Most problems are more complex than we want to admit

Here’s an easy way to start: a big part of the “how to reform police” dialogue has been “Well, send mental health workers to incidents!” OK. I personally have a lot of questions about that, including “Who will train the $17/hour 911 operator to know whom to send?” and “Will mental health professionals be working at 3am if an incident happens then?” and “What will a DA think about a mental health professional going to a potentially violent crime scene?” But still, it’s a wave of the moment, and people like to talk about similar programs in Eugene (Oregon) and elsewhere that have worked. But to wit, in a good article about police reform efforts from The Washington Post, you see this:

Overhauling incident response is not a panacea. The police can’t solve complex social problems, but neither can civilian responders. Connecting homeless people with medical or social services is obviously more humane and helpful than arresting them for trespassing, but neither will address the toxic web of abuse, affordable-housing shortages and addiction that contributes to homelessness in the first place. Incident response reform must be just the first step.

Indeed. A lot of problems are very complicated, and we try to assign them simple, single-order solutions because of character counts or platform ideology or wanting to be seen as smart and solutions-oriented or whatever else. But one-off solutions to complicated queries do not do much.

Countless work examples

At literally every job I’ve ever had, there’s been at least 10 major things wrong with people, process, promotions, sales, or something else — and ironically often lots of people know the problems, generally understand the root causes, and do nothing about them because, if they did, they might endanger their own ability to earn income (or they’d just rather focus on their line of sight tasks).

A simple example is on-boarding. Tons of people know that on-boarding is a train wreck and focuses too much on process and not enough on how work really gets done, the politics of the place, the relationships that matter, the informal rules, etc. But it’s a very complicated process, because it occurs at multiple intersections, including:

  • How busy everyone who already works there is
  • How important a life transition (new job) is to the new hire
  • The fact that HR has no power in standard organizations
  • Executives don’t care; they barely onboard their own lieutenants, expecting them to just cough up a $4.5M sale on Day 1, Hour 3
  • This feels like stuff we assign to software

And there’s the simple, one-line solution to on-boarding for many: “Buy some software.” We’ve been doing that for 10–15 years, and on-boarding still sucks, and people still chase new jobs at 60–90 days, or get put on a PIP in the same span. We know our single-issue solution isn’t working, but we keep doing it. Why? Lots of reasons. Complexity is hard, people don’t like to wrestle it, and there’s only so much you can do at a given level. If I’m a peon or a middle peon, I can propose new solutions and ideas around XYZ topic, be it on-boarding or something else, but will those ideas be listened to? Implemented? A Jedi knows not these things, young grasshopper. But the likely answer is “no,” and whatever is the cheapest and most friction-less deployment will win out.

There are tons of examples of this societally and at work. A few:

  • More diversity in orgs: Take a stand against the top dogs! Tie it to the bottom line!
  • Obesity: Less corn subsidies!
  • School shootings: Less violent media content for youth! Regulate YouTube more!
  • Partisan rancor: We need more than two parties!
  • Out-of-touch politicians: Term limits!

All these things are part of the solution, yes. But the bigger solution itself is a rich tapestry that cannot be captured by a single line of ideation, and that’s where we often take stuff these days.


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