Focus, Filter, and Forget
My son Payden was home from college this summer, taking some courses online and helping out around the house. When he’s home, my favorite part is that he cooks, as in really good dinners. My not-so-favorite part is that he cleans with far less enthusiasm than he has for cooking. I suspect it may be to get his mother to do it, but loading the dishwasher is a complex challenge he has yet to master. So he crowds in as many dirty dishes as he possibly can fit inside and still be able to close the door. However, when dishes and glasses and pots and pans are jammed together that tightly, nothing gets very clean. An overloaded dishwasher defeats the purpose.
Loading a home dishwasher may be a low-level example, but dealing with complex issues within complex systems is tough. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber call these “wicked” problems and define them as “predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved – and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble.” If you imagine ISU Extension and Outreach as a really big dishwasher, do we sometimes try to fill it too full, to do too much — so we aren’t as effective as we could be? How do you get things done in a complex organization like ours, dealing with complex issues?
First, focus. To begin breaking down complexity, focus on your purpose. Emphasize the principles and values around how Extension and Outreach operates. Make sure people understand their roles and purpose; then they can innovate because they have context. If something is high value and easy — that’s an easy win – do it. If some activity is high value and complex, it will likely take more time and effort, and that’s probably where we should focus.
Next, filter. Some problems become unfathomable when we set short deadlines for finding a solution. Some problems take decades to resolve. Start by setting realistic time frames. We don’t have to tackle the whole problem all at once. If something is low value to our organization, and low complexity, it can probably move down the priority list. Finally, get comfortable forgetting some things. If we already know that something is so complex it will never be solved, AND it has low value to our organization, maybe it’s time to direct our attention elsewhere.
The most important quality in confronting complexity is persistence and focus. It’s about being comfortable with using our values and purpose to guide our work. See you there.