One of the greatest improvements in my life was switching from what I call the Dandelion Model of solving problems to the Burning Building Model. This week’s New Yorker describes a major successful application of the Burning Building Model in James Surowiecki’s article, “Home Free?“.
Briefly, the Dandelion Model of problem solving starts with the belief that if you don’t solve a problem from its roots, then like a dandelion, it will keep returning forever. The Burning Building Model starts with the belief that if you know a solution to a problem, just doing that solution will often solve it, like if you’re in a burning building, you don’t have to know the fire’s cause to know you should get out fast.
The Dandelion Model sounds plausible, but it also leads to people analyzing problems forever without solving them. More importantly, I’ve found that the more problems I solve just by solving them, the less they return. For example, if you want to get more fit, you don’t have to know why you weren’t fit before to know that changing your diet and exercise habits will solve the problem. Many people think the problem will just return. In my case, getting more fit led me to enjoy being more fit so much I don’t see myself returning. On the contrary, I feel myself getting yet more fit since I like the feeling so much. And junk food looks less like food all the time.
At the highest level, the Burning Building Model simplifies solving life-level problems. Things I used to dwell on, now I just solve and move on, living a better life. I wish I had discovered this model earlier and gotten rid of the Dandelion Model. Maybe some problems require the Dandelion Model approach, but I find fewer of them all the time.
Anyway, the New Yorker article described how Utah, a typically conservative state, made major progress solving its homeless problem by giving the homeless people homes. Sounds almost too easy. It’s a perfect application of the Burning Building Model.
In 2005, Utah set out to fix a problem that’s often thought of as unfixable: chronic homelessness. The state had almost two thousand chronically homeless people. Most of them had mental-health or substance-abuse issues, or both. At the time, the standard approach was to try to make homeless people “housing ready”: first, you got people into shelters or halfway houses and put them into treatment; only when they made progress could they get a chance at permanent housing. Utah, though, embraced a different strategy, called Housing First: it started by just giving the homeless homes.
Read the article for more details, but this passage describes the Burning Building Model and how it often leads to more effective solutions than the Dandelion Model.
Housing First isn’t just cost-effective. It’s more effective, period. The old model assumed that before you could put people into permanent homes you had to deal with their underlying issues—get them to stop drinking, take their medication, and so on. Otherwise, it was thought, they’d end up back on the streets. But it’s ridiculously hard to get people to make such changes while they’re living in a shelter or on the street. “If you move people into permanent supportive housing first, and then give them help, it seems to work better,” Nan Roman, the president and C.E.O. of the National Alliance for Homelessness, told me. “It’s intuitive, in a way. People do better when they have stability.” Utah’s first pilot program placed seventeen people in homes scattered around Salt Lake City, and after twenty-two months not one of them was back on the streets. In the years since, the number of Utah’s chronically homeless has fallen by seventy-four per cent.
I can tell you the Burning Building Model works on personal scales. Utah’s experience shows it can work on large scales. Now it’s your turn to apply it in your life. Sometimes it’s that easy.
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