsars, and even anti-poverty tsars.
What is wrong with this logical, top-down approach? Well, it does not always work. Consider this. In spite of the Indian economy growing at over 6% for many years — and now nudging 10% — and in spite of poverty levels declining to below 20%, why are as many as 45% of Indian children malnourished? Even poorer, sub-Saharan African countries have lower levels of child malnourishment. Why then, in spite of impressive economic growth, and in spite of some of the largest programmes in the world to address it by central and state governments and international agencies, is the problem so acute and persistent in India?
There seem to be many causes ranging from malnourishment of expectant mothers, to poor feeding of infants and kids, to gender biases against girls, to poor quality of water and sanitation resulting in gastro-intestinal illnesses that undo the benefits of food supplementation programmes, etc. This is a glaring example of a systemic problem created by the interplay of several factors, some social, some economic, and some technical. Such systemic problems do not have obvious solutions: many disciplines must be combined to understand the problem before it can be solved. Moreover, simplistic solutions in such complex situations can have undesirable side effects or even backfire.
Recent increases in food prices, when farmers shifted to more lucrative oil-producing crops with the thrust towards bio-fuels to mitigate climate change, are an example of unintended consequences of a well-intended idea. And the swift elimination of Saddam Hussein with the expectation that a happy Iraq would emerge is an egregious example of a fix that back-fired. Undoubtedly, scientific advances have solved many problems that could be tackled by being broken into parts and by experts in their respective fields. The ‘inconvenient truth’ about climate change is that technological and economic advances from this way of thinking, which have contributed to the progress of the ‘developed’ world, have also caused undesirable climate change. Thus, the scientific approach itself is a big fix that can back-fire Because, in a system, examining each part is not sufficient: the interactions between the parts must also be understood. Similarly, in medicine too, the hazards of over-specialisation and powerful drugs with secondary effects are now creating a yearning for more holistic medicine.
The other approach to which the lady Nobel laureate alluded requires two complementary abilities — the ability to think systemically and skills for collaboration. Unfortunately they are not part of the mainstream education curriculum. Indeed, the process of education beginning in schools and continuing through on-the-job learning encourages the opposite, i.e., compartmentalised thinking and competitiveness. Managers, confronted with the need for solutions that require collaboration, are recognising the need to learn new tools. So, they assemble in ‘off-sites’ in which they go through ‘touchy-feely’ exercises and explore the ‘soft’ (feminine?) stuff. Then, with relief, they return into the hard and real (masculine) world of managing for results. And so the real work continues in the old ways with nothing changing fundamentally.
A group of committed people who decided to solve the problem of child malnutrition in India discovered how difficult it is to change ways of thinking. They were a diverse group, from international agencies, the government, and the corporate sector. They went into retreats to see the problem from multiple perspectives and to learn new tools for systemic thinking and action. But the ‘theories-in-use’ at the backs of their minds, including stereotypes and prejudices about other actors in the system, were not easy to change. When they came back into their institutional worlds, they reverted to their ingrained patterns. They realised that though the new tools required to make systemic change happen are available, they cannot be merely sprinkled like pepper on the dish: they must be baked into it. Einstein is often quoted these days: “We cannot solve the intractable problems we face with the same thinking that brought us into those problems”. We quote him and then continue thinking the way we always have.
Therefore, not only will we not solve our present systemic problems, we may cause more big messes in an increasingly interconnected world. It is high time, as the Noble Peace Prize winners noted, that we apply another, more systemic way of thinking and collaborating. The scientific Enlightenment, powered by the god of rationality, beginning in the seventeenth century in Europe, has stimulated great progress. Perhaps it is time for the return of the goddess to temper the rational enlightenment with wisdom. It is noteworthy that, in Indian mythology, the harbinger of knowledge and wisdom and dispeller of chaos and confusion is a woman — the goddess Saraswati, gently poised on a lotus flower.

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