Kicking the solution habit

I was reminded today of my tendency to become over excited about a really cool piece of technology. My geekiness is hidden behind a thin veil, and today that veil was lifted to reveal my bridal glow.

The technology in question (and I should warn you it really isn’t exciting to any normal human) is an app which signs me in as present at work as soon as I enter the school grounds, without me having to do anything! The app comes with some well thought-through features, such as a one-click fire evacuation list to roll call staff should we have a fire alarm. What I love about this piece of technology is that it saves me time (no more going to reception to sign in), makes me safer, and the user-interface is beautifully simple. What’s not to love?

It is fair to say that not every piece of technology I encounter gives me quite this much pleasure. This isn’t just because technological solutions are often poorly designed but also because there are a great deal of technological solutions which are solving problems which either don’t exist, haven’t been fully understood, or simply don’t need a piece of technology to solve them.

In 2013, the Belarusian writer and researcher, Evgeny Morozov, coined the term solutionism to describe the misplaced desire to fix every social problem with technology. In his book ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, Morozov criticises attempts to make life ‘frictionless’ – to eradicate imperfection and make everything efficient.

But over-eager solutionists (those driven to continually solve problems) are not only found in the digital world.

Solution orientation

Now it would be daft to say that finding solutions to problems is a bad thing in general. There are clear evolutionary benefits to being solution oriented, such as the ability to look around for something which can be fashioned as a weapon when under attack from a saber tooth tiger. The man who stands and waits for someone else to analyse the problem is the main who gets eaten.

However, modern problems are rarely as clear as the fight or flight environment that shaped our early genetic memories. We have created a social world in which problems are less easily defined and may be tackled in multiple ways.

And yet the tendency to reach quickly for solutions persists and, if unrestrained, can cause harm. I’ve come to think of this tendency as a form of cognitive bias which we might call solution orientation.

A cognitive bias is a deviation from rational judgement which occurs because individuals create their own subjective reality. Where the filter of perception means we do not have a full and realistic view of what is happening around us, this can lead to poor decision making. Solution orientation is a form of cognitive bias known as bounded rationality, which means the rationality of our decisions is restricted by cognitive limitations, the mind’s tractability, and the tendency to solution grab.

My observation is that this bias is most prevalent, and potentially harmful, in complex, social systems, such as schools [see here for more about school complexity]. There are many definitions of complex systems, but for our purposes the following one is apt: a complex system is one which cannot be fully comprehended by any one individual. Our mental model of such environments is necessarily partial and subjective as we make sense of how we experience the system. Furthermore, when our biological urge to find solutions kicks in, the solutions which appear rational to us will not necessarily appear so to others.

However, solution grabbing does serve a useful purpose in complex environments as it pushes us towards making a decision in informationally noisy systems. For those in a leadership position in a school, decisions are often made under pressure and with imperfect information, therefore pragmatic means are needed to simplify and fix upon a way forward. Leaders develop heuristics – decision making short cuts or ‘hand rails’ – which provide reference models to support a best guess: a necessarily imperfect solution, but one which will do.

Whilst inexperienced school leaders lack these heuristics and therefore are more methodical in their decision making (which can present as over-cautiousness or procrastination), with greater expertise comes an apparent fluidity to decision making. However, there may be an increasing tendency to lean too quickly towards solutions.

The solutionist school leader

Once you have defined and recognised the solution grabbing tendency, you begin to see it everywhere. And it is a really difficult habit to break. Only this week, I have pulled myself and others up on moving too quickly from the ‘we’ve got a problem’ stage, to the ‘here is a bright and shiny new thing’ epiphany. I would go as far as to say that harmful solution orientation is rampant across our schools.

What are the signs of excessive solutionism by school leaders? We might ask the following:

  1. How many of the staff consultations carried out at at your school consult on the problems faced as opposed to the ready-made solutions offered by leaders?
  2. When school leaders disappear for a ‘conference day’, are there audible groans and speculation about what new policy will appear subsequently?
  3. How often do new initiatives fail to gain traction and make a substantial difference to pupil outcomes?
  4. Is there an ‘eye-brow response’ to school improvement efforts? Eye-brows raised = ‘you’re really asking us to do that?’. Eye-brows furrowed = ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea’.

Of course, the above signals can be indicators of other things, but taken together they indicate that those being asked to buy-in to the solution perhaps don’t perceive the problems they are meant to solve in the same way. I have seen all of the above in my present school and every school I have worked in. This observation is not a criticism of school leaders, merely an observation that this is what the system and our cognitive limitations tip us towards. It is a feature of complexity and a function of good intentions, cognitive overload, pressure to improve, and having too few hours in the day.

So, what can we do about it?

Problem orientation

The first challenge is to recognise when solution orientation is desirable as opposed to a more cautious and reflective approach. In traditional management literature, this problem is often framed as the question of when to employ a particular management style, such as authoritarian or consultative. The advice offered is around being more authoritarian in high stakes, high pressure situations, but more consultative when you want to build consensus. I find this advice a little simplistic and ignores the matter of the quality of decision making. It is a means-end view, whereby the leader ‘chooses’ how to proceed based on their judgement of what is required. It’s all about the bloody leader, as usual.

An alternative approach may be to consider the nature of the problem itself: what is needed for a good decision to be made?

One consideration may be how nested the problem is in the complexity of the system. A nested problem is one which:

  • Has strong connections to other problems which manifest in the school.
  • Has repercussions at various levels and across multiple groups.
  • Is linked to the persistent problems faced by schools.
  • By attempting to solve, will have unpredictable effects on other aspects of the school’s operations.

We might identify a nested problem when we try to define it. It is difficult to draw boundaries around a nested problem i.e. to determine where the problems ends and another begins.

For example, if a school does not have adequate outdoor sports facilities for the size of the school and nature of the curriculum, the problem is quite well defined. It may be a difficult problem to solve, and there will be trade-off decisions (spending money on this priority may mean less investment elsewhere), but it is a complicated rather than complex problem.

However, if we identify that our school’s appraisal system does not appear to be fit-for-purpose, we may find this is a nested problem. Appraisal systems are part of a school’s solution to multiple, related problems. If you attempt to define what the problem is that you hope to solve by re-thinking your appraisal system you will likely find yourself heading into a labyrinth of inter-connected problems. The appraisal system in itself will not solve these problems and cannot be considered in isolation from issues of professional culture, standards of teaching, the distribution of responsibility, and numerous other interconnected matters which vex leaders.

This takes us to the second challenge, which is about getting beneath the skin of the problem. As the author and educationalist Viviane Robinson said: ‘Do not design the future until your deeply understand the present’.

I’ve been working up some devices to help break the habit of solution grabbing. Essentially, there are two questions which can be asked when we find ourselves leaning too quickly towards solutionism:

  1. How do you define the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. How do others see it?

These questions are intended to shift the focus from speculating about possible solutions to examining the nature of the problem, thinking through the problem clearly and in depth, and mitigating against the dominance of leader perspectives.

Problem definition is difficult in complex organisations. The following four-step model may help.

Step 1: Decide how global you wish to go.

Complex problems echo up and down the hierarchy such that problems are nested in wider problems. For example, if we start with a concern about appraisal, we may broaden this out to a general question about how we approach improving standards of teaching, or raise issues about whether teachers take responsibility for their own development (professional culture), or zoom right out to consider how we approach school improvement.

The first question is, therefore, where to set our sights? How broadly or narrowly should we define the problem we are trying to solve? This is when school leadership becomes mind-blowing and you risk getting lost in the labyrinth. Therefore, there is a degree of complexity-denial necessary: you must fixate on a version of the problem, at least for now.

Step 2: Connect to the persistent problems face by schools.

There are universal problems faced by schools which arise from the way the system is configured and what it is expected schools will contribute to solving wider societal problems. These problems will continually emerge and re-emerge in different forms.

To situate the problem in hand, there is merit in explicitly connecting it to the persistent problems.

For example, if the problem we are trying to solve is to improve the quality of teaching in our school (a fairly high level and broad problem), this will involve considerations around school culture, learning and development, curriculum, pupil behaviour, and self-management (the persistent problems framework I reference here is that developed by Ambition Institute, who give a further explanation of the concept of persistent problems here). This analysis provides the scope for our subsequent thinking.

Step 3: Describe what makes the problem tricky.

If this problem wasn’t tricky, then one expert leader’s solution grab would probably suffice. However, if heuristics are likely to let us down then a more explicit consideration of the trickiness of the problem which is open to debate and scrutiny by others is wise.

This step exposes assumptions and beliefs. For example, if I were to set out my thoughts about why improving the quality of teaching is tricky I would note the following:

  • The ‘output’ (learning) is invisible, intangible and therefore difficult to measure.
  • The causal mechanism (i.e. how teaching leads to learning) is ambiguous and difficult to isolate.
  • There are multiple factors outside of the teacher’s, and even the school’s, control which disrupt the process of teaching and learning.
  • We do not know enough about what effective teaching practice looks like. This is because teaching is a loose, ill-defined discipline which makes it difficult to create a body of shared knowledge.
  • There is evidence to suggest that ‘what works’ is highly dependent on context.
  • Teaching is a very challenging job and changing practice can be risky and lead to cognitive overload.
  • Teachers work largely in isolation ‘inside the black box’ of the classroom.
  • Teacher habits become embedded and teachers are reliant on these regularities as a ‘hand rail’ to help cope with complexity.
  • Teachers are asked to perform what is ultimately an impossible task: to move a group of students of varying aptitudes, dispositions, and intent, in lock-step fashion towards securing defined learning outcomes.
  • Many professional development efforts do not have impact.

There is plenty of room for disagreement here. That is the point. By making my beliefs and assumptions explicit I am allowing others in to the dialogue ate the pre-solution stage. This dialogue can be both stimulating and challenging. When was the last time you were invited to engage in school improvement in this way?

Step 4: Describe how the problem manifests in your school.

Complex problems may appear the same superficially across schools, but the nuances of context are important.

In relation to the quality of teaching, we may consider the staff profile, cultural norms around individualism or collectivism, past change efforts and their success, relationships between groups horizontally and hierarchically, systems such as performance related pay, and the prevailing view on what we mean by ‘good teaching’. By understanding the systemic factors which have taken us to this point and will help or hinder efforts to change we help avoid false-attributions about individual blame or competence.

Causal hypotheses should be exposed for scrutiny. Whilst leaders may attribute low standards to teachers’ unwillingness to follow guidance, teachers may point to how the guidance does not make sense in their context. These perceptual gaps are a hindrance to change and should be uncovered, however painful that may be. Rather than seeing this as conflict to be avoided, we should view it as a process of reaching a shared definition of the problem we are trying to solve.

The emphasis so far has been on perspectives rather than evidence. I have deliberately steered away from an ‘evidence-led’ approach as I find that this often leads to a narrow, over-simplified view of the problem. The rationalist approach of looking at data, creating a hypothesis, triangulating the data to improve validity, and so on, has its place but it underplays the lived experience of those in the school and risks over-valuing the measurable. Culturally, I would rather be in a school that engages in dialogue about the school’s problems than one which collects data to analyse them, and whilst the two are not mutually exclusive, the choice will give the organisation a very different ‘flavour’.

Besides which, who is to say that our perspectives are not informed by evidence and this evidence is less valuable than more ‘harvested’ varieties? It is right to stress-test our theories against something less subjective, but changing behaviour is dependent on changing minds: spreadsheets, surveys, and quality frameworks often fail to inspire a fundamental reappraisal of one’s core beliefs.

Finding a better balance between solution and problem orientation may also lead us to better self-evaluation practices in schools, and therefore better school improvement. If we think about self-evaluation as a process of evidence collection which school leaders design and control we end up with the managerialist behaviour which has become so common in schools in recent years. However, if we conceptualise self-evaluation as a process of reaching a shared understanding of the school’s problems through clear articulation, open dialogue, and a willingness to change our mind, we may begin to find solutions which make sense to those beyond those in leadership positions.

Next time you have a Eureka! moment, or become enthusiastic about a colleague’s ‘good idea’, check your cognitive bias. Some problems are best solved by pressing pause.

2 thoughts on “Kicking the solution habit

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