True or false? Complex problems require complex solutions.
Updated: Sep 6, 2022
In many ways, this is true. It’s not possible address the many drivers of a complex problem with one small – or even one big – fix. Solving these types of problems requires a variety of actions, some of which will be complicated or even complex, requiring many resources and cross-sector engagement. At the same time, it’s not true, nor is it helpful, to get caught up in thinking about the complexity of the solutions. Focusing on the many different things we need to do to solve a problem leads to decision paralysis.
But there is hope! We can avoid decision paralysis by coming to believe a simple fundamental truth about solving complex problems: no problem is solved in one fell swoop. Problems get solved piece by piece, often through experiments that start out small and the scale up or add up to a greater change.
The most effective of these experiments target key leverage points directly related to solving the problem and achieving the desired results. A critical step in driving cross-sector, systems level change is taking a vision of a better future, finding the leverage points where you and your partners can influence whether that future comes to life, and making a plan for how you’ll have that influence.
Every problem has many different potential leverage points, from changes in policy and practice to shifts in expectations, mindsets, behaviors, and power dynamics, or even how resources are distributed. The trick is to identify the leverage points you and your partners are able to influence and take action on them in ways that match your resources and opportunities. And then, listen, learn, adapt and take the next action as the system changes.
At the 10,000 foot level, there are two types of leverage points:
High leverage points take significant influence to make a difference on, but often get at the root causes of the problem.
Low leverage points take fewer resources, but sometimes only address the symptoms of the problem - the most visible branches of the problem. The can, however build momentum through small wins, creating the motivation to act on the high leverage points.
For example, our country has been struggling with mass school shootings for nearly twenty years now. Researchers, activists, policy makers and community leaders have tried to find solutions, from preventing the reasons that shootings happen to preventing the shooter from taking the action. Nearly 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to manage a planning process designed to respond to the Columbine School shooting and address the drivers of the problem.
Over 100 stakeholders from the public sector, private sector, non-profits, foundations, community leaders, and parents and youth came together as part of the Youth Service Improvement Initiative to unpack the drivers of the problem and find the leverage points to prevent future shootings. The leverage points we discussed fifteen years ago are still the drivers of today’s shootings.
An obvious first leverage point is decreasing the risk a youth will become a shooter. This is a high leverage point, as it is a fundamental driver of the problem. Societally we have a lot of disagreement over what drives youth to shoot though. Some people and research point to bullying in schools, which has led to increased funding for bullying prevention programs. Others point to violence in video-games, something much more difficult to change. And these are only the first two of many proposed drivers of the behavior.
A second leverage point is decreasing access to weapons. As you all know, there is very little agreement about what societally we are willing to do in order to decrease access to guns. While we have taken some actions, as often as we take an action to decrease access to guns, we take another that increases access.
A third leverage point is preventing a youth with a weapon from hurting their peers in the school. This is a classic low leverage point because it treats the symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. That doesn’t mean it isn’t critically important. In fact, if we have perfect security systems, presumably we could prevent all school shootings. However, if the drivers of the problem are not addressed, we might expect (and in fact have seen) the youths with weapons take their actions in another setting, such as a mall or public event. In other words, we’ve protected one place only to shift the problem to another because we did not address the root causes.
When you’re looking for leverage points to influence the problem you identified, keep in mind that some will be beyond your control. Sometimes a leverage point lacks social consensus on how to act, such as gun control, and other times the leverage point is too resource intensive or requires access to specific resources or power that you lack. However, most complex societal problems have enough leverage points that it is very likely you and your partners will find meaningful actions you can take where you’ll find agreement and resources.