the Chronycle

Solving large and complicated problems

One thing i find to be particularly problematic about the business world, is the fixation on being able to explain a complex problem in very simple terms.

Most businesses exist to solve problems - fulfill a need, optimize a process, decrease the energy necessary to perform any one task, or series of tasks. And for 90% of problems, there is a way to summarize the problem, and the solution, into a very simple model that can be presented in 2 sentences.

But what about the remaining 10% of problems?

As soon as even the exposition of a problem becomes too complicated to understand in less than 30 seconds with minimal brain effort, almost all contemporary business people will be distracted and stop listening, after concluding "what this person is telling me is too complicated, therefore it's not a business that can succeed."

My conviction is that the 10% of problems that we're not addressing because they can't be summarized and solved in 30 seconds, are the exact problems we should be solving in order to really move forward as a species.

Traditionally, the business community has left the task of solving these most complicated problems, to elected officials and the government organisms they serve in.

One simple example: poverty. No business in the United States today, is figuring out how to make money by bringing people out of poverty. And yet the demand is massive. Solving the poverty problem is left entirely to the governments (local, state, federal).

But isn't that a major contradiction? As Americans, all day long we argue that "big government" is a problem and that building a healthy economy requires less rules and regulations, and therefore less taxes, but then as business people, we systematically, by principle (!), run away from solving any really complicated problem.

I think we can all agree that private enterprise is usually more efficient at solving problems than government tends to be. Certainly most of the wealthy components of society seem to support this view.

But if the private sector is that much better at solving problems efficiently, why should it not tackle large and complicated problems as well?

A company like Exxon Mobil is trying to solve large and complicated problems, and look at how much money they've made! It's not the ideal example because maybe their profits wouldn't be nearly as high (or existent) if the environmental and social cost of their activities were properly accounted for and reported.

Of course, the public sector is expected to solve *those* problems... inefficiently, as far as Exxon Mobil is concerned - and make sure those tax credits keep coming, government officials!

The point is that a company like Exxon Mobil thrives on a very tight game of chess between private and public interests, addressing an extraordinarily complex issue, in this case access to energy for human beings.

The question is, does that interaction need to be so fundamentally antagonistic? It seems to be antagonistic partly because the perception is that the public sector doesn't have efficiency as a requirement for its survival. So, Exxon sneers at the EPA (US Federal Environmental Protection Agency).

Well, if you think the EPA is inefficient, why don't you just self-regulate? But actually do it, instead of just pretending to do it and letting irrational and destructive instincts run wild when it comes to basic operational safety.

If you think the government is so inefficient at regulating (or doing anything), why on earth would you rely on them to regulate you?? Wouldn't it be a lot cheaper for everyone, if the government *didn't* need to regulate you?

Regulation is just a band-aid for poor ethics. Look at the financial system; the problem is not the law, the problem is that people don't do the right thing unless the law forces them to. A very human trait.

If large and complex problems are left to be solved by the public sector, and if the conventional business consensus is that government is less efficient in general, certainly no one should be surprised, and much less the business world, that large and complex problems are not getting solved more diligently.

In the end, a collaboration between public and private sectors is always the winning formula, but it would be a very welcome relief to see business more readily and systematically embrace large and complex problems, instead of just leaving those to the government.

[It's worth knowing that my company, scenyc, is of the type that for the past 13 years, has been solving large and complicated problems. That's how i came to these ideas.]

philip m. shearer


bronx, ny, usa