Thoughts on Problem Definition from NYU's GovLab

Friday, August 29, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Alan Kantrow from NYU's GovLab who was in Ottawa to frame up a collaboration with the Institute on Governance (where I am currently on interchange). In addition to back of house discussions, Alan took the time to speak to a number of different groups including the IOG's Executive Leadership Program (which is currently recruiting it's next cohort) about the importance of problem definition. It was a great talk and Alan made some key points that are worth sharing:

  • We are more likely to pursue solutions that are locally optimal but globally suboptimal, this is problem shifting not problem solving.
  • There is an interesting incongruence between hierarchical incentive structures that reward solving small problems and problem shifting which generates animosity among peers horizontally.
  • Making the system known – the up front costs/benefits and embedded logics – explicitly puts people in an uncomfortable position because the outcomes from a good systems map are (in most cases) predictable.
  • Shift the bulk of your resources upstream to problem definition, if there has been any central lesson in the work of the GovLab thus far it is that poor problem definition creates poor outcomes. Don't short change yourself upstream (problem definition).
  • You need both a theory of change and a theory of action; these are not synonyms. The former is about how does a project touch people, how do they respond and what are their incentives, whereas the latter is about how you cause change to happen within that context, at what points of intervention and in what sequence?
  • Far too many people ignore the risks when defining their problem; they genuflect in their direction but fail to go beyond a discussion of type and probability. There is tremendous value in assessing risks against other criteria, time, location, human resource resiliency, cash flow, etc. Resiliency against certain risk types is an important competitive advantage, it allows people to bid on risk.

As a side note, I left the talk wondering about the tension between the amount of time and effort required for proper upstream problem definition and the super-fast superficial culture that reinforces heads down doing instead of heads up thinking.