Hirschman’s Hiding Hand and Problem Driven Change

written by Matt Andrews

I referred to Albert Hirschman’s work on the “Principle of the Hiding Hand” in my class today. It is a great principle, and has real application when thinking about PDIA and problem driven change.

In his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand” Hirschman argues that creative solutions most frequently come from adapting to tasks that turn out to be more challenging than we expect.

In Hirschman’s words, “men engage successfully in problem-solving [when] they take up problems which they think they can solve, find them more difficult than expected, but then, being stuck with them, attack willy-nilly the unsuspected difficulties – and sometimes even succeed.”

It’s really beautiful, because it takes as a given some facts that we often think stand in the way of doing flexible, PDIA-type development. Hirschman expects that decision makers will tackle problems, often adopt solutions that look attractive but are hard to pull off (perhaps like big best practice type initiatives), and will overestimate the potential results.

He argues that they wouldn’t try to do the challenging things that development demands if they didn’t think this way. So, he advises to ‘go with it’ …. but then wait for the unexpected… in the form of complexities, constraints, hidden difficulties, etc.

When these unforseen difficulties emerge, Hirschman argues, we have the opportunity to become creative–and to iterate and experiment and find and fit ways to solve the problems that initiated the work in the first place … building on the sunk costs already incurred in pursuing the big, best practice, perfect solution. (saying something like “we’ve come so far…let’s now iterate to ensure we actually solve the problem we set out to solve.”)

Beautiful: Start where you are, focus on solving problems, try the big best practice (but hard to actually do) solution, and become creative when you hit the challenges…

What he assumes is that you have space for flexible change and PDIA-type innovation because of the sunk costs associated with past (or current) reform. An interesting assumption, that I think we can look at academically and reflect on practically.

Required and fundamentally vital reading for anyone in development.

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