train wreck

The disaster-avoiding question is: “What features of the current situation do we wish to retain?”

I’m just reading The Logic of Failure: Recognising and avoiding error in complex situations by Dorner Deitrich, which is a fine mental workout for anyone doing strategic planning.

It’s based on Deitrich’s experimental research at the University of Bamberg, Germany, which, amongst many insights, points to habits of mind which assist leaders struggling with wickedly complex problems (aren’t they all). Turns out that being curious, asking lots of questions, carrying out lots of small experiments, and making a high number of decisions throughout the process, tends to beat focus, consistency and fewer decisions. It’s full of such interesting insights.

But one idea, which he almost mentions almost in passing, is quite breathtaking.

Here’s the quote:

“By developing DDT, scientists solved one problem, but that solution caused new problems. Why did no one anticipate those new problems? The easy answer is, “Because we didn’t know enough back then.” But I think the lack of knowledge is secondary. More important, it seems to me, is that no one took the trouble to acquire the necessary knowledge. When we are working on a given problem, we focus on that problem alone and not on problems that don’t exist yet. So the mistake is less not knowing than not wanting to know. And not wanting to know is a result not of ill will or egoism but of thinking that focuses on an immediately acute problem. How can we avoid this pitfall? Simply by keeping in mind, whenever we undertake the solution of a problem, the features of the current situation that we want to retain. Simple? Apparently not. As Brecht observed late in life, advocates of progress often have too low an opinion of what already exists. When we set out to change things, in other words, we don’t pay enough attention to what we want to leave unchanged. But an analysis of what should be retained gives us our only opportunity to make implicit goals explicit and to prevent the solution of each problem from generating new problems like heads of the Hydra.”

I immediately thought about the invasion of Iraq and the hellish Hydra that produced, and our own leaders lusting after big reforms, radical interventions, restructures, and privatisations, all of which value at zero one of the vital ingredients that makes all systems work, which is trust.

How much chaos, pain and waste would be avoided if the world’s reformers, fixers, and wannabe saviours were genuinely curious about that question:

“What features of the current situation should we retain?”

I got a chance to structure this question into a workshop in December with a national health agency that wanted to retire its major campaign and generate a new one. It turned out to be the best initial question we could have asked because 80% of the objectives, content, tactics and materials or the old campaign were spot-on. It would have been wasteful to abandon them in the rush to the new, damaging vital relationships and trust.

The sequence of strategic questions was:

“What should be retained?”

“What program objectives should be replaced, changed or tweeked?”

“What tactics, products, capacities, roles or responsibilities are needed to implement the revised objectives?”

I’ve added this question to my innovation training workshop, and to my personal list of really useful questions.