Jul 17, 2014

Falling in love with the problem, not with the solution

Maria Gonzalez de Asis , Lead Operations Officer

I recently had the opportunity to serve as the discussant for a World Bank Group Knowledge Talk featuring Rita McGrath. Rita is a professor at Columbia Business School, and an expert on innovation and strategy. Her work – including the landmark book on strategy The End of Competitive Advantage, and important articles on the method of discovery-driven planning – holds useful lessons for the work that we do at the Bank, including in the Science of Delivery agenda.

Rita emphasized in her talk an accelerating pace of change and disruption that goes beyond the business world. Established companies, failing to to refresh their competitive advantage and seek new frontiers, have fallen, while whole new arenas for competition have arisen, with profound economic and social effects. To me this suggests a question, one worth asking ourselves constantly: what keeps us relevant?

The central theme – remaining relevant in a world of rapid change – is what motivates us to keep working on difficult problems, even when they are particularly challenging; and to change the way we do things if that’s what it takes to get things done. A widely- used phrase summarized perhaps the focus on this discussion "we need to fall in love with the problem, not with the solution". But what does this mean in practice? What practical steps can we take to ensure that we identify the right problems that hold our sustained attention and bring results to the ground?

In the changing, and increasingly networked, world that Rita described, borders become less important than the bridges that we build to people who can contribute to solutions. We need to involve others – practitioners inside and outside the Bank, as well as clients and beneficiaries themselves – to solve problems. Internal networks help to identify the abilities, talents, and solutions that we need to bring tangible results to the ground. How do we use internal networks, while reaching out to collaborators beyond our institutions, to get things done?

To cope with the pressures of change and instability, Rita identifies a process of continuous reconfiguration. Successful organizations can often change in response to pressures, shifting their strategies and working in different ways. And they regularly refresh their thinking, inviting in many perspectives, and challenging their own pre-existing perceptions.

Rita also discussed a process of evaluating our assumptions at “checkpoints,” where we can take stock of progress and check for early warnings that we may be straying off course. To me this suggests another question: how can we use the information we have at hand (including the appropriate use of lagging, current, and leading indicators) to learn when our interventions are working, or not, and to adapt our strategies when necessary? 

We need all this, and more, to stay relevant and to make sure that we are solving the problems that matter the most to our true clients, the poor. This is the biggest incentive to work in development institutions like the Bank. We need to fall in love with these problems, be committed beyond our own institutional constraints, not resting with solutions until these objectives of our focus have been resolved. To me, this relentless focus on bringing results to the ground, and not being satisfied until those results are achieved, is what it means to fall in love with the problem!