Bottom-Up Solutions

Source: Forbes, May 2012

Many policy makers and experts believe that effective large scale change needs to be driven from the top down and must be rooted in deep planning (“Big problems require big solutions.”) And yet experience shows that is probably not the case. These huge problems involve so many fundamental constituencies that trying to organize them to move forward together collapses under the weight of political ideology, infighting and competing personal agendas.

If we look at three of the grand problems of our time—health care, energy and education—all of them have fundamentally resisted top down intervention and all of them now are starting to yield to local or community-based, bottom up experimentation. Yes, we have large numbers of people who are thinking deeply about these issues. We don’t want to stop that but we need to understand that that deep thought needs to get merged with evidence. i.e. smart action that generates the evidence for the learning that helps us figure out where to go.

One major advantage of taking small, start steps is that it helps to over-come what we have come to think of as “the tyranny of the optimal right answer.”

We desperately want certain things to be better and we turn to the planners, policy-makers and experts to help us. The problem is, of course, these experts don’t agree. While some tell you something can be done, others say “It can’t be done.” (Or “it will have horrific side effects”; or “someone else has tried something similar and it did not work,” or….)

The problem here is not that the future is unpredictable. Each side is near-certain about their prediction. It’s just that these predictions utterly contradict each other. One expert is certain about something and another is certain about exactly the opposite. The result is an image of the future that is potentially predictable to some degree, but effectively unknowable because of the lack of any common ground. And an impasse. So nothing happens.

The way to break this in action is with small, smart steps that are limited by Acceptable Loss. You don’t know what is going to happen and the only way you’re going to find out what is going to happen is take a step, and see where you are and figure out what the next step is.

This argues for taking a number of new, small, smart steps—a pilot project here; a different way of doing things over there—to see what happens. Positive outcomes can be built upon the experiments that show promise.


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