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?