“I sat on a committee of seven people who had the responsibility of choosing the type of sticky tape to use when sealing the top of a CD case, to set an industry standard. It was so that no one could steal the music.” He pauses and gives a rueful smile. “Meanwhile, in Palo Alto, four guys with baseball caps on back to front were coming up with an algorithm … and the music went sideways.”
“It is important to make sure you are solving the right problems.”
- Steven P Murphy, former president of EMI Music/Angel Records 2008
Misdiagnosing the nature of the problem is probably the biggest mistake we make when trying to fix it.
When leaders believe they have figured out the nature of a problem, they jump into action. They activate the resources of people, time, money and their authority. When they get the problem definition wrong, all those resources are wasted as well as their leadership credibility.
Not grasping the complexity of the problem is at the core of making a misdiagnosis. This outcome is no surprise. After all, we are raised, educated, rewarded, recognized and promoted in our work for “knowing” the answers to problems.
Knowing answers is a useful skill set we build early in our careers because most people begin their work life doing technical work; work that they were trained to do while in universities or trade schools. Donald Schon calls this working on the “high hard ground” where problems are manageable because they lend themselves to solutions resolved through technique.
Craft and technique are highly useful. I have had five knee operations, including one knee replacement. I have also had my left hip replaced. I sought the best orthopedic surgeons I could find to do the operations. I wanted doctors who had lots of repetitions doing the procedures that I was about to have performed. For these surgeons, these operations were technical problems with straight forward solutions.
Early in the pandemic, we may have considered the solutions needed to resolve it would take considerable time. Bill Gates has been astounded that today we have four or five vaccines that have been invented, approved and now being administered around the world. This process usually takes years. We have access to these vaccines in less than twelve months. It turns out that designing vaccines is more of a technical challenge than even the experts believed.
The complex, messy, wicked problem of the pandemic is getting enough people vaccinated to tamp down the virus through herd immunity. Current reporting indicates the percentage of the United States population who are wary of being vaccinated is around 30%. That might not be enough to reach the herd immunity level, which means we may have to learn to live with Covid for some time.
The work of government officials, the medical community and vaccine-believers, like me, is to figure out how to mobilize the 30%-ers to be vaccinated both for themselves and for the common good. Mobilizing people to adapt is challenging work and is what delineates leading from authority. Government and medical officials do not have the authority to make people get vaccinated. In reality, we the people are part of the messy swamp problem we are trying to solve because we choose to be vaccinated or not.
The work of leading towns, states and countries through the vaccination phase involves as much work of the heart as it does people’s logic systems. People who are resisting being vaccinated believe the losses they might experience are greater than the jab. Most of those potential losses live in people’s stomachs and belief systems.
Leaders must address perceived losses with compassion and deep listening. Then they can design active narratives that address the specific losses and potential gains. People who choose to lead, hold potent capacity to design the future through the narration they tell. This is an essential leadership move and it is born of a deeper understanding of the problem.
I never mourned the loss of my CDs, though I suspect Steven Murphy did. I quickly embraced Spotify and put my CDs in a box in the attic.
There is much still at stake in this pandemic. We are all being asked to slow down and get better at understanding the complex nature of problems. Effective leading begins with this step.
Afterall, there is no attic for Covid, the pandemic or herd immunity.