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Solving big problems

Posted Oct 29 2010 6:21am

So I suppose it’s possible I’ll get in trouble for almost completely posting Dev Patnaik’s revelation on the difficulty that big companies face when trying to solve big problems (think healthcare providers trying to solve the healthcare problem), but it’s just so damn important for everyone to read. So while it appears here, click over to Fast Co Design to read it. I don’t think “hybrid thinking” is anything entirely new, but it definitely is a wake-up call to the hyper-specialized crusade the business world is on.

It turns out that while large companies and organizations are phenomenally good at managing complexity, they’re actually quite bad at tackling ambiguity. A complicated problem is like playing a game of chess, an ambiguous problem is like having your in-laws over to dinner for the first time. In the latter situation, it’s not the number of variables that kills you. It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.

Fortunately, there is an answer, and that answer is hybrid thinking. It turns out that the antidote to ambiguity is hybridity. Take healthcare for example. Is fixing the American healthcare system a medical problem, a political problem, an economic problem, a social problem, a religious problem, or a technological problem? The answer is “yes.” It’s all of the above.

However, the solution isn’t just gathering together different disciplines. I’ve attended several conferences on healthcare that tried to get a doctor, an economist and a priest to walk into a room. That’s the start of a great joke, but not an answer to the problem. Getting these folks together just results in having them talk past each other.

Hybrid thinking is more than just having multidisciplinary teams. It’s about having multidisciplinary people — folks who are one-part humanist, one-part technologist and one-part capitalist. When multiple disciplines inhabit the same brain, something magical starts to happen. The disciplines themselves start to mutate. They hybridize. We start practicing business like a designer — think Mark Parker at Nike. We shape technology like a culturalist — think Steve Jobs at Apple. And we start thinking about the most complex problems that plague our societies like an entrepreneur.

Some folks complain that Mark Parker and Steve Jobs are simply a rare breed — genius minds that show up only intermittently each generation. But that’s not true. What makes them rare is that they lead great companies — and that simply doesn’t happen often enough. You see, Parker and Jobs are entrepreneurs who built their companies, and as a result, their hybrid eccentricities were tolerated. It’s unlikely that their hybrid instincts would have survived in another organization. Twentieth century organizations have become extremely adept at grinding people down to become specialist cogs in their massive machines. Even at places like Nike and Apple it’s unclear whether hybridity is allowed to thrive when it’s not coming from the top.

In times of great ambiguity, we need hybrid thinking more than ever. And that means more than lip service. We may all praise Leonardo DaVinci, but we manage the world like we’re Henry Ford. And the world has changed a lot since the first Model-T rolled off the line. Isn’t it time that our thinking changed, too?

For reference, I tried to attack the ambiguity problem here a few days ago .

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