What the Dog Saw

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking” (Voltaire)

I have often wondered why we often come up with organisation wide responses to situations or issues that arise; we compile a new policy and procedure or we may embark upon another audit when it feels at the back of the mind that there is another solution that is possibly more cost effective that will get to the heart of the problem much quicker and has a far better outcome. How many times do we try and deal with issues in a general team discussion, when actually we should be addressing specific individuals within the team and having courageous conversations with them? How many occasions do we discuss our concerns about how unacceptable some of our nursing, care or health & safety practice is and initiate some collective management response when actually we need to understand more intelligently where the real challenges lie? How many times do we resort to establishing some time burdened process to ensure that we guarantee some equity in the allocation of resources? Is it really the case that all our managers struggle with integrating their volunteers or just a few who need intense targeted support?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures” challenges the normal assumption that any particular societal issue follows, in the ‘language of statisticians’ a normal bell curve distribution of occurrences. He describes how in the United States when homelessness first surfaced it was assumed that the problem followed a normal distribution where the vast majority of homeless people were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. Given how big the problem was, people despaired as to how much could really be done to resolve the problem. Further research in Philadelphia highlighted that homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution but has a ‘power law’ distribution – rather than a bell curve it looks like a hockey stick. 80% of the homelessness were in and out really quickly within one or two days. The next 10% were episodic users, as they would come for 3 weeks at a time and return periodically, particularly in the winter. The last 10%, the group at the furthest edge of the curve were the chronically homeless. In New York in the early 1990’s, there had been 250,000 homeless people at some point in the previous 5 years, but only 2,500 who were chronically homeless. More revealing was the fact that it cost $62 million per annum to shelter those 2,500 people.

Gladwell reflects on how the general belief system is that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary, but allocated according to formal criterion. He muses that power-law solutions which would be targeted at the 10% chronically homeless, for example giving each one of these homeless a key to a flat (at much less cost than $62 million) would not be acceptable to the right because this involves “special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment and not to the left, because of this emphasis on efficiency over fairness”

I wonder if we considered our challenges with a ‘power law’ approach, whether we would become more incisive, effective and responsive and whether targeted activity would have the greatest amount of impact?

I encourage everyone to read the chapter in his book “M

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Neil Taylor

About Neil Taylor

Neil Taylor, Director of Care & Community Services, Jewish Care, UK

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