Are You Looking At The Wrong Part Of The Problem?

In business, we are frequently told that to build a successful company we have to find an answer to the customer’s problem. In government, the equivalent guidance to public officials is to solve the problems faced by constituents. This is good guidance, as far as it goes, except that we need to know what the problem really is before we can solve it.

Before those of us who are results-oriented, problem solvers jump into action, we need to make sure that we are looking at the right part of the problem. And that’s what Dan Heath’s new book, “Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen” is all about.

Heath, along with his brother Chip, has brought us such useful books as “Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” and “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard”.

As usual for a Heath book, it is well written and down to earth, but contains important concepts and research underneath the accessible writing.

He starts with a horrendous, if memorable, story about kids:

You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water — a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another…and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

 

Going upstream is necessary to solve the problem at its origin — hence the name of the book. The examples in the book range from important public, governmental problems to the problems of mid-sized businesses. While the most dramatic examples are about saving lives, the book is also useful for the less dramatic situations in business.

Heath’s theme is strongly, but politely, stated:

“So often we find ourselves reacting to problems, putting out fires, dealing with emergencies. We should shift our attention to preventing them.”

This reminds me of a less delicate reaction to this advice: “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s hard to find time to drain the swamp”. And I often told my staff that unless you took some time to start draining the swamp, you are always going to be up to your waist in alligators.”

He elaborates and then asks a big question:

We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Firefighters extinguish flames in burning buildings, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many fires, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

His answer is that, in part, organizations have been designed to react — what I called some time ago the “inbox-outbox” view of a job. Get a problem, solve it, and then move to the next problem in the inbox.

Heath identifies three causes that lead people to focus downstream, not upstream where the real problem is.

  • Problem Blindness — “I don’t see the problem.”
  • A Lack of Ownership — “The problem isn’t mine to fix.”
  • Tunneling — “I can’t deal with the problem right now.”

In turn, these three primary causes lead to and are reinforced by a fatalistic attitude that bad things will happen and there is nothing you can do about that.

Ironically, success in fixing a problem downstream is often a mark of heroic achievement. Perhaps for that reason, people will jump in to own the emergency downstream, but there are fewer owners of the problem upstream.

…reactive efforts succeed when problems happen and they’re fixed. Preventive efforts succeed when nothing happens. Those who prevent problems get less recognition than those who “save the day” when the problem explodes in everyone’s faces.

Consider the all too common current retrospective on the Y2K problem. Since the problem didn’t turn out to be the disaster it could have been at the turn of the year 2000, some people have decided it wasn’t real after all. It was, but the issue was dealt with upstream by massive correction and replacement of out-of-date software.

Heath realizes that it is not simple for a leader with an upstream orientation to solve the problem there, rather than wait for the disaster downstream.

He asks leaders to first think about seven questions, which explores through many cases:

  • How will you get early warning of the problem?
  • How will you unite the right people to assess and solve the problem?
  • Where can you find a point of leverage?
  • Who will pay for what does not happen?
  • How will you change the system?
  • How will you know you’re succeeding?
  • How will you avoid doing harm?

Some of these questions and an understanding of what the upstream problem really is can start to be answered by the intelligent use of analytics. That too only complicates the issue for leaders, since an instinctive heroic reaction is much sexier than contemplating machine learning models and sexy usually beats out wisdom 🙂

Eventually Heath makes the argument that not only do we often focus on the wrong end of the problem, but that we think about the problem too simplistically. At that point in his argument, he introduces the necessity of systems thinking because, especially upstream, you may find a set of interrelated factors and not a simple one-way stream.

[To be continued in the next post.]

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Technology and Trust

A couple of weeks ago, along with the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) co-founder, Robert Bell, I had the opportunity to be in a two-day discussion with the leaders of Tallinn, Estonia — via Zoom, of course. As part of ICF’s annual selection process for the most intelligent community of the year, the focus was on how and why they became an intelligent community.

They are doing many interesting things with technology both for e-government as well as more generally for the quality of life of their residents. One of their accomplishments, in particular, has laid the foundation for a few others — the strong digital identities (and associated digital signatures) that the Estonian government provides to their citizens. Among other things, this enables paperless city government transactions and interactions, online elections, COVID contact warnings along with protection/tracking of the use of personal data.

Most of the rest of the world, including the US, does not have strong, government-issued digital identities. The substitutes for that don’t come close — showing a driver’s license at a store in the US or using some third party logon.

Digital identities have also enabled an E-Residency program for non-Estonians, now used by more than 70,000 people around the world.

As they describe it, in this “new digital nation … E-Residency enables digital entrepreneurs to start and manage an EU-based company online … [with] a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s transparent digital business environment”

This has also encouraged local economic growth because, as they say, “E-Residency allows digital entrepreneurs to manage business from anywhere, entirely online … to choose from a variety of trusted service providers that offer easy solutions for remote business administration.” The Tallinn city leaders also attribute the strength of a local innovation and startup ecosystem to this gathering of talent from around the world.

All this would be a great story, unusual in practice, although not unheard of in discussions among technologists — including this one. As impressive as that is, it was not what stood out most strongly in the discussion which was Tallinn’s unconventional perspective on the important issue of trust.

Trust among people is a well-known foundation for society and government in general. It is also essential for those who wish to lead change, especially the kind of changes that result from the innovations we are creating in this century.

I often hear various solutions to the problem of establishing trust through the use of better technology — in other words, the belief that technology can build trust.

In Tallinn’s successful experience with technology, cause-and-effect go more in the opposite direction. In Tallinn, successful technology is built on trust among people that had existed and is continually maintained regardless of technology.

While well-thought out good technology can also enhance trust to an extent, in Tallinn, trust comes first.

This is an important lesson to keep in mind for technologists who are going about changing the world and for government leaders who look on technology as some kind of magic wand.

More than once in our discussions, Tallinn’s leaders restated an old idea that preceded the birth of computers: few things are harder to earn and easier to lose than trust.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Bitcoin & The New Freedom Of Monetary Policy

Every developing technology has the potential for unintended consequences.  Blockchain technology is an example.  Although there are many possible uses of blockchain as a generally trusted and useful distributed approach to storing data, its most visible application has been virtual or crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. These once-obscure crypto-currencies are on a collision course with another trend that in its own way is based on technology — mostly digital government-issued money.

Although there are many possible uses of blockchain as a generally trusted and useful distributed approach to storing data, its most visible application has been virtual or crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. These once-obscure crypto-currencies are on a collision course with another trend that in its own way is based on technology — mostly digital government-issued money.

In particular, another once-obscure idea about government money is also moving more into the mainstream — modern monetary theory (MMT), which I mentioned few weeks ago in my reference to Stephanie Kelton’s new book, “The Deficit Myth”. In doing a bit of follow up on the subject, I came across many articles that were critical of MMT. Some were from mainstream economists. Many more were from advocates of crypto-currencies, especially Bitcoiners.

Although I doubt that Professor Kelton would agree, many Bitcoiners feel that governments have been using MMT since the 1970s — merely printing money. They forget about the tax and policy stances that Kelton advocates.

Moreover, there is a significant difference in the attitude of public leaders when they think they are printing money versus borrowing it from large, powerful financial interests. James Carville, chief political strategist and guru for President Clinton famously said, “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.”

For Bitcoiners, the battle is drawn and they do not like MMT. Here is just a sample of the headlines from the last year or so:

It is worth noting that MMT raises very challenging issues of governance. Who decides how much currency to issue? Who decides when there is too much currency? Who decides what government-issued money is spent on and to whom it goes? This is especially relevant in the US, where the central bank, the Federal Reserve, is at least in theory independent from elected leaders.

However, it also gives the government what may be a necessary tool to keep the economy moving during recessions, especially major downturns. Would a future dominated by cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, essentially tie the hands of the government in the face of an economic crisis? — just as the gold standard did during the Panic of 1893 and the Great Depression (until President Roosevelt suspended the convertibility of dollars into gold)?

This picture shows MMT as a faucet controlling the flow of money as the needs of the economy changes. If this were a picture of Bitcoin’s role, the faucet would be almost frozen, dripping a relatively fixed amount that is dependent upon Bitcoin mining.

Less often discussed is that cryptocurrencies, as a practical matter, also end up needing some governance. I am not going to get into the weeds on this, but you can start with “In Defense of Szabo’s Law, For a (Mostly) Non-Legal Crypto System”. The implication is that cryptocurrencies need some kind of rules and laws enforced by some people. Sounds like at least a little bit of government to me.

Putting that aside, if Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies succeed in getting widespread adoption, then it would seem that they would limit the ability of governments to encourage or discourage economic growth through the issuance of money.

Of course, some officials do not seem to worry too much. This attitude is summed up in a European Parliament report, published in 2018.

Decentralised ledger technology has enabled cryptocurrencies to become a new form of money that is privately-issued, digital and that permits peer-to-peer transactions. However, the current volume of transactions in such cryptocurrencies is still too small to make them serious contenders to replace official currencies. 

Underlying this are two factors. First, cryptocurrencies do not perform the role of money well, because their value is very volatile and they are thus not very good stores of value. Second, cryptocurrencies are managed in ways that are very primitive compared to what modern currencies require.

These shortcomings might be corrected in the future to increase the popularity and reach of cryptocurrencies. However, those that manage currencies, in other words monetary policymakers, cannot be outside any societal system of checks and balances.

For cryptocurrencies to replace official money, they would have to conform to the institutional set up that monitors and evaluates those who have the power to manage money.

They do not seem to be too worried, do they? However, cryptocurrency might eventually derail the newfound freedom that government economic policy makers have realized they have through MMT.

As we have seen in the past, new technologies can suddenly grow very fast and blindside public officials. As Roy Amara, past president of The Institute for the Future, said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved