Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems

The way we think about things is the reason why we can’t solve big problems. Not a reason, but the reason.

For example, in charitable work, the success of non-profits is measured in how little money they spend in overhead, limiting who they can recruit, whether they can ask more people to be involved, which means that ultimately their impact is relatively unscalable. As Dan Pallotta an activist best known for creating the multi-day charitable event industry said at TED, “The way we are thinking about charity is dead wrong”.

His talk was one of the most important talks of TED2013. (You’ll see me share the 5 talks I valued as they are released… vs a list of them now. I’ve already shared Amanda Palmer’s with thoughts and implications for the economics of generosity.)

And it points to a larger issue. In business today, there’s a great deal of binary thinking: As in, you are either a capitalist, or a do-gooder. You are either into profits and results, or into people-y stuff. You are either running your own enterprise or working in community.

While binary thinking creates an ease of classification, it has a dark side. Binary thinking creates a cultural framework that doesn’t teach us to understand nuance, or celebrate uncertainty. Or to understand how to balance competing tensions.

As I wrote in Social Era, “things we once considered opposing forces—doing right by people and delivering results, collaborating and keeping focus, having a social purpose, and making money—are really not in opposition. They never have been. But we need a more sophisticated approach to understand business models where making a profit doesn’t mean losing purpose, community, and connection. Finding the right balance between them is key. We will find that balance as we shape new constructs for business models, strategies, and leadership. What we can create will be rich in many senses of the word.”

Dan Pallotta, Activist, Speaking at TED2013; Picture by Duncan Davidson
Dan Pallotta, Activist, Speaking at TED2013; Picture by Duncan Davidson

Pallotta’s talk, when combined with Amanda Palmer’s points me to this insight: People deeply want to be in community, but they often have to be asked. Yet, if we limit how we can ask, we limit the outcomes.

How we hold an idea matters. As we ask, “How can both things be true” … we will find a new way to solve big problems.


7 Replies

  1. I enjoyed your post. In addition to your point about binary thinking, I believe many companies experience cognitive map bias. With the pace of business moving at lightning speed coupled with change coming from every direction, my experience has been that a collective cognitive map forms (usually formed at the C-Suite level). Eventually, the culture picks up on senior management’s mental models and begin to ‘fall into line’ so to speak. As a result, employees bring ideas forward that align with collective thinking and self-filter out the ideas that contradict it. Unfortunately, the latter are exactly the types of ideas companies need to discuss for they represent fresh thinking and potentially disruptive ideas.

  2. Nilofer,
    This is a wonderful and important posting. I could not agree with you more. As someone who is doing a PhD in emerging leadership paradigms, I see so clearly the devastating impact of fixed, binary value systems in a world wrought by challenges that demand flexible, integrative approaches.

    The key I’m finding–from looking closely at leaders who are not only holding more open ideas, but are able to really implement them and ignite systemic change–is recognizing how “baked into the mix” binary thinking is. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is woven into our DNA. For example, I often see the case where integrative solutions are “sold” by pitting them against the “obsolete, old” solutions. This is actually just setting up just ANOTHER binary which frames “old” thinking as wrong and “new” thinking as the only “right” way. That’s all well and good–IF you’ve already made the leap to the “new” thinking; but not so great if your worldview is still based in binaries. Those folks–the ones most needed to help move change forward–are frequently left feeling discounted and, just perhaps, a bit insulted.

    My point here is we can’t keep separating the “new” thinkers from the “old”–especially when some of those holding the “old” worldviews are the very stakeholders we need in order to facilitate real change. The trick, I believe, is for the change makers to begin speaking in terms that transcend such splits while affirming the value of approaches that bring both new AND old worldviews to the table for exploratory dialogue that helps to forge a *third* way: not “old” and not “new”, but a living solution that can speak more immediately to that which is limiting us in the here and now.

  3. Eloquently put, Nilofer. It’s here in the arena of how we think, make judgements and value things that the formal science of Axiology, and its’ associated field – Axiogenics, have such a lot to offer. They are worth checking out, and understanding, especially if perceiving defining and building “what is good” is important to you and the work you do. As the Bard said … “There is nothing that is either good or bad, but doth thinking make it so!”

  4. I can agree with the fact that slowly, there is a new attitude growing that our community-based efforts can be capitalisticly viable(and I would include not just cash capital), but why? Well, maybe one might want to contemplate my 5 pfennig. We have been, for decades living in a growing mass production society, which could not personalise items and their values. Taking this into account it is maybe not surprising that still most contemporary attitudes are lacking the personal human factor in their business models or philosophies. It is/was just not affordable. This has just been changing dramatically over the last 10 years. Open Source, sharing infrastructures and content, essentially the networking of our computers and overall communication structure has enabled cheap, ever more granular ways of personalised expression, be it at publishing content from media to thoughts or ever more recently physical products with the help of social financing structures like Kickstarter and tools like 3D printers. This is a general overhaul of many business models, services and their internal processes. It will take time for those thoughts and opportunities to ripen and put in practice, but as above article shows, we can already feel their impact.

  5. Hi Nilofer,

    How we hold an ideas matters – it’s so true.

    And how we frame our questions matters too, because that’s often sets the stage for those ideas. It is so easy to perpetuate binary thinking when we frame our questions as binary – “either/or” – just pick one, and we’ll move on.

    Like so many others, it’s been easy for me to tag (not ‘blame’) the western industrial machine as the culprit – from Wall Street to science to higher-ed and b-schools – with binary, cause and effect, linear thinking. Yes, it’s now baked into how we think. And it could take years, even a generation, for our culture and our training programs to make a meaningful shift.

    But to David’s point, simply categorizing our thinking as “old” or “new” yet again keeps that binary judgment in play – right or wrong, in or out, good or bad – rather than realizing the old needs to evolve to become the new.

    I’m excited that more and more discussions have emerged taking on how we think, how we collaborate, and how we view social change in a context that is more important than simple charity (skimming profits off the top to provide a handout) instead of working to find sustainable models that change what is possible. Ok social change is “people-y” but it’s not a bad thing.

    Maybe getting the corporate world to rethink “social” is a good start ..

    Like you, I get inspired when great insights spark new great insights. In many ways, that’s how we learn ..

    I’ll put Dan Pallatta and Amanda Palmer on my to-read-or-view list. Meantime, have you read anything by Peter Block?


    1. Love Peter Block. Started reading him gosh 15 years ago before I founded Rubicon.

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