The Secret Formula for Solving All Society’s Problems
Okay, it’s not that secret, but it is being almost entirely ignored and, without it, none of these problems will be truly solved.
Racial injustice, poverty, health care access, achievement gaps, homelessness, crime, immigration, pandemics, infrastructure.
These are huge societal challenges and they tend to be at the heart of local, state, and national elective politics. There are others, of course, that are more specific to local, state, or national levels such as schools and traffic (local) or trade and foreign policy (national), though these often cut across levels (and I’m leaving climate change for another day).
Given our technological advances and general improvements in standard of living, why have these challenges not been addressed or at least improved significantly. Are they all so difficult there are just no solutions? Would the cost of fixing or improving them be too much to consider? Is it a conspiracy?
The real answer — and yes this will sound flippant and wishy-washy — is these are all correct, but they are also wrong.
Yes, they are all complex problems for which there are no single simple solutions (or single complex solutions or multiple simple solutions).
Then, in the absence of single or simple solutions, the typical response is to throw money at solutions favored by whomever currently holds the purse strings (or has sufficient influence and may benefit from a given solution). Consequently, trying to solve these problems becomes prohibitively expensive.
Finally, there are many people and organizations who stand to benefit from maintaining these challenges. While they may not be directly conspiring to create or worsen the problems, they might interfere with what could otherwise be effective strategies for improvement.
While these reasons have kept us from barely making a dent in our biggest challenges, we have the collective ability to seriously diminish and maybe even eliminate them.
Unfortunately, there are very few collective efforts to solve them. Rather, there are thousands of individuals and groups raising awareness, demanding change, and hawking solutions, but it is only through a collaborative process that we can develop realistic solutions that have a chance at implementation.
Yes, yes, yes; I know there have been attempts at collaborative processes and they rarely get any traction, but bear with me.
Most of us have learned a problem-solving process at some point in our lives, but it is exceptionally rare this process gets applied with integrity to any of our biggest challenges and almost never within our elected state and national government bodies. Instead, nearly all the “solutions” are based on ideology, reelection, personal gain, and spite.
Occasionally, actual bipartisan problem-solving occurs, but it almost always includes loads of partisan horse-trading not relevant to the problem at hand and rarely does it truly seek out the best possible solutions.
Our constitution was designed to provide checks and balances and, in ideal circumstances, to force our elected officials to collaborate for the good of our country. However, that is premised on the majority of those elected putting the country first while also looking out for those in their states, districts, etc.
Unfortunately, political parties, PACs, large campaign donors, corporations and others with wealth and influence are now the key drivers of far too many elected officials’ actions.
This is not news to most of you, and many have called for reforms to address this, but those able to make the reforms are the very ones who benefit from the status quo. Yet another societal challenge to be solved.
So, how do we ascend this seemingly unclimbable mountain?
The same way Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest — one step at a time, following careful planning and preparation, and after having demonstrated and honed their skills on less daunting climbs.
The first step is to learn the collaborative problem-solving process. The second step is to apply the process to less daunting challenges at the local level. The third step is to apply the process to getting officials elected who will serve with integrity and in the best interests of everyone they represent, and who will commit to solving problems collaboratively.
This third step is crucial because our current systems almost guarantee those elected will do neither of these things. They are beholden to people other than their constituents, though they give lip service to their constituents’ needs. And they rarely work collaboratively with their colleagues, particularly those “across the aisle.” Consequently, they are in no position to insist their state or our country collaborate in solving large societal problems.
The third step will, of course, be a huge undertaking of its own, but using a collaborative process can make it possible. Then, the final step: citizens demand those elected officials learn and apply the process to addressing our greatest challenges — and, if they don’t, they hold them accountable at the next election.
There is a catch (of course). Before this process can be used effectively on community and larger problems, the group doing the problem-solving must truly represent the diversity of their community and there must be substantial trust among the members (is it any wonder Congress cant use collaborative problem solving).
For the process to have integrity, the group must have integrity. To develop the best solutions and get community buy-in, the group must be diverse. I won’t try to cover this challenge here, but there are related ideas in my essay “Six Essential Steps to True Racial Justice.”
What is the Collaborative Problem-Solving Process?
There are many variations, but most have the same basic steps. I use an adaptation of one I learned, used, and taught in the Army, the Military Decision-Making Process or MDMP. It is an exceptionally good problem-solving process when done with integrity and might be the best possible use of any military tool ever developed.
In the military, it is trained and framed in a combat operations context. However, the same process can be adapted to addressing nearly any problem or challenge including those listed at the start of this essay. Unfortunately, the military rarely uses this with their own non-combat challenges, but that, too, is a topic for another day.
At the heart of any effective problem-solving process are two critical understandings:
There is no single right answer
The best eventual solution will come from the most diverse possible team of people, working in collaboration, and without undue influence by outside forces.
Here are the steps of the MDMP along with adaptations for applying them to nearly any problem or challenge; while this is a bit simplified, it should provide a good starting point for most groups.
1. Receipt of the Mission. This translates to identifying the problem or challenge, and it is much more difficult and important than most people realize. In fact, in most cases, failure to achieve the desired results usually stems from not having correctly identified the actual problem or not adequately analyzing the problem (Step 2). These steps are so critical that I will post an essay addressing just them.
2. Mission Analysis. This translates to problem analysis. During this step, a problem statement is created along with a vision of the desired end state. The problem statement should be comprehensive in that it should include constraints and considerations of second and third order effects. In addition, identify facts and assumptions about the problem and create criteria for evaluating the solutions that will come later.
3. Course of Action (COA) Development. This is where possible solutions are created. The intent is to come out of this step with multiple possible solutions that are distinct from each other. The solutions need to include a basic framework through which they would be carried out. They also need to account for facts, assumptions, and other considerations from Step 2. In the MDMP, we usually place a limit of three courses of action because more can create untenable delays. This is not as big a concern in problem solving, but there are benefits to limiting the number of solutions, so consider doing so by combining elements of similar solutions to reduce the total number. This also helps ensure each solution is truly distinct rather than just variations of the same solution.
4. COA Analysis (War Game). In this step, each solution is vetted to ensure it will truly address the problem and lead to the desired outcomes while avoiding or limiting undesirable outcomes. Decision points are identified; these are events or metrics during implementation that would trigger specific actions or lead to alternate actions. The solution is played out from beginning to end with specified people playing the devil’s advocate trying to show all the shortcomings and problems likely to occur (this is the war gaming).
5. COA Comparison. Or Solution Comparison. This should be an objective comparison of the distinct solutions using evaluation criteria developed in Step 2. The criteria may be adjusted somewhat, but this cannot be done to favor one solution over another; it should only be done if there is consensus it is appropriate. The criteria can also be weighted if some are more important than others. Throughout these steps, all solutions are getting tweaked as new information comes in and insights are gained. Similarly, assumptions and facts are constantly being updated.
6. COA Approval. For the military, the appropriate commander would now designate her or his selected COA; it is common the selected solution is a hybrid of some or all the COAs. In a collaborative process, such as addressing community or larger challenges, consensus would be sought on the solution to be implemented, which likely means a hybrid solution, and that is just fine.
7. Orders Production. This equates to plan production and beginning of implementation. In other words, assemble the people and resources needed to execute the plan and start things moving; some of this could and should have started earlier in the process. In the MDMP, a Warning Order is issued following Steps 1, 2, and 6 so those carrying out the COA can start preparing. Any group can do something similar.
“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
There is one huge caveat to this and any problem-solving process — you will not develop a perfect solution; in fact, you cannot develop a fully executable-as-planned solution. Nearly every societal challenge noted at the beginning of this essay is human-centric; thus they are infinitely dynamic and constantly in flux. It is impossible to develop a static solution or plan for such situations.
That’s why the collaborative problem-solving process is so important. The process engages the team deeply in every aspect of the problem being solved and in the numerous possible solutions and sub-solutions available.
It informs the team of all the variables and resources that will come into play. The process allows the team to adapt to a changing landscape, adjust to and overcome obstacles, and effectively leverage opportunities that arise.
There is no problem we cannot solve or challenge we cannot overcome if we work together and make a commitment to each other and to finding a solution.
Doing this for complex problems and challenges requires a process that will ensure integrity is maintained. Adapting the Military Decision-Making Process is one option, though there are certainly others to be considered.
And, yes, I will acknowledge again that this has been tried (to a degree at least) but has proven impossible on the biggest challenges. That is because we have tried to scale Mount Everest before we are ready; we’ve tried to apply this process to large, complex problems without first learning and practicing the process and without ensuring the integrity of the group.
Communities can impact those big societal challenges by tackling many of their local effects. They can then work collaboratively on the challenges’ effects at the regional and state level, which will demonstrate the effectiveness of the process, hone their problem-solving skills, and teach the process to others.
Eventually, solving those big problems — scaling Mount Everest — doesn’t seem so daunting. And along the way, hundreds or thousands of other challenges will have been overcome, even if we never actually reach the summit of Everest.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.