Wicked problems

One of the sections I liked in Switch was about Jerry Sternin who was posted to Vietnam in the 1990 by Save the Children to try and tackle child malnutrition. He didn’t speak Vietnamese or have much knowledge of the bureaucracy in the country and he wasn’t made very welcome. The local ‘experts’ wrote him off very quickly and the government minister told him he had six months to make a difference or he’d be asked to leave the country.

The problem with malnutrition is that it’s a complex problem. It’s caused by an interlinking set of political, economic, cultural and environmental systems. It’s what systems thinkers would call a ‘wicked’ problem — with seemingly no simple solution.

There are a lot of wicked problems in today’s world, perhaps more than ever because the interconnectedness of everything means it’s harder to isolate cause and effect. When you start looking at a problem and analysing it, it’s like picking at a loose thread only to find that the whole clothes shop comes undone.

But what Sternin did was simple. He ignored all the complexity and looked for the outlying positive cases. He asked people to show him poor kids that weren’t underfed and sure enough there were quite a few. After he ignored the ones who had other mitigating factors (such as a wealthier family member who brought food) he found that there were still kids who were perfectly healthy but had exactly the same systems around them. So what was different?

It turned out that their mothers added a few extra ingredients to their food — principally shrimp from the paddy fields and the greens from sweet potatoes — and they spread food to four meals a day rather than two. That was it. When Sternin saw this, he started to create a programme that spread this knowledge with mothers meeting up in groups to cook together rather than isolated in their homes.

And it worked. Though the problem of malnutrition had looked too complex, too difficult and too engrained for the experts to solve, following the bright spots and then amplifying them through social networks had a massive positive effect. It eventually helped 2.2 million Vietnamese people.

There’s a lesson in there for people trying to do startups that solve big complex problems. As the Heaths put it:

When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots — the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?



I’ve been reading quite a bit about behaviour change over the past few months, partly because I think it’s an interesting investment area but also just out of personal interest and wanting to improve my own health and productivity. Lily suggested I read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath which is great and I definitely recommend it.

The book’s a couple of years old now so I’d heard quite a few of the examples already but the basic framework of the book was new to me. It’s all set up with a slightly cheesy analogy but one which works I think — that any person’s behaviour is a function of both head and heart, or as the Heaths put it a rider and and an elephant.

The book is then split into the three things that you need to get right in order to get both rider and elephant where you want them. These are:

  • Direct the rider: set clear, easy to follow instructions to be acted upon
  • Motivate the elephant: help people feel good about the eventual goal
  • Shape the path: make the environment as conducive as possible to positive behaviour

Get any of those pieces wrong and not a lot will happen. I nodded along to most of the book, seeing things that I’ve done in various situations that didn’t cover off all three principles and hence went wrong or just fizzled out. It gave me a lot of ideas about how I could improve my own ability to get things done both personally and at work. It also gives you some insight into how these techniques are used in marketing and advertising — not always to make the world a better place it has to be said.

To be honest I did find The Power of Habit more interesting from a science point of view and the storytelling meant it felt better written but nevertheless, if you’re interested in changing behaviour in any context, Switch is well worth a read.

Photo Some rights reserved by brendonhatcher.

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