The Single Biggest Mistake: a key cause of failed change initiatives

I’ve posted about this before, but here is a piece I wrote recently.  If there is one piece of advice I’d give to managers and leaders about what NOT TO DO, it would be this.

So again, re-posted here:

The single biggest mistake I have observed in organizations over the last 30 years, is treating what everyone usually knows to be a truly complex problem and system, as though it was a technical or complicated problem. The latter can be broken down into component parts to be studied and changed. The latter can be analyzed and understood in terms of causal relationships (if we do this, then that should happen). The latter then allow for comparatively easy metrics of outputs and outcomes.

But the former- the complex challenges- can not be broken down. Can not ascribe causality prospectively. Can not be managed or controlled or made predictable even though we wish it so. Can be prodded, explored, observed, influenced, and eventually stabilized as understanding and coherence emerge.

The fear comes from the understanding that we do not, and can not, have the solutions to these complex problems. Leaders have to admit they aren’t sure what to do, or how to do it. So we count things that are easy to count, but not really important, relative to the real underlying issue. We set goals, and hold people and programs accountable, for solutions and outcomes that are often impossible to achieve given the current system, respurces, and approach to change.  

We’d be better served by thinking about baseball, or soccer. When my son started little league baseball as a kid, he was upset each time he made an out instead of a hit. I told him about the best hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams. I asked my son, “out of every ten times Ted was up to bat, about how many times did he actually get a hit?” Of course, my son assumed that the best ever hitter, must have had a hit 9 out of 10 times. Nope. Not 8, or 7, or 6, or even 5. The best hitter in history failed 60% of the time. Today, if you can hit the ball just 27% of the time- failing 73% of the time- you’ll be a major league millionaire. Teams on the soccer pitch all know what the objective is- get the ball i to the other team’s net. But in 90 minutes of play, it is not uncommon to have just one team score just one goal. It’s hard. The dynamics are complex.  

So too with many organizational challenges. At SAMHSA, I recall discussions about the NSDUH data on teen drinking or prescription drug abuse. Surveys could tell us the approximate rates of substance abuse in certain populations, in certain areas. The surveys could not tell us the full underlying causes, or point to optimal solutions.

There is a way forward. People must learn the basic dynamics of the complex as opposed to the complicated. There are very different ways to approach problem-solving and change, in each principal domain.

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