What Do We Need To Do To Improve A Situation?


Thursday, 9.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Winning teams have the least amount of distractions. They have a really tight group of people working towards the same common goal. – Larry Dixon

What kind of approach should we take when we’re trying to make things better – at home, at work, in society? Is there some way of figuring out what sort of intervention would work?

I don’t really know, but I’ve been seeing a lot of people recently using 2×2 matrixes – that old consulting favourite – and thought I’d have a go at thinking through this.

Let’s start with putting situations on one axis and labelling them as unique or common. Common problems are ones that many of us face a lot of the time – like booking a hotel room, paying for parking buying something from a shop. Unique problems are ones that are specific to a situation. Your budget is going to be different from someone else’s budget – even if you both do exactly the same thing. McDonald’s, the poster example of standardisation, probably has different cost structures for each unit depending on where it is and what the local environment happens to be.

I wondered what to put on the other axis and I’m not sure I’ve got this right, but I went with resolution. The idea that what you do sorts out the situation – when you’re finished things are better – they’re resolved. And sometimes the resolution is about making things easier – and sometimes it’s about getting involved in sorting out hard things. This distinction is not obvious, is it? It’s not that there are easy solutions – but that you can do something to make it easy. But it is the case that it’s hard to sort out some things.

Let’s see if some examples help.

A common situation is booking a hotel and that’s what a whole part of the economy does and that’s what AirBnb set out to disrupt – they made it easier for you to find places to stay and they did that by building a platform that you could use. They essentially created a marketplace, where suppliers and buyers could discover each other and enter into a transaction – my money for your space for a while.

You can solve your budget problem by using a spreadsheet to create a model or by hiring someone to work for you if you don’t know how to. But it’s not hard – not really – although it’s easy to make it hard. But, in essence, it’s something you can sort out and you don’t need a big toolkit to do it. Pen and pencil and a calculator will do, really.

Moving onto the hard to resolve situations, you’ve got things like reducing your impact on the environment. If you’re well off you’re doing more damage to the planet – the link between affluence and consumption is rather strong. So are you willing to give up your lifestyle to save the planet? Do you object when less well off countries pump carbon into the atmosphere as they try and match your level of affluence? Even in a company, you’ll have different views on what needs doing and what doesn’t. The only way to deal with this is to work together, get people on the same page and work as a team. And this is hard when you don’t know what you need to do to make things better.

Then the last example is about poverty – which is fairly common and can persist across generations. What poor people have in common is the lack of money – but it’s much more than that – they also lack opportunity, knowledge – perhaps even belief and hope. Although hope is hard to extinguish – it’s almost a prerequisite for survival. If you want to change these situations you can’t do it easily, you have to immerse yourself in the context and put in place the many kinds of support that are needed to help people stop generational patterns from carrying on.

I’m wondering if this matrix is useful or not – and it’s seems to lead to four types of actions. Depending on the situation in which you find yourself and how hard it is to resolve you might find yourself pointing to a website, opening up a spreadsheet, pulling together a team or supporting someone.

And perhaps it is useful as a diagnostic tool – as something that helps you see what sort of situation you’re in and so suggests what you should do next.



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