The Myth of Fixability: Why Do We Think there is a Silver Bullet to Complex Business Problems? 

businessman looking at a maze

By Steve Hearsum

Complex and messy problems are everywhere, not just in business, but in life more generally. Yet the way in which we face them is often to deny reality. As Mark Cole and John Higgins, who coined the term ‘myth of fixability’, say: “we live in a consequence free world, where solutions to all situations exist, where pills and modern medicine, technology, the market, new so-called ‘thought leadership’, and a battery of management techniques, will [all] be a deus ex machina (or deus ex McKinsey) stepping in to make everything better.” (2023: 111)[1]

Think about the ease with which politicians of various kinds have over simplified and explained away the complexity of COVID or Brexit to assuage our anxiety, and their own. In organisations, leaders, still often gripped by the fallacy that heroic leadership is a viable approach, attempt to persuade their followers that all will be ok, even when their followers know that things are a little more complicated than they are being told.

The pressure to know what to do

An example of this is how organisations make decisions around the purchase of digital technology and the accompanying change. A friend of mine who works with organisations to help them with their digital strategies and resultant change once described to me that she noticed how often her exec clients would be making purchasing decisions worth millions of pounds for technology they simply did not understand. The embarrassment and potential shame of acknowledging that they did not understand all this ‘digital stuff’ meant they stayed quiet. The work my friend did was less around the tech, and more about dealing with anxiety and the group dynamic, with people too afraid to reveal what they did not know. To accept that you do not know what to do, that you do not have the answers, that how you imagine yourself to be and hope others see you, can be profoundly anxiety inducing.

NO SILVER BULLET COVER

It is in this context that the market for Silver Bullets flourishes: when faced with a challenge which we do not see a solution or answer to, it is far easier to edit out uncomfortable facets of reality and reach for the nearest gobbet of thought leadership, 2×2 model, fancy slide deck with the promise of answers or methodology that makes it all look so manageable.

Who wouldn’t want certain answers?

I Know I do. The things in my life and work that are messy, if someone offered me a quick fix or Silver Bullet, I’d snap it up. Unfortunately they do not exist, whether that be for digital transformation, culture, talent management or any of the many other messy organisational challenges. If they did, we’d all be buying the same book or hiring the same consultancy or lapping up the methodology that made things easy.  

This is where the myth of fixability comes into play: if we believe in that, life is a lot less discomforting. All of this raises a question.

What drives the need for certainty?

In my research for my new book No Silver Bullet, I asked interviewees for their thoughts on what drives this need for certainty. The answers were varied, with some clear patterns emerging, including:

  • Expectations – those that are placed on leaders and which they place on themselves
  • Pace – it is rare for leaders to say ‘we need to slow down’. The speed at which we are expected to perform heightens the need for answers, and quick ones
  • Narratives around how leaders lead to be ‘great’– e.g. fast, decisive, confident, heroic, charismatic, etc.
  • Laziness – because, yes, thinking more deeply requires effort
  • Fear and anxiety – in this instance of failure, and what others might see or we might realize about ourselves. Add to that discomfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, fear of being ‘found out’ or ‘not good enough’, all underpinned by shame, or the potential thereof.
  • Not being able to cope with not knowing – specifically around what to do, why things are happening, what will happen if I do/do not act, etc.
  • Pleasing behaviour – parent/child dynamics are common in most organisations, and a pattern that shows up within that is of the need for some leaders to be liked, which turns into pleasing others whether employees or peers. One way to please is, of course, to find the solution to a problem everyone is worried about.
  • Displacement – it is easier to make someone – or something – else responsible when things do not work. Like a Silver Bullet
  • Mindset – if you view the world as inherently plannable or have a high need for precision and predictability, certain solutions are incredibly alluring.
  • Cognitive overload – we simply can’t cope.

Rob Briner, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Queen Mary University London summed things up nicely:

  • “Magical thinking, incentives and rewards for leaders, cognitive biases, lack of training in decision-making, limited accountability, few evaluations and ‘management theatre’ where being seen to be doing something is more important than what you actually do”.[2]

The kicker

Given all of that, is it any wonder that the market for Silver Bullets is so strong and leaders are ripe to be sold to? Wishing something were true is not the same thing as it being so. The ways in which we make sense of and interact with the world around us, as it really is, is key. How to respond to this? No Silver Bullets on offer from me, rather some tentative suggestions:

  1. Develop reflexivity – the ability to notice your own beliefs, judgments and practices and what influences these (e.g. psychological, social and systemic factors)
  2. Cultivate a both/and mindset – when all around are asking for either/or, yes/no, or stop/start binary responses, getting comfy with not knowing requires the ability to see and hold nuanced positions.
  3. Ask questions – especially when you are amid the unknown. That is place for sensing and responding, not heroic leadership.
  4. Experiment – and be prepared to fail and learn. If you do not know what is going on or what to do, to expect to be right as a default it an absurdity

These are the antithesis of a mindset that believes in the myth of fixability, and ultimately far more likely to lead to positive change.

About the Author

Steve HearsumSteve Hearsum is an experienced consultant, supervisor and developer of change practitioners, the founder of Edge + Stretch and the author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the bubble of the organisational quick fix (out now). 

References

  1. Cole, M. & Higgins, J. 2023. The Great Unheard at Work: Understanding voice and silence in organisations. Abingdon, Oxon & New York, NY: Routledge.
  2. Email 17th February 2024

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