Why Can’t Big Companies Solve Big Problems?


Dev Patnaik

It turns out that while large companies and organizations are phenomenally good at managing complexity, they’re actually quite bad at tackling ambiguity. So what can we do now to face down issues like healthcare, immigration, education, defense and economic growth in an increasingly ambiguous world?

Originally Published by Fast Company’s Co.Design, October 2010

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to understand just what it is that prevents large organizations from doing great things. Clearly, one major part of the problem is their lack of empathy for the world around them. Without a gut sense for what keeps ordinary folks up at night, too many players within corporations, public institutions and nonprofits find themselves operating inside of a bubble. But, that’s just part of the problem.

Our companies, governments and social institutions have just spent the last 75 years creating systems and structures to handle incredibly complicated problems, starting with the storming of Normandy, and working right through the Space Race, the Cold War, and the building of the Internet. Today, if you can ask a good question, our organizations have the power to provide you with a very detailed answer to what ails you. You just need to know the right question to ask.

In fact, it’s that very question: “What is the question?” that seems to be the nub of the problem these days. In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, the ambiguity that surrounds us is rising to unprecedented levels. And that’s a serious problem that our current systems can’t handle. Fighting terrorism, fixing healthcare and restarting the economy aren’t just complex problems — they’re highly ambiguous ones.

It turns out that while large companies and organizations are phenomenally good at managing complexity, they’re actually quite bad at tackling ambiguity. A complicated problem is like playing a game of chess, an ambiguous problem is like having your in-laws over to dinner for the first time. In the latter situation, it’s not the number of variables that kills you. It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.

Fortunately, there is an answer, and that answer is hybrid thinking. It turns out that the antidote to ambiguity is hybridity. Take healthcare for example. Is fixing the American healthcare system a medical problem, a political problem, an economic problem, a social problem, a religious problem, or a technological problem? The answer is “yes.” It’s all of the above.

However, the solution isn’t just gathering together different disciplines. I’ve attended several conferences on healthcare that tried to get a doctor, an economist and a priest to walk into a room. That’s the start of a great joke, but not an answer to the problem. Getting these folks together just results in having them talk past each other.

Hybrid thinking is more than just having multidisciplinary teams. It’s about having multidisciplinary people — folks who are one-part humanist, one-part technologist and one-part capitalist. When multiple disciplines inhabit the same brain, something magical starts to happen. The disciplines themselves start to mutate. They hybridize. We start practicing business like a designer — think Mark Parker at Nike. We shape technology like a culturalist — think Steve Jobs at Apple. And we start thinking about the most complex problems that plague our societies like an entrepreneur.

Some folks complain that Mark Parker and Steve Jobs are simply a rare breed — genius minds that show up only intermittently each generation. But that’s not true. What makes them rare is that they lead great companies — and that simply doesn’t happen often enough. You see, Parker and Jobs are entrepreneurs who built their companies, and as a result, their hybrid eccentricities were tolerated. It’s unlikely that their hybrid instincts would have survived in another organization. Twentieth century organizations have become extremely adept at grinding people down to become specialist cogs in their massive machines. Even at places like Nike and Apple it’s unclear whether hybridity is allowed to thrive when it’s not coming from the top.

In times of great ambiguity, we need hybrid thinking more than ever. And that means more than lip service. We may all praise Leonardo DaVinci, but we manage the world like we’re Henry Ford. And the world has changed a lot since the first Model-T rolled off the line. Isn’t it time that our thinking changed, too?

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