How many times have you come across problems at work that are routinely dismissed as being 'too hard' or 'unfixable'? The NHS is the classic example of a huge 'unfixable' problem. Despite the fact that there have been no shortages of fixes, health service budgets only ever go up and the management challenges only ever get greater.
So what is it that makes a problem unfixable? With the NHS, the first striking thing about the suggested solutions is that they often lie outside the service altogether. Binge drinking, for example, puts huge pressure on ambulance and emergency services on Friday and Saturday nights. Diabetes, heart disease and lung cancer make huge demands on the health system. Yet all these are the results more than anything else of unhealthy lifestyles - things that the NHS can't really do anything about. It can only deal with the consequences.
The point is that you can't 'fix' unfixable problems by looking at any part of the system in isolation. This is because your attention is automatically drawn to where the issue manifests itself, not to where it is created. So the problem that shows up in casualty was actually created somewhere else entirely.
Thankfully not all problems that resist fixing are quite as knotty as those of tackling the nation's health, and there are some methods you can use to achieve dramatically better results.
The first thing to do when presented with an unfixable problem is to stand back and look at the wider system. If you have a software company that struggles to deliver projects, don't look at the development process, look at the way in which those projects are sold. Or if all your prospective customers are hugely price sensitive, don't try to reduce your costs or get better at handling price objections, look at the marketing - or lack of it - that attracts all those tight-fisted people in the first place.
Do that and at least you'll be looking for your answers in the right place.
Alastair Dryburgh helps businesses fix the unfixable. More at alastairdryburgh.com
Illustration: Patrick Regout