What if the answers aren’t out there to find? Why Technical Solutions Can’t Solve Your Business Problems

My husband is in the habit of reading me passages from his books that he thinks are unusually good. And he has excellent taste.

In this most recent instance, Israeli thinker Yuval Levin makes the argument that in our scientific age, we tend to think of everything as a technical problem.

“The confidence of science, born as we have seen from the continuing successes of the physical sciences, builds this confidence in social sciences, working on the notion that the human realm must be open to similar sort of understanding.  Surely, a nation that can go to the moon can put an end to poverty at last, they say. “If 600 scientists working together can produce the atom bomb,” the chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews said in a speech in the late 1940s, “then 600 scientists could be put to work on the job of ending intergroup hatreds.” What we must do is put the greatest minds of the age to work on discovering the answers to our social problems, and then implement the solutions which they find. These experts, be they the ‘brain trust’ or the ‘wise men’ or the ‘best and the brightest,’ are smart enough to discover the solutions.

“The unstated assumption underlying this view, of course, is that solutions are there to be found in this way. The notion that technical experts will solve the social problems inherently relies upon the proposition that the social problems are technical problems. This view, an essential element of the social scientific mindset, melds well with the practicality of the American. The answers exist, and the knowledgeable experts can find them. Once they are discovered, solving the problems of society becomes a question of implementation. Asked by a Senate committee in 1966 how long it would take to end poverty in America, Sargent Shriver — President Johnson’s point-man on the war on poverty — looked down at his notes, at his graphs and his figures and said “about 10 years.” He meant it.”

Tyranny of Reason, 2000.

As I so often do when Chris reads me this thinky stuff, I had an insight. When people want to know how to solve their business problems, frequently the problem is not a technical one. Just like you can’t ‘fix’ generational poverty by providing food and housing. Something more subtle has to shift — values, social attitudes, or perhaps only something as simple as the expectation of success instead of effort unrewarded. At best, you could say that the technical solution is only half the solution — the easier half, which is why it’s so enthusiastically pursued. The other half is nuanced, opaque and frequently unique to the people and circumstances.

If persistent poverty seems like an unfairly difficult problem to apply the scientific method to, then let’s look at a smaller one.

For over a decade, Auburn University architecture students have been working on a design for a home that is affordable for people in poverty, but also pays market wages for the construction crew.

Well, they solved the problem. Using innovative building techniques and thoughtful design, these homes cost only $14K in materials and are as elegant as the most bespoke Tiny House.

And then they ran into the problems that are not amenable to the scientific method.

  • The plans don’t conform to code. Not because they’re unsafe, but because they’re not how things have always been done. So, they are frequently rejected out of hand.
  • Even if the plans get through the approval process, building crews aren’t familiar with many of the techniques. Therefore, many builders aren’t keen to take on small projects with a lot of upfront time invested learning all these weird new ideas.
  • While middle-class people can manage to scrape together $20K to pay for the home outright, the impoverished people it was designed for need a mortgage. And that’s the biggest hurdle. Banks don’t want to give mortgages for an amount so small. It costs them $2300 to draw up a mortgage agreement, no matter the size. For a $100K house, it makes sense, but not for a $20K house. It would be like you driving across town to save 3 cents a gallon on gas.

These problems are solvable, but it’s going to take a different kind of solution. You have to educate people– you have to make them want to be educated. You have to somehow shift the levers of incentives so that banks (or somebody) finds it worthwhile to grant $20K mortgages. And for construction companies to want to learn these new construction techniques. And for building inspectors to understand engineering enough to see that the construction plans are sound. This really isn’t the type of work most people enjoy doing, so we stick to the nice, clear-cut technical problems.

And it’s the same way when we look at problems with our businesses.

We don’t mind the hard work — truly. We just don’t like the messiness and open-endedness that comes with wrestling with the non-technical side of our problems. It feels Sisyphean — you labor and labor and you have so little to show for it (not to mention it’s emotionally wracking.)

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But that’s why at least half my writing is more philosophical in nature. We need to have an opportunity to work through the messiness, if only in small bites. Even if we’re just looking at the issue from a slightly different angle.

Trust me, I love a good technical solution. I want to give you one. But in business, the technical solution looks like a tip post — it tends not to have, either emotionally or practically, the impact on our business that we desire.

So where does this leave us? Well, pretty much where we were to start with — but with the better understanding of the issue. The answer, if we find it, probably won’t be elegant, clear-cut, or widely applicable. I think that helps, though, don’t you?