Solving big thorny problems

I like to divide big thorny problems (aka “the fun ones”) into three parts:

  1. The easy bits
  2. Parts that will be hard to get done, that will take a lot of work, but where directionally I have a pretty good hunch about what the answer is
  3. Parts where I truly do not know the answer

I often find that the trick to making progress on these sorts of problems is to think about them as if everything in the first two buckets is solved.

For example, imagine you (as I am) are trying to transform your organization into one that systematically produces insights worth sharing, in order to transform your own work and the work of your peers.  Clearly, this is a big, thorny problem.  And there are limitless things you can do to work on this problem.  That’s your first challenge: where to start, and how to spend your time.

This is an idea we’re working on at Acumen – in order to “change the way the world tackles poverty” we need to push on our own ability, globally, to synthesize what we’re seeing on the front lines; turn what we are seeing into insights that drive how we make and manage investments, the types of funds we raise and deploy, how we invest in leaders, etc.; and share what we are learning with the world.

The core, hard parts of this problem that are staring us in the face are: how we go about creating the process and the ongoing culture change required to make everyone a more integral part of producing insights?  How do we take the amazing experiences and observations that are living in people’s heads, globally, and help get these ideas out more regularly in a more synthesized, formed way that can drive our own strategy and influence how we share what we are learning with the world?

When I was talking to my colleague Venu about taking this all on, we agreed, counter-intuitively, that all of that important work feels like a “bucket 2” problem.  Meaning, we don’t know exactly how to do it, it’s a lot to do and a long road ahead, but on some basic level we know how it will be solved, what the solution will feel like, and what the result will be if successful.

The part where we really didn’t know the answer was: imagine if we had, at our fingertips, a deep reservoir of our best insights – on everything from how cold chains could be improved in rural, developing markets to how to build business models with cross-subsidies that drive inclusiveness and reach to the poor – what would we do with those insights to drive large-scale improvements both in how we do our own work at Acumen and how the world at large addresses issues of poverty?  Yes, we know that we would share more of what we are learning, in blogs and articles and op eds, at conferences and the like, but that really doesn’t mean much.

If what we’re talking about is driving real change through insights, then the big questions are far beyond whether it will be valuable to have stronger, more codified insights on what we are learning on the front lines of the fight on poverty – of course it will.  But, before we start, we must be clear on how we will drive change once we have this deeper well of insights.  Will we drive big new initiatives like creating an Acumen publishing imprint akin to the McKinsey quarterly; will we start a large-scale global consulting practice to share insights with peers and those interested in getting into the space; will we create a filtering and voting process whereby the best ideas that bubble up are shared with a group of potential funders who will be given the opportunity to put capital behind the opportunities that have been surfaced?

None of those ideas is real, yet, not even a little bit.  But I’m sure we’d never get to thinking about them if we didn’t give ourselves and our team the piece of mind of knowing that we will pull off the hard bits, and it’s the unknown bits that we have to wrestle with from the outset.

If we put off the work on figuring out these sorts of truly big, truly hard questions in deference to the big but sort-of-known questions, that on some level we are putting off the hardest, most important work for later.

3 thoughts on “Solving big thorny problems

  1. Tackling Big Problems | CURATIO Magazine

  2. Sasha, thanks for “learning in the open” on this. Thorny for sure. Saw the same at UNDP. I like your thinking on how to divide the problem, and I think you’re right that the problem’s core falls in bucket 2. (In L&D we began tackling the work of making everyone a more integral part of producing insights by trying to create an org of development design thinkers from the front line to the executive suite.) It also strikes me that you’re spot on for wrestling with Part 3 from the outset. Is Part 3 the hardest, most important work, though? Had to noodle this for a minute, because Part 2 was h-a-r-d. But…Part 2 is very likely pointless if you aren’t already clear on Part 3 (the larger strategic goals). Makes me think about the essential strategic choices that AG Lafley and Roger Martin wrote about in Playing To Win, i.e. – (1) What is our winning aspiration? (2) Where will we play? (3) How will we win? (4) What capabilities must we have in place to win? and (5) What management systems are required to support our choices? Hope you’ll continue blogging on this as you move forward. #Globaldev is better for it. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Cari Keller and commented:
    Cool how this maker is showing his work. And helpful. His 3-part approach to big, thorny problems is swipe-worthy for any strategist! (Sasha Richter is Chief of Innovation at the non-profit global venture fund, Acumen.)

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