Monday, May 17, 2010

Staple Yourself to a Problem

I was down in Houston at a fascinating event put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The program was all about business and social responsibility and community engagement. Hard to think of a more compelling subject in this time of oil spills that prompt "don't blame me" responses, Wall Street melt-downs where nobody is guilty of anything, and a jobless recovery that has cities and states across the country feeling enormous pain, particularly when it comes to dealing with pressing social problems.

It was a good program, a good day, and lots of good people.

But in the aftermath I got to thinking about why it's so hard to get real traction on the social problems of our time. I'd recently been in San Francisco at another program on social enterprise. The litany of problems that seem "too big to solve" was endless. Childhood obesity. Teenage pregnancy. Poverty. Homelessness. Rampant drug and alcohol abuse. High school drop out rates.

We have programs designed to address all of these problems. There isn't a problem that doesn't have a non-profit or even for-profit enterprise that's trying to take it on.

So why don't we seem to get real traction? Why can't we come up with solutions that work for problems that matter?

Then I remembered a terrific Harvard Business School article that I worked on with one of the delightful faculty members back then, Professor Ben Shapiro. Ben had the cool idea of suggesting that if a business leader wanted to know how his or her company really operated, the trick would be to "staple yourself to an order."

In other words, metaphorically (or actually, if you could), walk your way through the entire company tracking the progress of an order. From the moment the order enters the system to the moment it is fulfilled, try looking at your company and its operation from the perspective of the order!

Brilliant idea! Staple yourself to an order!

What would it be like, I wondered, if we stapled ourselves to a social problem?

How would our solutions look from the perspective of the problem? What if you stapled yourself to "childhood obesity?" What would you see?

Some TV ads promoting better eating habits. Some pioneering school lunch programs that not only give kids healthy, wholesome food, but also actually try to teach kids better nutritional habits. Some schools that have kicked soda and candy machines off campus. A new initiative by the First Lady to put more attention on the problem. Non-profits in cities around the country trying to raise funds and raise awareness about the problem.

Now if you were "Childhood Obesity" and that was the opposition, what would your reaction be?

I think you'd fall over laughing. I think you'd think the opposition is a sad, uncoordinated, poorly organized, badly thought-through, un-serious rival. If you stapled yourself to Childhood Obesity and ran through the gamut of organizations, agencies, public and private entities that are ostensibly trying to put you out of business, I think you'd have a field day!

Which is precisely why we aren't getting any traction on fighting against childhood obesity. Or a host of other problems.

What would it take to get serious?

Try stapling yourself to the problem you're most passionate about.

Do the economics favor a cure? Or favor a continuation of the problem? Are we, as a society, still content to pay the price that problem exacts? If so, don't expect much to change.

Are the organizations that want to end the problem working together? Or are they fragmented? Is there a serious systems analysis of the problem? Or does each part of the non-profit world see the problem through its own worm-hole? If we want to get serious about a systemic problem, we'll need to devise systemic solutions. Otherwise, the problem wins again.

It's a great exercise--if slightly discouraging. Pick your own problem, the one you care most deeply about.

If you want to see what it will take to win--instead of putting up with tolerable failure--try stapling yourself to your problem.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb