A model for collaboration – my November 2021 “Best of Health” article
In October, I attended a webinar run by the Operational Research Society of which I am a member which I thought had some relevance to problems we are trying to solve in the world of pedigree dogs. The speaker was Professor Dorien De Tombe from the Netherlands who has developed a methodology for solving complex societal problems. Examples of complex societal problems include climate change, terrorism, urban planning, poverty. Healthcare issues such as obesity, malaria and SARS-COV2 are also included.
These are real-life problems with a high degree of complexity and with many different individuals, groups and organisations involved; often with conflicting agendas and where emotions can run high. One of the key points is that they are interdisciplinary problems and cannot, therefore, be solved by one particular set of experts or narrow interest groups that have their own “simple solution” in mind.
De Tombe’s COMPRAM model for dealing with these types of problems was endorsed by the OECD in 2006 when they advised governments to adopt the approach to handle problems that threaten global safety. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and she pointed out that most governments failed to act in an appropriate way to deal with the complexity of SARS-COV2. The result, unsurprisingly, is a whole series of unanticipated and undesirable consequences (a topic I have written about before).
You don’t have to look very far into the world of pedigree dogs to see that we too face a number of complex societal problems. Animal welfare, puppy farming and cruelty are obvious examples where “simple solutions” such as yet more legislation have consistently failed to make much of an impact. Similarly, the health of pedigree dogs including inherited diseases, genetic diversity and exaggerated conformation are also clearly complex. We can add into the mix some of the more current discussions about what should or should not be registered by the Kennel Club and we have a series of interconnected issues with widely diverging views on what “the solution” is.
Knowledge, power and emotions
De Tombe has been developing methodologies and tools for handling these sorts of complex problems since 1994. In fact, she avoids using the term “solving” and prefers to say “changing” because a solved problem for one person or group is often the start of a problem for other individuals or groups. All these problems have 3 main elements: knowledge, power and emotions.
We know there are problems with pedigree dogs; lots of data has been collected and analysed and there is ongoing research to develop our knowledge further. Different individuals and groups have “power” and often also their own definitions of both the problem and a desired solution or end goal. We have seen that these complex problems result in high emotions; you only have to read the social media posts of dog owners, breeders, vets and campaigners to see this.
The process for handling these problems can be broken into 2 phases. In the first phase, the problem is defined. In the second phase, the problem is changed (solved). All too often, people who are emotionally invested in the problem leap straight to phase 2 and present their preferred menu of (what they believe are) solutions.
Problem definition is critical
My reflection on the De Tombe approach is that organisations such as the Kennel Club and the International Partnership for Dogs invest significant effort in working with the right people to define the various complex pedigree dog problems.
Problem definition starts with becoming aware that there is a problem, asking questions about it and actively putting it on the agenda to be handled. In the case of the KC, the Dog Health Group and its 4 sub-groups are multi-disciplinary experts who can analyse data, exchange knowledge and begin to conceptualise the problem. The definition of a problem usually includes some historical perspectives (how did a breed originate, what did it look like, what were its genetic origins) as well as the current situation. It may also include a recognition that the current situation could become much worse if no action is taken.
To the rest of the world, perhaps this looks like delaying tactics or “kicking the can down the road” but the aim is two-fold; firstly to develop an expert understanding of a particular problem and secondly to build collaborative relationships with those who have the power to own and implement solutions.
Start with the end in mind
Changing the problem starts with considering the detailed data and evidence, plus defining the desired goal. The desired goal is the direction in which the experts or those involved in the problem would like to change the problem. Goals are about what we might want to improve, increase or reduce (e.g. increase longevity, reduce welfare harms). They are not what we might want to “do” (e.g. change the Breed Standards, make health testing mandatory, prevent particular dogs from being registered). Start with the end in mind!
In this second phase, other groups or individuals (beyond those experts who initially defined the problem) can come together to develop ways to handle the problem from the basis of good evidence. In the case of pedigree dogs, representatives of breed clubs are key people to involve. For health issues, each breed has a Health Coordinator and many also have health committees and the KC tries to work closely with these to formulate viable changes. The development of Breed Health and Conservation Plans is a good example of the collaborative approach taken. The Brachycephalic Working Group is another example of how a group of people with different views has been brought together to develop a consensus action plan. The 4 International Dog Health Workshops and, more recently, the IPFD’s DNA Test Reporting Workshop are further examples of how a collaborative approach can lead to practical and supported improvement actions.
Pitfalls to avoid
There are many pitfalls in the process of handling complex problems. I’ve already mentioned the desire of some people to leap to solutions which they are passionate about before the problem or goal has even been defined.
Inviting the wrong people to participate in the process can also lead to inappropriate solutions if, for example, a small group of “loud voices” dominates the discussion. Groupthink is another team issue whereby poor quality analysis and decision-making goes unchallenged. Inviting “outside experts” to comment or play devil’s advocate can help avoid this.
It’s all too easy to end up with negative reactions to the solutions that are proposed and implemented. A key step in the De Tombe approach is for the decision-making team to take time to discuss the possible consequences and reactions before going ahead with them. Elijah Goldratt said “The world of business is awash with ill-considered solutions to ill-defined problems”.
There are already some great examples of collaborative approaches to handle complex canine problems and we should always bear in mind that, for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong!