Understanding problems and why technology almost never solves them

Why we need a better understanding of problems

Einstein probably said “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” In fact I’m sure it’s true because I read it on the internet. He was a pretty smart guy. he knew what he was talking about. And that’s what I hope I can encourage you all to do today; to spend more time thinking about problems.

What happens when you try to fix air pollution in Mexico city?

In the late eighties, when I was just a lad, Mexico city was suffering from extreme air pollution. To the government of Mexico City the solution seemed obvious. “We just need to reduce the number of cars on our roads”, they thought. “Surely that’ll reduce pollution, right?” So they created a law that prevented 20% of cars from being driven on any particular day. If your number plate ended in a 6 you couldn’t drive on Tuesday, and if it ended in a 3 you couldn’t drive on Fridays, and so on. But of course, people still needed to get to work and school and do their shopping, so whilst some did what the government expected and used public transport or car shared, others found ways around the new law. They bought second cars, which had different number plates but which were often older and produced more pollution, or they took taxis more often, or drove more on days they were allowed. And so the air pollution increased. What seemed like a simple problem with an obvious solution was actually a complicated problem that the city government didn’t understand well enough before they implemented their solution. Had they taken the time to understand the problem better, to find out about people’s motivations and behaviours, they probably wouldn’t have attempted such a solution.

So, what makes something like air pollution such a difficult problem to solve? It’s because it’s what’s called a ‘wicked problem’.

Why some problems can’t be solved, and why charities choose wicked problems

Coined in 1973 by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, wicked problems describes problems that are particularly complex and difficult to solve. Whereas ‘tame’ problems have knowable, predictable solutions, wicked problems, like air pollution, homelessness, climate change, and a million others, are impossible to pinpoint a single solution for. Wicked problems don’t always have the same contributing causes, so what causes the spread of an invasive plant in one environment is different from another. Wicked problems often never have a finished end state where you can be certain the problem isn’t going to return. And anything we do to tackle a wicked problem will always have unintended consequences.

Why does what two German urban planners from the seventies have to say matter to us? Because charities invariably choose wicked problems to tackle. No charity ever picks something easy. Charities love problems, they love tackling difficult problems, and helping people facing those problems. Perhaps part of the reason we all choose to work for charities, and what we love about them, is that they aren’t afraid to tackle the tough problems. I wish I could tell you how to solve those wickedly tough problems, in fact I wish I could tell you that there even is a solution, but hopefully instead I can help you think about ways to understand these wicked problems better.

So, let’s get practical.

Why leaping to solutions doesn’t help, and why technology is almost never the solution

The five biggest problems in the UK today, according to YouGov research, are health, economy, Brexit, the environment and education. These are the wicked problems of an entire society. Obviously these problems are of their day. If we were doing this talk five years ago, that list would look quite different. That tells us that problems, and how big a problem is, changes over time.

Leaving aside Brexit and the economy, because no one knows what to do about them, let’s look at three of those issues in the little county of Buckinghamshire. Despite being the 33rd smallest out of 40 counties, Buckinghamshire has over two and half thousand charities operating in it. 388 are focused on health, 272 on the environment and 1400 on education. Does that tell us that education is bigger problem than health? Well, no, because we’re already mixing up problems with solutions. Those educational charities might be educating people about health or the environment or any other issue. In their case ‘education’ is the solution and ‘health’ is the problem, but for other charities, ‘education is the problem’. Being able to keep problems separate from solutions is an important thing.

Of those 388 health charities, let’s look at just one as an example. This small charity supports people to look after their mental health by providing them with therapeutic activities in group settings. What problems does this charity face? Well, right now, in the midst of a pandemic, as with lots of charities they are facing the total disruption of their services. Instead of us trying to understand the problems that creates for the charity let’s consider what might happen if we leap straight to solutions?

The charity wants to stay in touch with the people they support. Like many others they turn to Zoom for video meetings, they send more emails, they start a Facebook Group. They do everything they can think of because they just want to help. Like we said earlier, that’s how charities are. But how do they know those things will help? If they didn’t ask those people they are trying to help, if they don’t understand what new problems those people face during a pandemic, how can they know they are actually helping? How do they know that being on Zoom calls doesn’t make people feel self-conscious and anxious. How do they know that people have a good WiFi connection or enough mobile data for video calls? How do they know that people check their email? How do they know that someone doesn’t avoid Facebook because they’ve been harassed on there?

Of course, in a crisis, sometimes any solution is better than no solution. But if they had been able to understand the problems, they might have still used the same technology but they might have been able to use it in ways that better meet the people’s needs. Actually, I’m not referring to a real charity here, it’s hypothetical situation, but it’s one I’ve seen play out time and again in charities of all shapes and sizes. Using technology to implement a solution before understanding the problem.

What happens when we leap to technology being the solution

First, in defense of tech, where is it the solution? Technology is part of the solution when the problem is well understood, even if the charity doesn’t understand it but others do. In 2010 Ethan Marcotte wrote an article called ‘Responsive website design’. In it he talked about the need for websites to be built in ways that meant they adapt to the screen size of the device viewing the website. I bet back then, very few people in charities understood the trend towards mobile devices, but it didn’t matter because the need for people to be able to use a website on a smart phone was well understood by others in the web design and development industry. So, if a charity wanted a website built any time after 2010-ish, it was built to be usable on any device size. That was the default solution regardless of whether people in the charity understood that trend.

Let’s look at some example of where tech isn’t the solution…

Will a CRM improve relationships with donors?

No. A Customer Relationship Management tool can’t improve the relationship a charity has with it’s donors. It can be part of the solution, but unless you understand what donors want from the charity it isn’t going to improve that relationship.

What problem does the CRM solve for the donors? Do they want the charity to communicate more with them? What do they want to hear about? How regularly do they want to hear from the charity? Answering these kinds of questions will help understand what the donor’s problems look like rather than what the charity’s solution looks like.

If ‘improve relationships with donors’ actually means ‘increase donations’, then being clear about that will help the charity understand what problem the CRM is actually trying to solve. And tackling the problem of ‘increasing donations’ rather than implementing the solution of a CRM offers more scope to understand the barriers that are preventing donations, which might uncover a problem in the website donation process or some other cause of the problem.

Will an app increase engagement with service users?

No. Some charities have tried developing apps but if people aren’t already engaging with a charity already they aren’t going to download an app with which to do it. If the app lets people access a service with the charity is the app going to be an enabler or a barrier? The only way to know would be to speak to those people you expect to use it. A charity should only think about developing an app if it needs to use a sensor or technology that only phones have like GPS or Bluetooth. In the majority of cases a good website will work better and be easier to maintain.

Oxfam announced recently that they are shutting down their app because having talked to their supporters they found they would rather Oxfam communicate with them in other ways. The app was originally developed to give supporters more control over their donation amounts in response to falling income. It’s good to see them approach making the decision to shut it down by speaking to their supporters about whether it is still meeting their needs.

Should a charity be on Clubhouse?

No. Unless you know what you are trying to achieve with it. Who are you hoping to reach? Are the people you want to reach using Clubhouse? Do they all have iPhones or will you exclude some people? If a charity wants to create an account on every new social media to make sure they’ve claimed their name, then great, but before actually using it they should be clear what problems they are using it to solve for their service users and supporters.

Where technology isn’t the solution is any situation where the problem isn’t well understood, which is almost always situations where those experiencing the problem haven’t been involved. So let’s have a look at how to involve people in understanding the problems they face…

How to be better problem understanders

There are lots of problem solving frameworks and methodologies that charities can use to get a better understanding of the problems their service users have: Design Thinking, Double Diamond, Charity Digital Design Principles, Public Digital’s Internet-era ways of working, and the Digital Scotland Service Standard. They are all really useful for approaching complicated and wicked problems and they all have something in common.

Start with users

This is the number one golden rule of understanding problems. Start with the people who have those problems. Speak to those who are using the charities services. They are the experts in dealing with that problem. No one knows more about the problem than they do. They probably don’t know what the best solution is, but they can certainly help understand the problem. Lived experience is a kind of expertise and we should let those people be the experts of the problems they face.

So why is it so difficult? Well, as we said earlier, because the problems are so complex. If charities were Amazon all they’d have to do to meet user needs is make it really easy to click that buy button. But charities have to deal with a person’s problems on many levels; behavourial, emotional, social, financial, etc., etc. It’s not an easy thing to understand problems like these but every step a charity takes towards starting to understand the problems is a good thing.

How do we do it?

User research can be done in many ways: interviews, surveys, focus groups, even just chatting with people in an open way about the problems they face. There are some ethics to consider around it, so it does need thoughtful planning in order to be effective, but conducting user research really is the best way to understand problems. This can be supplemented with information about the situations those people are in. This could be anything from bus timetables if people are struggling to go somewhere to statistics about how many people suffer from a health condition. It all helps in understanding the problems.

Once some understanding of the problems has been reached, there should be a standardised way of expressing the problem so that all that knowledge doesn’t get lost. Again there are lots of ways of doing this but broadly we call them problem statements.

How do we express problems clearly?

Problem statements are a summary of our understanding of a problem. They can express big problems or small, and there are lots of ways to write problem statements. But what is important is that they tell us who is facing the problem, what they need to help them with it, and why this problem should be solved. User… needs… because… is probably the simplest format for a problem statement.

User… needs… because…

So, problem statements might say:

  • Primary school-aged children need to be able to express their feelings about being home-schooled because they have experienced considerable upheaval in their routines, social lives and education.
  • The parents of a child with autism need to be able to talk to other parents because they feel isolated and excluded from mainstream activities.
  • Those who come to our lunchtime club need to know what time lunch will be served because they feel anxious about eating in front of others and need to prepare themselves.

Now, behind each of these statements there could be lots of research documentation that explains the detail of the problem, but the thing about problem statements is that they don’t suggest a solution. Once we have good problem statements then, we are in a position to start thinking about prioritising them and developing solutions. And we can be confident that the solutions we develop are going to be tackling the right problems.

Takeaway

If you take one thing away, let it be this… “Speak to those with lived experience, they know the problem best”

References

Weeknotes #242

What I did this week:

Rescope and replan

Another change. Such is the nature of offering a service that has many dependent and tight-coupled aspects. We re-scoped and re-planned to come up with a version of the product that still meets the user needs but it much simpler to build in the time we have available. Thinking about the changes over the past few weeks has helped me realise that a product being minimal and viable isn’t enough. It also needs to be acceptable. It needs to meet some stakeholder’s expectations to continue to get support. One of the positives of the changes and increased pressure is that it seems to be forcing us to work more closely as a team, especially design and development. It has also helped me see more clearly where we have mis-alignments that need to be resolved.

Agile Project Management

I wrote up some of my thoughts about agile project management not being the project management of agile software development but about how project management can adopt some of the ideas of agile to produce iterative project plans that help to identify gaps in the schedule.

Revising convergence

I’ve been revising the concepts from the New Media and Digital Creativity module I’ve been studying, including the idea of convergence which describes how media used to be in separate forms, for example print on paper and music on radio waves, but through digitisation technologies has converged into a single media of 1’s and 0’s. McMullan talks about how this digitisation creates the ‘proto-affordance’ of computability that fundamentally shapes our culture. There’s no going back.

Writing day notes

I’m still writing a short pre-formatted status post every day as part of an experiment in reflective learning. I think it needs some form of review trigger that makes me look back over the week, or to this time two weeks, etc., to reflect on whether things have improved, are issues persisting, what am I learning, etc.

A few things I thought about this week:

Charities shouldn’t be trying to put themselves out of existence

Do businesses try to put themselves out of existence? Do they ever say, ‘We’ve made enough money now, lets stop.’? Do governments try to put themselves out of existence? Do they look for ways of devolving power to the people? No. Why not? Because both businesses and governments have a place in society. They serve a role larger they just the benefits they seek for themselves.

Charities are the same. I know our assumptions about charities as organisations are closely tied to the cause they are tackling, and that’s why it’s easy to fall into the idea that if the cause didn’t exist then charities wouldn’t need to either, but I say this is false logic. A charity builds up lots of expertise in some fairly unique capabilities and to throw all that away because they we’re so good they achieved their mission would seem to me to be very wasteful and a great loss of all the other benefits charities create for our society, like volunteering and prompting people to make change.

Oblique strategies for alertness

Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, random instructions printed on playing cards, are reputed to have been responsible for some very cool music. Following the instructions forced musicians out of their comfort zone and made them pay attention. They disrupted the complacency of expertise. I’m interested in what the benefits of this kind of thinking might be in digital work, whether it might help us deal with uncertainty better. So many of the tools and techniques we use convince us that they are all we need to have certainty about things, and I’m not convinced that’s a good thing.

What does it mean to be a product-led charity

What might a product-led charity look like? How might it differ from a non-product-led charity, and how would you tell the difference? To be clear, when I talk about ‘product’ in this sense I don’t mean the technology. It’s very likely that a product-led charity would make use of technology in their products but a product is more than the tech. A simple example is Hullo. Their product is the offer of a conversation with a friendly stranger, not the phones they use to have those conversations.

I think it might require a move away from idea of charities providing value as one-way stream (from funders, through the charity, to service users). Being truly product-led might mean recognisjng a mutually reciprocal value exchange along the lines of how service-dominant logic explain it. I’m pretty sure it means repositioning the IT/Technology department to no longer be seen as a support function for fixing your laptop. And I’m certain it’ll bring all kinds of funding challenges where income is usually associated with delivering projects.

Some stuff I read this week

Where do good ideas come from

Chance favours the connected mind.

New product development body of knowledge

All the right answers.

OCVA Digital Needs Survey

I read the results of the OCVA Digital Needs Survey. Apart from the very un-digitalness of embedding a pdf on the webpage, it’s a interesting survey. Some of the responses includes things like how to better meet the needs of people who are digitally excluded, procure digital products, make the most of Microsoft 365 and use video meetings software better. These are all things that large charities seem to struggle with too, so it seems it’s a general lack of digital knowledge across the sector rather than being specific to a certain size of organisation.

A while ago I started a blog post on how small charities can assess and procure digital products so maybe I should finish that, but I also had a quick look around for ideas about how I might be able to help small charities improve their digital skills. I found a charity mentoring organisation but as all of their mentors were white, middle-class and middle-aged it didn’t look like somewhere I would fit in. I wonder how oblivious organisations are to this kind of stuff of if it’s implicitly intentional.

Weeknotes #240

This week I did:

Digital safeguarding

I’ve been working on safeguarding solutions for Teams quite a bit this week. It’s interesting to uncover the assumptions that Teams is built on; things about how people within an organisation should know each other and so be able to communicate and collaborate together. If you then want to use Teams to work in ways that don’t fit those assumptions, what changes can you make to get a high degree of safeguarding controls in place.

What is social design

I started the Service Design short course at UCA. Week 1 was an introduction but had some interesting ideas including the tension between user-centred design and social design, which says that user-centred design, taken in isolation means we don’t see the effect it has on communities, society, and the planet. I hope we get more into the social design approach to Service Design as it looks really interesting.

#BeMoreDigital Virtual Conference 2021

I caught some of the sessions from the #BeMoreDigital conference, but not enough. I would have liked to have been able to be more engaged in it to get a better sense of where the charity sector is in its digital transformation.

Daynotes

I started writing daily posts answering three questions: What went well, what didn’t go well, what could I do different in the future? I want to see if it is a helpful habit to get into and whether it’s useful research for daily standup app I’ve been thinking about.

Working on my website (again)

Did a bit of reorganisation of my website and turned my Now page into a roadmap.


And I read:

Teaming

I started reading Teaming by Amy Edmondson, mostly to look more into the idea of how people can work together effectively when they aren’t a close-knit team with well established routines and relationships.

IoT in the Charity Sector

How the charities could use Internet of Things is something I’ve never thought about, but James’ example of using such devices to help people live more independent lives is fantastic. It opens up all kinds of opportunities for IoT to support and improve service delivery.

BeMoreJanet

I watched the Mr. Strategy & Mrs. Wellbeing video with Janet Leighton. She talks about the culture of happiness and kindness at the Timpson Group and how they use upside down management, random acts of kindness and supporting colleagues with whatever is going on in their lives. The point that Wayne makes is that they’ve shown that it works, it isn’t just a philosophy, is such an important one for taking action to improve working cultures.


And thought about:

Place-based systems and nomads

Abby Covert says, we “turn a space into a place by arranging it so people know what to do there”. And some of the stuff I’ve read in the past talks about place-based thinking as less about the location of the place and more about the systems that interact on someone who is in that place. Which means a nomad might interact with fewer systems or those interactions might be more transitory. I think that changes what a nomad ‘knows’ what to do in a particular place. Even though they are in the same location as a non-nomad, they interact with systems differently and so see the place differently.

Solving problems simply

I’ve been thinking about ways of asking the question, “What is the simplest way we can solve this problem?”. Can we still meet a user need with a simple solution? How simple can a solution be in order to learn from it? Are simple solutions less likely to have unintended consequences than more complicated solutions?

Asynchronicity and learning

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of async working being greater than just less non-productive time spent in meetings. Async working utilises writing and drawing more than speaking and listening, which changes the nature of how information flows and enables those people with different learning styles to contribute in more considered ways.


Some people tweeted:

How to make sense of any mess

Doug Belshaw tweeted a link to howtomakesenseofanymess.com, Abby Covert’s website/online book about information architecture. It’s brilliantly thoughtful and thought-provoking. If I ever get around to writing a book I want it to be like this.

Validate the vision

Rosie Sherry tweeted, “Don’t validate a product, validate your vision“, which is much bigger but I think much easier thing to do. You’re not asking people if a product solves their problem, you’re asking people what kind of world they want to live in.

Levels of listening

Joshua Kerievsky tweeted, “Added “Levels of Listening” to the #PsychologicalSafety cheat sheet.” I still find Modern Agile the most inspiring way to think about modern digital ways of working. Joshua describes it as “a community for people interested in uncovering better ways of getting awesome results. It leverages wisdom from many industries, is principle driven and framework free.”