The Problem with the Silver Bullet

silver bulletWhat is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem is complicated, as the definition states, it is likely to have a multitude of variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. If you think of all of these moving parts as a moving target, the bullet isn’t really the solution, but rather a tool, and it is the shooter who becomes most important. What this suggests is that we need to stop looking for magical solutions and instead focus on developing and motivating skilled, talented, and creative professionals to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Nevertheless, we look for silver bullets. We are intrigued by and hopeful that we will be able to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can address an entire organization or industry’s woes. We hope that somewhere out there, there is a recipe and/or a state-of-the-art tool that solves a complicated problem for us so easily that even a caveman can do it. We want to believe that we could just write a big check and purchase the proverbial silver bullet. This isn’t a bad dream…for the maker of the silver bullet, this stands to be a profitable product, and for the buyer, it’s a guaranteed way to become a hero. It seems that everyone wins.

The problem, as I stated before, is that it just isn’t that simple. Complicated problems are like moving targets. At best, there are several regular bullets (i.e. tools, recipes, etc.) and the shooter or the professional is the most important part of the solution. If the silver bullet were real, we would not need professionals in our organizations. The mere talk of a silver bullet undermines our skilled, talented, and creative professionals as it reduces them to robots blindly following an algorithm. This attitude and resulting culture will have a significant negative impact on motivation, at all levels of your organizations. Furthermore, it destroys innovation and ingenuity because the responsibility of solving problems is left to those who can purchase the silver bullets, so what is the use of hypothesizing, testing, and building new solutions.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), believed everyone all the way down to the assembly line was responsible for solving problems at GE. In fact, he believed the people on the assembly line were better positioned to solve problems than the people who managed them. He would often walk the assembly lines asking people directly what they thought could be done better. As simple as it may seem, asking the question, “what do you think?” cultivated a strong culture of innovation by drawing solutions from all people in the organization. This question also motivated his people by empowering them to contribute to the greater mission of GE. People who understand how and feel that their work contributes to the overall company are more engaged, satisfied, and loyal. The result for Jack Welch was one of the largest, most successful, and innovative companies of all time, whose stock value rose 4,000% during his 20 year tenure. Jack Welch did not believe in silver bullets, he believed in people.

Empower your people to solve problems for your organization instead of shopping around for a silver bullet. Your people will be the ones to best positioned to decide what the best tools are for solving complicated problems and how and when to apply them. Create a culture of innovation where everyone is a part of the solution.

The Problem with Technology and How to Fix It

At some point, many of us have purchased a cool new gadget or downloaded an awesome new app that is supposed to enhance our productivity, help us achieve some awesome goal, or help us do something we’ve never done before.

Perhaps we and/or our organization purchased an expensive set of golf clubs, the priciest software (i.e. SaaS) solution, or the best audio/video editing software in the market.

State of the Art TecThe problem is that state-of-the-art tools don’t do much to help people unless they already possess the underlying skills and understanding to make the greatest use of it. Unfortunately, due to some pretty incredible marketing, we end up convincing ourselves we need the absolute best tools in order to be successful. What often ends up happening is we get overwhelmed by the technology, distracted, and end up using less than 20% of its capability. This leads to a waste of money and/or failing to achieve a goal.

A tool is only useful if you have the understanding and underlying know-how to use it adequately.  Furthermore, you have to have a purpose first, then a strategy/model/plan to achieve your goal, and finally can you then begin to consider the appropriate tools to employ. Then and only then do tools take on a clear meaning, become easier to learn, and stand the chance of delivering results.

This problem is evident in education where districts prematurely commit to major investments in technology and in corporations that purchase or acquire new processes or tools without a clear problem to solve. Organizations end up training people on the tools or integrating the processes first and then try to find places to use it, thus putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your organization that you intend to address.
  • Ensure you have or design a model/strategy/plan for solving the problem or addressing the opportunity.
  • If you don’t have a model/strategy/plan, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth.
  • Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you reach your goal.
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and be open to switching tools when necessary.

In the case of opportunities, there may be a great deal of learning to do before tools are even considered. For instance, education has yet to understand how technology truly enhances learning outcomes. According to a report published by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.” Before education can even make effective use of education technology, it will need to identify the opportunities and goals it wants to pursue.

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.