Watch Out for the Solution Bias

Submitted by Mark Holmgren on January 26, 2017 - 8:22am
Solutions are exciting, especially those you are a part of creating; but even if the ideas behind them were not your own, implementing a new solution is an intellectual turn-on. Sometimes there is an ego-boost when you are part of something on the “cutting edge.”

I wonder though, if at least some of the time solution-makers are so pumped about the potential of their new journey, they overlook pitfalls, obstacles and unintended consequences. I call this, solution-bias.

There’s a kind of bandwagon effect that can get in our way if we are not careful. Jim Collins, the Good to Great, author, talks about “getting the right people on the bus.” His intent was to point out the importance of having the right group of people engaged and together to achieve a common aim; but what if the bus is headed in the wrong direction? Or, even if its direction is correct, what if it is winding around obstacles, or running them down, and actually requires a stop along the way, to understand the journey, if not the destination itself?

solutionbias.pngAs we develop a new idea, program, or policy to address a significant problem, if we are not careful, we may solely focus on the positive changes we are working on, and fail to see the challenges or negative impacts of what we are creating.

There can be a tendency to see the solution-making we are engaged in within a stove pipe or within a kind of insularity, forgetting to look at how solutions relate to other policies, how they may not fit all environmental circumstances, or how their implementation might harm other solutions.

For example, the formalized living wage goals in many communities across Canada are now being lowered in some circumstances because of the Child Tax Benefit. These two good, needed programs that, from where I sit, are somehow at odds with each other. Does this now mean that a living wage is really not about what employers should pay workers, but rather about how tax benefits and social programs should be factored into wages?

Ask yourself what the above might imply for the movement in Canada toward a basic income. Will living wages decrease even further? Will basic income and market forces end up reshaping poverty rather than eliminating or decreasing it?

According to Living Wage Canada, “A living wage is not the same as the minimum wage, which is the legal minimum all employers must pay. The living wage sets a higher test – a living wage reflects what earners in a family need to bring home based on the actual costs of living in a specific community. The living wage is a call to private and public sector employers to pay wages to both direct and contract employees that are sufficient to provide the basics to families with children” (emphasis mine).
This is not about how much money someone should be paid after factoring in their investments, savings, or government benefits – the latter being the case for low income people. Imagine, though, if an executive was told by the corporation wanting to hire her, that her salary has been reduced because she has investments or an ample savings account. That wouldn’t fly in the corporate sector, would it? Of course not; so why would it make sense of low income people?

Adjusting a living wage downward because of the Child Tax Benefit (CTB) not only works to keep that person’s income low, it it discriminatory. An employee with children, making $40.00 per hour, would also receive Child Tax Benefits (though frankly, I am not sure why), and I am pretty sure that his/her employer would not reduce their wage.

But also, if the Child Tax Benefit is seen as a way for employers to lower the living wage they pay, does not the CTB at the very least become an indirect subsidy for employers? I am not sure that was an intended consequence of the program.

Another example: At a gathering I was a part of a couple years ago, a funder representative told me his organization was de-funding all of its agencies and moving entirely to Collective Impact funding. Apparently the buy-in to Collective Impact as a solution was so complete, the funder concluded there was no longer a reason to consider any standalone or niche services that, while not a member of a collective effort, may still be vital to the community.

Collective Impact has never been promoted as the only way to deliver social good. Rather it is a large scale, structured, multi-sector, long-term multi-sector collaboration focused on moving big needles of change that require not only service delivery, but systems and policy reformation. It is not, by nature, an all inclusive undertaking, under which all non-profits operate. What about the small group that teaches ESL to newcomers or the specialized child care service for kids with FASD? What about street programs that introduce homeless kids to the arts? What about neighbourhood-based community kitchens and gardens? Must everything now be consumed by a Collective Impact structure?

While I am a proponent of Collective Impact as a solution to large scale problems and challenges, its impact will be lessened if we allow a solution-biased mindset close our eyes and our pocketbooks to the myriad ventures that do not and need not fit within a Collective Imapct structure or approach.

Do you experience solution bias in your work? Are there times when the pendulum of change swings much farther away from where you think it should be? I am keen to engage others in this discussion. Let me know what you think.