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"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
HL Mencken

In the face of staggering complexity, it's perhaps our nature to seek out simplicity. This tendency, though, can lead us to underestimate the true nature of problems - and undermine our ability to solve them. In other words, we treat the symptoms of a disease rather than finding, and eradicating, the root causes. To survive and thrive, especially in a complex world, we have to see beyond our need for easy answers and quick fixes.

Simple Answers for Complex Problems

In 2008, the Washington Post's Kathleen Day described the "villains" of the mortgage debacle: "Lenders, fat with money made cheap by the federal government, aggressively coaxed millions of borrowers to take out unaffordable mortgages." It's a common lament: the big bad wolf, wearing a banker's suit. But a letter to the editor captures another side of the crisis.

"Kathleen Day targeted everyone except those who deserve it most: homeowners...It's time to stop the blame game and hold individuals accountable for their actions." The big bad wolf wasn't the only villain in this story; the root causes are much deeper and more widespread. Failing to acknowledge it didn't fix the problem then, nor will it keep it from recurring in the future.

The bottom line is that we want a simple, understandable answer to situations and circumstances that are highly complex. This is a concept that Steven Mandis discusses in his Harvard Business Review article, entitled "Don't Blame the Apple and Exonerate the Tree."

Blaming the Apple

Mandis structures his argument around the federal probe into JP Morgan's mortgage shenanigans. The lender settled with the US Government, agreeing to pay $13 billion in fines for "overstating" the quality of mortgages it sold to investors ($11 billion of which is tax-deductible, so the bank gets a multi-billion dollar break).

We want something, or someone to blame, and we have for time immemorial - since the first, literal, scapegoat. What we fail to recognize is that it's not an individual or a single event that's to blame: it's, as Mandis writes, "the set of conditions, constraints, pressures, and expectations" that allowed or created the "bad behavior."

The reality is that structure drives behavior; when you create an environment, people conform. For better or for much, much worse. After World War I, for example, the environment in Germany was caustic, poison, dangerous.

Blaming the Germans is blaming the apple. The seeds of Hitler's ascent were sown when the Allies imposed harsh economic punishments on Germany. It created tremendous hardship - and this is what allowed a caustic, poison, dangerous man to rise to power. Blame Germany - but also consider that the Allies created the environment that "allowed the bad behavior."

The environment, though, can also allow or produce positive behavior. Gandhi, for instance, led followers on a 200 mile march to the sea, walked into the mud flats, and scooped up a handful of salt. This defied the British mandate that Indians buy, not collect, salt. It was revolutionary - and completely nonviolent. It was defiant, and never a shot fired. He created an environment of nonviolent protest that inspired millions to follow in his footsteps.

Look for the Tree

We want to pick the low hanging fruit - in this case, the apple! But we have to look at the tree. There are no simple answers. A great deal of interdependency goes into creating our problems; the same must hold true for our solutions.

Look beyond the simple answer; and then attack the tree at its roots. As Mandis writes, the causes "may be difficult to discover because the picture may be blurry or the analysis may be messy. But addressing them is essential if we actually want to change behavior."

The world is much more complex than we give it credit for; oversimplifying solutions is an understandable response to chaos. But it doesn't allow us to dig deep enough to eradicate the source. But that's exactly what we have to do to compete in the midst of the multifaceted "conditions, constraints, pressures, and expectations" thrust on us by the world. Look for the tree.


Larry Hart

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