In 1958, Mao Zedong devised The Great Sparrow Campaign, a radical plan to improve China’s food supply. Because sparrows like to pick grain seeds, they reduced the farmers’ yields, so Zedong called on his people to kill as many sparrows as possible. The Chinese people fervently stepped up to the challenge; countless birds were shot and their nests destroyed. Across the country men and women played big drums for days at a time to scare the sparrows, preventing them from landing until they would drop dead from the skies.

The campaign was so effective that it drove sparrows to near extinction in China.

But then, in an unexpected turn of events swarms of locusts descended on the country, destroying farmers’ harvests. It began to dawn on Zedong that the sparrows had not only been picking crop seeds but also insects and pests. The realisation came too late; the bird population had been weakened so much that it would take years to recover. China’s crop yields plummeted and eventually worsened one of the most devastating famines in human history – The Great Chinese Famine that lead to the starvation of 20 million people.

This is a tragic example of how a solution can become the problem.

In a world with endless interacting parts, simplistic solutions fail to embrace complexity sufficiently to be effective. Yet, the simple sounding nature of the obvious is compelling. If everyone sees birds eating crop seeds, it will be difficult to argue against someone suggesting to get rid of them.

8 examples of how seemingly obvious solutions can become the problem in an organisational environment:

  • Hard vs. soft factors – as discussed in an earlier article, attempting to increase cost effectiveness by focusing on hard factors (such as wages) while underestimating the importance of soft factors. (intellectual capital, social networks, impact on those “left behind”, culture etc.)
  • In-group and out-group thinking – the source of silo mentality; attributing positive intentions and qualities to those who are part of one’s own group while judging other groups less favourably.
  • Scapegoating – blaming someone for being responsible for a problem while disregarding other influencing factors.
  • (Self-) victimisation – the opposite of scapegoating. Denial of responsibility, while blaming someone or something else for an issue.
  • Symptom treatment – applying the solution to the wrong level of the problem. Analysis stays at a superficial level (as was the case with The Great Sparrow Campaign), without addressing root causes and systemic interdependencies.
  • From A to B in a straight line – failing to plan for unexpected interferences and delays.
  • Ignorance of creative resources – trying to develop solutions top-down “at the drawing board” on behalf of others, while forgetting the potential for creative and surprising solutions that can emerge from groups and individuals who are closer to the ground.
  • Winning the battle but losing the war – one party sacrifices their own interests in favour of the other. The resulting lack of interest alignment leads a lack of motivation, support and cooperation further down the line.

So that’s a taste of what often goes wrong, now let’s talk about ingredients for doing it right.

Desire paths show the way

Desire paths beautifully visualise the tension between external, obvious structures and hidden non-obvious dynamics. They show what Arnold Beisser called “the war between what is and what should be”.

Desire paths are routes that are formed by a number of people, deviating from the designated route.

[desire paths]

“Informal ‘desire paths can form with as few as fifteen traversals of an unpaved route, creating spontaneous new trails shaped by pedestrians effectively voting with their feet. These paths frequently become self-reinforcing: others intuit the potential advantages of a newly-forming route and follow it, thus eroding it further and enhancing its visibility.


Here is a satellite picture of Hampstead Heath in North London. You see a few thick “official” paths that have been laid out for the public to use, but then also numerous thinner desire paths of different sizes, which have formed spontaneously due to people using the space differently.


Sometimes desire paths form to avoid an obstacle for convenience.


Sometimes they form because of superstitious beliefs.


Sometimes they bypass regulation.

Desire paths reveal how solutions that ignore the implicit, hidden and informal (that what “is”) are likely to fail or worse backfire, because of the non-obvious deviation of preferred behaviour from suggested behaviour.

In everyday life, each choice we make is influenced by numerous factors such as pragmatism, personal gain, conflicting interests, social image, altruistic motives and so forth. These pressures don’t always align with our surrounding structures such as norms, rules and regulations. Thus, organisations have powerful and often conflicting undercurrents.

So, when looking for intelligent solutions that go beyond the compelling nature of the obvious, the central question organisations need consider becomes: what kind of thinking and behaviour does the current organisational culture support or suppress, and how does my solution fit into these pressures? Do I need to influence these social currents first, before I can even attempt to implement the desired solution? Am I in a position to know what the “right” solution is in the first place, or do I need to involve different stakeholders with different insights into the issue?

Systemic strategies

Here are three examples for effective strategies that work with hidden dynamics, rather than ignoring or trying to overrule them.


Gamification takes advantage of the brain’s reward circuitry. A famous example of this principle was implemented in Sweden and applied to traffic speed regulation. The idea: a speed camera lottery awards cash prices to random winners, drawn from a pool of those who drove within the speed limit, with money collected from those who broke the limits.

Gamification can be a powerful concept in motivating behaviour as it works with the motivational forces of those it seeks to influence, rather then just attempting to regulate them.

Evolutionary processes

Complex solutions to non-obvious problems are difficult, if not impossible to deduct through logical or linear thinking. Yet, we often hold the belief that experts, or leaders need to have the right answers. This philosophy to leadership is flawed and not only puts immense pressure on leaders or experts, but also fails to tap into more profound sources of wisdom.

In his TED talk economist Tim Hardford tells a story of how Unilever sought to develop a new nozzle for their washing powder production. They put together a team of top mathematicians to develop a new prototype. Using their finest mathematics the team developed a new design that performed better, but only slightly so. Unilever then assigned a team of biologists to work on the case. The biologists had no idea about nozzles or engineering, but they applied a process of evolution to the development. They created 10 nozzle prototypes, tested them, chose the best one, and based on this design created 10 slight variations, chose the best one, created 10 more variations and so forth. After 45 cycles they had a solution that was totally unforeseeable and incredibly effective.

We can apply evolutionary principles – intelligent trial and error – in many different areas. However, it requires a different approach to leadership, where power isn’t held by a heroic top dog, but generated and shared through a process of interactions. It means the creation of a culture that allows for failure and enables learning from it, letting different ideas coexist, not jumping to conclusions, while building on ideas.


Organisations that make it hard for the exchange of genuine feedback between groups and individuals, due to strict hierarchies, lack of transparency, favouritism and blame and punishment, rather than solution finding, soon develop a form of social Parkinson’s – the neural network of social connections begins to misfire, which compromises the flow of vital information across the system. This results in symptoms such as low morale and performance, unpredictable outbursts of conflicts, chronic tension, stasis and so forth.

Introducing feedback processes that help people learn from successes, as well as failures can support a shift towards an easier flow of information and an upwards spiral of performance, quality and growth.

Business as unusual – putting theory into practice

While the war between what is and what should be grows out of an ignorance that imposes its will blindly onto an existing reality, strategies that are informed by and work with what is, are more likely to create sustainable solutions.

5 practical applications:

  • Embrace paradox. When working with psychological and social undercurrents our choices can seem irrational to those, who can only see the surface. For example, sometimes in my workshops I discourage participants from making an effort, or invite them to be openly de-motivated. On the surface this may seem foolish, given that “obviously, they should be motivated and participate to get the most learning out of it.” However, it is also true, that none of us likes to be patronised or coerced into being motivated. By receiving an acceptance to be whoever he or she wants to be in a given moment, a participant can then engage much more authentically with the process, rather than paying lip service to appease an eager trainer, while silently clenching their fists in their pockets.
  • Change processes need to uncover and work with preferences and motivators, rather than seeking to police them. Instead of tackling the unwanted behaviour itself, investigating what the hidden undercurrents are and, evaluating which new motivators would create beneficial organisational desire paths is more likely to be successful – i.e. don’t think barriers and punishment, think ice creams vans, resting areas and areas of community.
  • We need to accept that our thinking can’t be without limitation and that the best answers to complex problems emerge through a process of co-creation between individuals and groups of people. This requires emergent leadership rather than a rigid top-down approach, as well as an openness to give up or widen one’s own position in the face of conflicting opinions and attitudes.
  • Systemically viable solutions can only emerge when information flows freely throughout the whole system. Hence, flow of feedback is crucial to generate a realistic representation of reality, but it needs the right conditions. Fear, hierarchy, holy cows, perfectionism, blame culture and low failure tolerance suffocate people’s willingness to speak their minds, to learn and grow and to cooperate. Thus, often the first step towards high quality solutions needs to be a step towards high quality relationships.
  • Start with appreciation of what already is. Above-mentioned Arnold Beisser stated, that we are only prepared to change, when we feel accepted as we are. This paradox trips up many organisations, when “out with the old, in with the new” initiatives point out the flaws of the status quo, while hailing a visionary future, in order to motivate change. Counter-intuitively, one of the first steps needs to be an honouring of what currently is, before moving forward.

© Ragnar Speicher