Stop trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions

The ways how we work and manage are mostly approaches that date back to late 19th and early-mid 20th century. But how can we expect to solve today’s problems (21st century!) with yesterday’s solutions? In an era of rapidly advancing technology, even a solution we used 2 years ago might not work today and if we’re actually trying to shape tomorrow’s world, it is obvious that we need to change the way we work radically.

Most of the current management approaches in use give answers to yesterday’s problems, where mass production was one of the biggest challenges to overcome in transitioning from small local markets to bigger markets. However since the liberalisation and globalisation of the markets in the last couple of decades of 20th century, especially since internet connects the world with one click, the distances don’t matter anymore. The local markets became a whole global village.

This phenomenon changed the way we think, consume and communicate for good. Unfortunately, what hasn’t change is many management approaches in use and relatedly the way we work. Not yet! Better said, not fast enough! At least not as fast as the environment we’re in is changing.

“The problems of today can only be solved at a higher level of thinking than that which created them.”

Albert Einstein

In my very first workshop I have with all my clients looking for OKR coaching to start their OKR implementation, I show them the above illustration and ask them to describe what they see. “We plan everything but it never comes as planed.” they say. “The plan is already old when we leave the meeting room.” “While we’re planning we don’t realise what’s happening out there“. “The customers/users didn’t use our product/feature they way we thought they would.” We can’t predict everything but still do it anyways.

We spend hours, weeks, even months to do AOPs, roadmaps, projects plans for the next year, trying to predict the future and pretending we know the answers. Most of the time these plans have a validity of 1-3 months. But why do we do it? Because it feels good and safe to think we can control things that should/will happen. But deep down we actually know that it is an illusion, don’t we?

Recently in a talk of Marty Cagan (founder of SVPG), I heard him quoting Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape:

“The most important thing is to know what you can’t know.”

Marc Andreessen

Once we accept the fact we don’t have the answer to all or can’t predict what’s going to happen, in other words, once we embrace the uncertainty it gives us wings.

Understanding Complexity

The uncertainty and three more terms were even formed to an acronym, VUCA, first used in 1987, to describe the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous conditions and situations, just like the U.S. Army did to describe the multilateral world after the end of the Cold War. And when it comes to understanding complexity I’d like to refer to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework.

Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden

What’s great about Cynefin Framework is the acknowledgement of different systems: Chaotic, Ordered, and Complex Systems. First of all we need to make sense of the context we are in, in other words we need to create awareness about the context. Ordered Systems, clear (obvious) and complicated challenges need different approaches than complex challenges.

I’m telling all this because it is crucial to understand the type of system we’re in, in order to choose an adequate approach how to solve the challenge. If the relationship between cause and effect is known and predictable beforehand, for example doing your taxes, you either learn how to do it yourself or get an expert to do it for you. However, if the cause and effect is not linear, and can only be found out in retrospect, the expertise alone won’t be enough to solve this complex challenge. The right way to approach this kind of problems, for example fighting the root cause of someone’s back pains, is probing and experimenting. The only way to understand the context is by acting on it, like a scientists would do.

Now for clear and complicated problems in ordered systems traditional approaches, analysing, defining processes, planning in advance, and then executing it might work very well. However in complex contexts we need to work with safe to fail experiments in short cycles to reduce risk and thereby save time and resources.

OKR in Complex Contexts

I believe, OKRs, applied well, can be a lifebelt for complex challenges. OKR helps teams working in complex systems to deploy and validate a strategy by aligning and focusing efforts on a few measurable outcomes, in short iterations to learn fast and adapt continuously. Working in short OKR cycles (3-4 months) by experimenting (probe), measuring (sense) and reflecting (respond), can be liberating, as it will move the conversation away from “failures” to “not validated hypotheses”, and the solutions can emerge while working during the OKR cycle(s).

Don’t get me wrong! This doesn’t mean that we jump from one quarter to next doing whatever seems urgent or fun. No! For OKRs to work well, it needs a vision and most importantly a (continuously adapting) strategy behind it. I tackle this topic in depth in articles about vision and strategy.

OKR: Experiment – Measure – Reflect

Last but not least, I also think that it is not appropriate to apply OKR in ordered systems for clear and obvious challenges. Different systems need different approaches and it’s time to embrace the reality of 21st century that there is not one right answer (approach, method, framework, tool) for all the problems to be solved in organisations.

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