More on How Business Could Solve Complex Problems

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Tackle complexity rather than avoid it!

By Darlene Crane and Elnora Webb

Businesses do solve problems and well-designed products do make life better.  Yet, when it comes to deep social and economic problems business methods have not led to breakthroughs.  More startups and SMEs (small and medium sized) businesses are focused on tackling complex economic or social challenges but are starved for capital and relevant services to expand their impact.    

This article proposes we literally reshape business thinking to develop solutions to complex problems.  To take this leap it will be necessary to:

  • Acknowledge it is time to re-envision the purpose of a business, work and value 
  • Create breakthrough solutions by tackling complexity rather than avoiding it
  • Design robust companies and products that improve social or economic problems

Acknowledge it is time to re-envision the purpose of a business, work and value? 

After decades of a single focus on shareholder value, one hundred and eighty-one corporate CEOs signed a letter as members of The Business Round Table on August 19, 2019 to redefine the role of a corporation.  The Business Roundtable letter stated,

“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,” said the statement signed by 181 CEOs. “We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.” CNBC

This is in stark contrast to the historical corporate focus on linear and inward thinking on stock value only.

The sole focus on shareholder value has led to complex long-term problems like climate change, income inequality and public health to persist.  Solutions to complex problems require flexible thinking to grasp this wider context. 

How can businesses create new solutions by tackling complexity rather than avoiding it?

Invest in developing leader mental flexibility before attempting to develop solutions.   When leaders understand their conscious and unconscious mental responses to difficult and uncomfortable situations, they can engage with big questions longer and hear the different stakeholder viewpoints.  With open exploration of problems comes deeper understanding and readiness to create more systemic solutions. 

With the mounds of data available, leaders must think critically as they interpret data, methodologies before making decisions. 

This is the time for leadership team of all sizes of companies shifts into planning and solution development from a long-term value creation approach.  Value creation looks at the value of the company under different external conditions and points of view.  This broader view invites information from financial and market analysts as well as public and local community sectors.  Controversy may develop, but with flexible and open thinking the sparks between the viewpoints can generate new and better solutions. Envisioning desired end results ten or twenty years out also leads to innovative solutions. 

What can owners do now to lead their businesses and solve problems

The turn of the decade is a critical time to research and analyze long-range studies and other data. Strategists forecast trends in the next decade that will be updated when the 2020 Census data are released.  Start now to:

  • ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Develop the practices of flexible and insightful thinking
  • Imagine what innovations and products your company can generate to sustain and grow your company into the next decade
  • Stay informed on the most urgent social, economic and environmental issues
  • Prioritize Social Responsibilities initiatives with business opportunities and risks
  • Develop external stakeholders who help define non-financial indicators of improvement 
  • Commit to investing resources to get results and minimize unintended consequences

Exercise:

Recently, McKinsey & Company released major reports on the Future of Work projecting an  adoption scenario of Artificial Intelligence indicating a potential 38 million jobs impacted.  The specific report on the impact to women in the full report stated:  

Men and women need to be skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy in the automation age, but women face pervasive barriers. Concerted and creative new solutions are needed to enable women to move forward.(McKinsey Global Institute analysis, 2019 )

This magnitude of change is difficult to comprehend, let alone begin to tackle. 

Practice asking the BIG questions to start tackling complex problems.

  • What can your leadership team do to increase flexible and insightful thinking?
  • What resources and data are now available to envision the company in 10-20 years?  
  • What solutions for the short-term support long-term success?
  • What risks must be reduced to external stakeholders?
  • What can your company invent that adds value to the company and key stakeholders?