Understanding Challenges—The Starting Point Toward Creating Lasting Change

Understanding Challenges—The Starting Point Toward Creating Lasting Change

Everyone has their own personal idea on what the starting point towards creating lasting change looks like.  For some, it might be by way of attending protests, for others by  amplifying messages of social media.  Ultimately. however, creating public value comes down to understanding both the problem and the opportunities at hand, and then being able to thoughtfully discuss, analyze, and reflect on them.

One of the ways that Harvard Kennedy School drives this idea home is by requiring participants in their executive education program to provide a two-page summary of a strategic challenge: analyzing the challenge with a five-step approach.  They also do this by introducing learners to the case study method, a teaching approach that is now universally applied across learning institutions, but which originates from the halls of Harvard and is over 125 years old.

Getting acquainted with these two interconnected approaches to “thinking” is the recipe for improving the quality of individual and collective living within the communities we find ourselves in.

The five steps of the strategic challenge.

What makes the 5-step approach to addressing strategic challenges so unique is that the first step begins with oneself, “Me and My Position”.  What “Me and My Position” focuses on is developing an understanding of one’s position and ability to tackle the problem at hand.  The thinking that it is supposed to give way to includes understanding whether one is capable of addressing the challenge head-on or whether they would be better served by joining a larger movement that seeks to address the same problem.  It also involves analyzing one’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and networks to understand whether one is prepared for the challenge now or if they might be a few years away from where they need to be.

The second step, called, “The Problem, The Opportunity”, requires further exploring the social condition and how one might be able to best leverage themself to help with those efforts.

The third step gets into “Material vs Relational”, by determining whether the condition is a material condition, things like food insecurity, homelessness, and poverty, or a relational condition, things like victimization, oppression, and discrimination.

The fourth step, “Largeness, Importance, Urgency”, involves gaining an in-depth understanding of the problem, building upon the general understandings attained from step two and step three.

The final step aims to explore the “Could and Should”, one’s best current idea about what could and should done.  The “could” involves exploring whether what is being proposed is possible while the “should” involves whether there is will to do what is being proposed.

When an issue comes up during one of these five steps, the framework allows us to work backwards and to revisit the prior step to start the reconfiguration process until we can pass through all five steps.

Learning by the way of the case study method.

The case study method is an approach to learning that requires learners to apply their own thinking and reasoning to real-life instances that are represented within each case and to see how they would respond if they were thrust in a similar situation.  The case study method is more of a practical approach to learning because it requires learners to think about the various dynamics at play and to play out a series of scenarios based on their decisions, which is more along the demands of real-world thinking because of the compounding effect that actions tend to have.

This unique approach to thinking came to exist after Christopher Colombus Langdell, an American jurist and legal academic, was appointed as Dean of Harvard Law School.  When Langdell was appointed as Dean, he took it upon himself to carry out educational and administrative reforms, but none more important than the introduction of the case study method.  Prior to Langdell’s tenure as Dean, the study of law was taught from a technical perspective, before giving way to the more pragmatic approach that is used today.  Specific to law, instead of studying and learning about all the abstract summaries of legal rules, it was realized that it was far more effective to read the judicial opinions and use that as a starting point to work backwards given the precedent-setting manner of American law.

What most people are unaware of, however, is the fact that the case study method is based on Socrates’ Socratic learning method, which could be described as the benevolent arguing of ideas between individuals.  The asking-and-answering approach was believed to give way to critical thinking and to help address any presumptions that may be giving way to “bad thinking”.  Essentially, all beliefs are challenged and scrutinized to see if they pass the “logic” test.  If they do not, then thinkers are left needing to come up with better hypotheses, which will eventually need to be tested to see if they pass the test as well.

What matters most is how your mind works.

Tackling issues and achieving lasting change necessitates a level of perseverance and discipline as much as it demands cooperation and compromise.  It takes time, and it is important that no one should ever be so sure of an outcome that they would not accept a better outcome if the chance presented itself.  It is far less important about what one’s degree is in, what matters most is how one’s mind works.

In totality, progress comes down to deciding what you care about and going after that condition; not failing to do it just because you can not do everything—because you can still do something.  The five-step approach and the case study method are two frameworks to better prepare changemakers when the unexpected happens, as they drive toward a better tomorrow and fuelled by the understanding that nobody is destined to tragedy.

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