Don’t try swallowing a whale in one go

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Guest blog written by Joe Savage

So, your fish bone skeleton is a whale

Even the biggest, most complex problems can be broken down into smaller pieces. First, you probably shouldn’t try to swallow a whale in one go. After all, it’s a whale. It would obviously crush you. Second, the process of digging deeper into problems and sub-problems will help you to understand your challenge better. So not only can you go for a small bite, but you know the best place to start*. Not least because…

Momentum matters

If you’re working on a problem that’s not only wicked but possibly cursed by some ancient spirit, a slow start and subsequent lack of progress might seem like the prophecy has been fulfilled. First, we all need to feel like we’re getting somewhere. We can take energy from that. Second, our bosses and peers need that boost too. A sense that these guys are on to something and this is worth getting behind. Even little victories could help. Of course, the trick is knowing how to spot those victories.

Write. It. Down.

I used to help advisers embedded in ministries to trace their impact. I often heard “But the value of what I do cannot be measured”. The importance of a chat over coffee for example. I usually replied by asking “Well, did you write about the coffee anywhere?” Tackling complex challenges involves a lot of little victories and setbacks. You’ll forget most of them tomorrow. The personal learning tool is a great example of how reflections can be structured and captured simply, but effectively.

Learning, A.K.A. the relief of humility

There’s something liberating about saying “I don’t know but this looks like a good place to start” when faced with a complex challenge, rather then reeling off a set of long-term outcome statements, indicators, and targets that will be reached through ‘the plan’. Accepting you don’t have all the answers and your hunches may be off takes some humility, vulnerability even. Only pushing a few steps forward before taking time to reflect and going again takes courage. It also makes more sense than marching off in the dark with complete conviction and straight over the cliff edge.

There will be plenty of disappointment to go around

On top of the setbacks you experience on the way, each change can bring fresh disappointment for some of your colleagues. It’s not about steeling your soul against emotion and doing what must be done. It’s about recognising and engaging with those feelings. Because really what it all comes down to is people. Even the best thought-through technical solutions to your problem will flounder if you don’t think about the people affected by it. Some might be privileged. Others might feel loss.

As the man says, just rent these ideas

As I journeyed through the course, the more I reflected how we are hardwired to form and persist with plans, sometimes in the face of evidence and reason. As good as the Implementing Public Policy course is, it will not rewire you overnight. Indeed, you might reject the ideas as non-starters. Admit uncertainty? Expect some failures? Don’t have a detailed multi-year plan? Well, just rent the ideas first. You don’t need to bet your house yet. But do stop and reflect on whether one of the reasons your challenge is so intractable is because we keep coming it at from the same angle and with the same tools. Just take the time to wonder if there’s another way of looking at it. 

* No whales were harmed in deconstructing my problem.  

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Learn more about the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Community of Practice and visit the course website to apply.

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