The answer-outcome paradox

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gap between finding the right answers and getting to the right outcomes.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine was working for a think tank that was hired to consult for the Ministry of Education of a small country.  The team, which was made up mostly of PhDs who specialize in education, was asked to create the blueprint, design, and launch of the country’s higher education system.  I was petrified to imagine a group of researchers being asked to create a living system that would consistently deliver high-quality educational outcomes.

The premise was that the people who knew most (analytically) about higher education would be the best people to solve this problem.

I’m a problem-solving kind of guy, so it’s taken a combination of observation, deduction, and advice from peers and mentors for me to come around to the idea that the analytical skills I’d been trained to develop all my life – from school grades to the SATs and GMATs to the whole system of admission to college and graduate school – aren’t the end game, they’re the starting point.

You’d never guess this was the case by looking at our institutions of higher education, which by and large are run by professors who are mostly in the answer-finding business.  It’s true that there is an occasional nod to things like team-building, communication and influencing skills, coaching, self-reflection, etc., but these inevitably are billed as “soft” skills somehow different and apart from the hard (read: real) skills that matter.

If you’re an “answers” kind of person, it a cop-out to blame poor outcomes on others’ inability to see the solution you saw all along.  If a path not taken – one that you believed in – was the right one, then the first question to ask was what you could have done differently to get your team, or your organization, to that outcome.

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4 thoughts on “The answer-outcome paradox

  1. I couldn’t agree more.

    By the end of college, I was extremely frustrated with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, rather than for the sake of solving the myriad challenges that humankind currently face. Here are a couple of quotes I found then that summed up my feelings (first from Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey”, then from Thoreau’s “Walden”):

    “What happened was, I got the idea in my head- and I could not get it out- that college was just one more dopey, inane place in the world dedicated to piling up treasure on earth and everything. I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven’s sake. What’s the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? It all seemed like exactly the same thing to me, if you take off the wrapping- and it still does! Sometimes I think that knowledge- when it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake, anyway- is the worst of all. The least excusable, certainly.”

    “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, …. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

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