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Addressing the Problem Problem.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the “problem problem,” -that we are poor at spotting real problems because there is more money to be made from addressing symptoms.

Since then, I’ve been thinking, talking and listening with people about the implications and ways in which we might address the real problems – because we have to. Symptoms are rarely benign, and at some point will manifest the underlying cause, most likely when we are least ready for it. We are out of time for procrastination

The list of examples of symptoms manifesting right now is too long for this post. They range from climate change, when we’ve known about the causes for half a century, a plague of mental health issues caused by the toxic cultures we have developed in our businesses and wider society, and inequality caused by a mutated and gamed form of shareholder capitalism. The problems include our education system that prepares our children for a world of work that will not exist when they grow up and public services that we have transformed into “markets” for customers who cannot afford them. 

The trouble of complexity, of course, is that we cannot analyse it because it changes in response to anything we do. So complicated becomes complex, which becomes wicked on the road to chaos. Our industrial model has become well and truly VUCAD up.

But whilst we may not be able to analyse the problems in detail, we can at least look for a moment at a few of the glaringly obvious, gloriously inconvenient causes.

For me, right at the top of the list is leadership – or rather, the lack of it. We spend over $350 billion a year on leadership training to minimal effect. It’s not because of inadequate people – it is because the cultures we create make authentic leadership almost impossible. The exercise of leadership requires two key things – authority and autonomy. However, in our large organisations, that rarely exists at any level. Even the CEO’s, during their ever shorter tenures, are constrained by anonymous, often activist shareholders and reduced to career, more than company long term strategies.

Further down the leadership chain, everything from processes to policies turns even the most promising leaders in Gullivers, tied down by the minutiae of internal policies and external regulation. Those who lead in areas where the risk they face is real and present, from the military to the emergency services, do it best – authority is delegated to the level nearest the danger, who are given the authority to act. Not so in business, where interference is not only top-down but often sideways. Potentially good leaders are often turned into, at best, inspirational managers.

There is, of course, a good reason for the interference. Left to their own devices, the ethics of many large businesses make them myopic and self centred in pursuit of profit, such that we have to legislate for what, under different circumstances, but would be taken care of by values. As I say, not just complex, but wicked. Smaller, more accountable, better led units might well mitigate a lot of that.

Also high on my list is the nature of organisations themselves. We give them legal personhood but neither consciousness nor legislated lifespans. We humans may have to face the reality of only eight or so healthy decades if we’re fortunate, whilst Jamie Dimon speculated recently that JP Morgan will outlast the Chinese Communist Party – a thought and comparison to make the blood run cold.

Businesses, and indeed most organisations, change more slowly than their environment, so they crave the stability and predictability that we know is illusory and it causes them to age. Many of them become zombies, dead long before they fail, raining symptom after symptom upon us in their frantic search for eternal continuous growth.

So what might we do to address these issues? If granted one wish, it would be that our business world would embrace the concept of wabi-sabi. This Japanese notion – of the beauty of impermanence, incompleteness, and imperfection is eloquently explained here by John Kuzava. 

Seeing as that is unlikely to happen, I’ll go for three more practical (though still incredibly tough to implement) ideas. 

The first is to make organisations far more granular and create networks of smaller, more genuinely autonomous units linked together around a common purpose, but with far more local authority to work in greater harmony with their staff and communities. Give leaders a chance to lead, and make powerful head offices a thing of the past.

Secondly, put the notion of the primacy of shareholder returns firmly behind us, preferably through legislation to bring business externalities firmly internal, so that those corporations that strip mine communities (and the planet) of their assets with no penalty can no longer do so.

Thirdly, strengthen audit requirements around certification of business as “going concerns.” Companies have natural life spans (even J.P. Morgan, Jamie). So when the data points to terminal illness, put them out of their misery to make room for those growing businesses in the understory. Manage the business ecosystem in the same way a forester manages a forest. 

Bring the power back to communities and away from tax-efficient but socially destructive behemoths. Create the room for humans to grow and the natural world to start to recover. Embrace the concept of enough (for all) rather than impossible riches for a few. I’m not talking equality, but I am talking human equity.

All of this will not be brought about by some enlightened leader on the road to Damascus; instead, we will bring it about through our choices. One decision at a time, one after the other, day after day.

Our addiction to unnecessary consumption is just that; an addiction, and we have to deal with it in the same way—one day at a time.

The symptoms we face are like individual small forest fires, linking up to create a conflagration. It is already too late to stop that conflagration, but maybe we can mitigate it, and of course, it serves a purpose. Like forest fires, it clears away dead wood and creates room for healthier growth.

We are at a choice point. The size of the conflagration is down to each of us, and we can make a difference.

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The Problem Problem

We have a problem with problems. We’re not very good at recognising them. But, on the other hand, we’re brilliant at symptoms. Give us a symptom, and we’re all over it because there’s money to be made from symptoms. We spent 1.26 trillion dollars on pharmaceuticals last year, up 43% on a decade earlier, and it’s forecast to increase to 1.595 trillion by 2024 – up another 27% in four years. The most significant categories address lifestyle issues, from obesity to mental health. There is far more money to be made from symptoms than problems – much less money to be made from healthy people than from selling the illusion of health to ill people.

The same is true of business. In pursuit of endless growth, we promote “scale” as a virtue, and end up with mass mediocrity rather than the true excellence of products and services that combine “enough” with function and beauty. Scale is a godsend to those in the symptom alleviation business – the pressure of scale and its complexity create a breeding ground for symptoms. We cannot move for symptoms created by combining extended supply chains with complex products (4000 chips in the average new car) and finite resources. It creates opportunities for arbitrage, consultancy, and corruption without improving the lives of 99% of the population. It is the closest we get to perpetual motion.

Our love affair with the scientific method has brought us immense short term wealth at the possible, even probable, cost of our extinction. We are so busy analysing symptoms thinking that they are problems that we cannot see the real issues. We have become willfully blind. 

We mock more ancient traditions for their primitive approaches to understanding the world. Still, we are beginning to realise that their approaches to understanding life have much to offer that we have lost, and we would do well to reintegrate them into our lives. Of course, it might play hell with the pharmaceutical and consultancy markets, amongst others, but I can live with that. 

As we occupy our day with the busyness of objectives, goals, KPIs and performance appraisals, consider the questions that would be asked of you in previous, slower times. (These examples taken from the “Star Maiden” map of the medicine wheel of North American Indian Tradition):

  • What cries out to be expressed by my spirit?
  • What arouses my curiosity and adventure?
  • How do I balance and maintain the energies of my life?
  • What does my heart say the next step is and how?
  • What am I here to learn?
  • What is my present concept of myself?

I guess that for most, these topics will not be on the agenda of the meetings you attend today, yet they are fundamental. They address the problem of our lives, not the symptoms.

We are at a choice point. We can continue to accelerate the hamster wheel existence of addressing symptoms, or we can get off for a moment and consider the real problems we face as we seek to define the opportunity represented by each of our lives.

As with any addiction, going “cold turkey” on consumerism is painful, but necessary to avoid an even more painful decline to extinction.

It’s time to address the problem.

Enough for today. I’ll move on to thoughts about addressing the problem on Friday.

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What we see and how we see matters. It affects our mood, our thinking and the actions we take. It is a self-reinforcing loop that determines whether we progress, retreat or hide.

I was thinking about this as I listened to the news this morning and scanned the press headlines, and wondered, just how useful is this for me right now? Is my progress today going to be more effective because Peppa Pig has now become a government influencer?

As we go about our work today, we have things to do that will not wait. We must make decisions, and unfortunately, attend meetings that will result in very little. We know that what we do today will be forgotten by next week and change very little of importance for most of us and that our day to day reality is often spending our time keeping our managers entertained. The news we are fed will affect little of what we do, other than perhaps providing fodder for entertainment.

At the same time, we all have decisions to make that will fundamentally affect our futures. Many small decisions and a few bigger ones. Given what we now know, just how much will we fly and drive? Will we change our diet, and will we still go mad on Black Friday to buy things we do not need? Will we continue to spend our short lives in pursuit of something as shallow and ethereal as “profit” – mainly for someone else – to buy those things we do not need? What do we want our legacy to be, and for our great-grandchildren to think when they participate, a century hence, in some version of “Who do you think you are?”

In between these poles of survival and purpose lies the most difficult region of all, the risks of transition. What we stop doing, and start doing when we know that we cannot stay where we are with any sense of responsibility and that the steps we take, if they are to be effective, will be full of risk.

The news we consume is a good place to hide. It is a rich source of people to blame and indulge in some satisfying schadenfreude as we watch someone’s career unravel and expose ourselves to carefully targeted advertising for that stuff we do not need.

That liminal space, the space between what we keep ourselves busy with, and what we really want to happen, is a rich, fertile and risky place.

Three different perspectives – the anaesthetising busyness of today, the responsibility of the tomorrow we create, and the terrifying responsibility of the bit in between.

It’s all a matter of perspective.