Why we can't solve big problems

Why we can't solve big problems
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Recent polling suggests that the majority of Americans believe the nation’s best years are in the past. A simple fact underlies this sentiment: We have been unable to solve big problems lately — even when solutions are within reach.

A principal cause of our problem-solving paralysis is our inability to think and act holistically. We live, learn, and work across narrow, outdated boundaries that prevent us from comprehending the big picture. 

I began the 2010s by serving as chief operating officer of the New York City Department of Education. My tenure was filled with surprises; the country’s largest school system delivers them on an hourly basis.


Perhaps most astonishing was the fact that actionable, relevant information that should have been used to positively alter the trajectory of New York City’s 1.1 million students was too often under lock and key in separate city agencies.

For instance, the Department of Education held details about students’ grades and attendance. At the same time, another city agency possessed knowledge about students’ housing situations, and a third maintained facts about students’ health and wellness. Together, the data would have painted a holistic picture of a student’s life, but it was inaccessible. Each agency’s capacity — not to mention each teacher’s ability — to comprehensively understand and therefore better address every child’s unique needs was severely limited.

This narrow thinking, manifested in a lack of coordination and siloed information, is not a new phenomenon.

In the 1940s, multiple New York City agencies planned construction projects for the same parcels of land, unaware of each other's intentions. It is also not unique to New York City. The 911 Commission Report notes that during the summer of 2001, no one in the federal government looked at the bigger picture; individual investigations were not connected to national priorities.

The situation that I encountered at the Department of Education is indicative of our inability as a country to address complicated challenges.


Examples abound: Crumbling infrastructure. Persistent gun violence. Outrageously expensive healthcare. These issues fray the fabric of our local communities and democratic institutions. And yet we are stuck in a moment of passivity, tolerating incremental progress while long-term societal burdens persist and our fellow Americans struggle to thrive. Why?

At home, fueled by runaway income inequality, our neighbors are more likely to look like us and possess similar levels of educational attainment.

At school — because of myriad factors including poor workforce planning and declining higher education budgets — college students are pushed into career education at the expense of the liberal arts

At work, jobs have become hyperspecialized. For example, “administrative assistant” — a job category that employs no fewer than 3.7 million Americans — is increasingly being broken down into specialized workflows and outsourced around the world.

Buzzwords like innovation and creativity crowd the stages of venues like TED and Shark Tank. Yet, we attempt to solve problems of growing complexity and interconnectedness by focusing on the symptoms without working to chip away at the underlying causes of the problem.

Americans are a practical people — we don’t expect technologists or politicians or anyone else to solve our most complicated societal problems single-handedly. But we do expect leaders in industry, government, and the social sector to act with an understanding of the big picture and a bias towards sustainable fixes.

Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad.

Communities across the country are beginning to reap the benefits of holistic problem-solving by forward-looking organizations and bold leaders. In Denver, Colo., Metro Caring, a community-based organization, is decreasing hunger by providing access not only to fresh food but to evidence-based poverty-fighting interventions, including tax assistance. In Birmingham, Ala., BuildUP, an innovative non-profit, has created a new kind of school that will allow students to work toward owning their own renovated homes, a project they will complete themselves, gaining valuable skills and earning an industry-recognized credential during the process. And back in New York City, there is finally a pilot underway between the Department of Education and the Departement of Homeless Services to share data.

This is the kind of work necessary to surpass the rest of the world’s progress in the next ten years.

As we turn towards a new decade, let us focus on problem-solving that is flexible, informed by data, and created in close proximity to the people whom the intervention is designed to help.

Most importantly, we need problem-solving that respects the interconnected causes of our most significant challenges and works to address them holistically.

Andrew Buher is founder and managing director of Opportunity Labs, a consultancy and new company builder focused on holistic problem-solving. He was formerly a White House Fellow and the chief operating officer of the New York City Department of Education.