Stevyn Colgan​

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

“This is a book about effective problem-solving.” That means, writes Stevyn Colgan “How to solve problems before they arise.”

Colgan joined the Metropolitan Police Service because of a bet with his dad. He stuck with it because it was interesting, not because he was measurable good at it. Except he kinda was, which Colgan’s story. His metrics weren’t great. He didn’t stop or arrest or testify for many cases. But how do you measure prevention?


Colgan’s always been a questioner. “I do have an insatiable curiosity and I’m not afraid to ask a difficult question.” And, “that hadn’t made me popular with my teachers at school.”

Teachers loath one question above all others – ‘what if’ – because schools teach students how to solve known questions. ‘What if’ is a tool that unearths new ones. What if you could rent dresses instead of buying them? What if you could loan money to those least likely to default? What if you could end around Coke’s endcaps?

Businesses exist within growing and gathering seasons. Clayton Christensen writes that growing is disruptive moments and gathering is sustaining innovation. Mark Ritson notes that some marketing is for brand building and some is for customer conversation. Farmers plant seeds and farmers pull weeds.

In the Met, there was too much gathering, too much sustaining, too much conversion, too much weed pulling. There’s always a balance between making the trains run on time and laying new line. Colgan wondered, ‘Why punish if we can prevent?’

One example Colgan tells is the story of John Snow who defeated cholera, (not white walkers).

Cholera (1854) and crime (2019) are messy subjects. People knew cholera spread through the air. Except it spread through the water. People know that teens are vandals. Except we they aren’t. Colgan writes that solutions aren’t “always as clear-cut as you might imagine.”

We like to think in terms of cause and effect, that A causes B. Sometimes A does cause B, but not always. In complex systems, there are all kinds of interactions and influences.

Ordering a Lyft is people using algorithms built on math. That’s Relatively controlled. Getting a Lyft is all that plus more people interacting in traffic and on the streets and in your group.

I own a robotic vacuum and it lives in a controlled system. The robot’s battery isn’t sophisticated but it doesn’t travel far. It has blunt sensors because nothing – except the dogs – move. It’s made out of plastic because it never gets wet. Homes are easy to navigate, roads are not.

The first reason robotic driving is hard is the elements. Cars can’t bump things like a robotic vacuum. But the bigger reason robotic driving is hard is that people are involved.

Look at just how people describe car crashes. It’s often because the asphalt was wet or because visibility was low or someone else “came out of nowhere.” It’s never our fault (at least not at first). That’s the people part.

Traffic, writes Tom Vanderbilt, provides regular examples of the fundamental attribution error. It’s other drivers that make mistakes. “Meanwhile, we attribute our own actions to how we were forced to act in specific situations. Chances are you have never looked at yourself in the rearview mirror and thought, ‘Stupid #$%&! driver.’”

We should call traffic ‘accidents’ traffic neglect.

But we don’t.

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Colgan’s work environment, like my living room, was physically stable but psychologically complex. In complex systems we see butterflies.

“Tackling problems effectively means not jumping at the simplest solution, or the most complicated, or the most outlandish, intriguing, or sexy solution. It means understanding the problem.”

So Colgan marched around, questioned victims, and solved problems. It was just like an exam at school. Only not really. Most people will tell you that a solution is the elimination of a problem. Colgan writes “that’s pretty much an impossibility.” People are great at many things and too great at thinking in terms of opposites.

Colgan began asking “Why?” and “What if?”. Colgan was looking for something elusive, the latent need. The thing we want but can’t articulate.

Economists have known about this distinction for a while, distinguishing between what we say (stated preferences) and what we do (revealed preferences). It’s as Nassim Taleb notes, don’t tell me how to invest, tell me how you invest.

Tariq Farid has a good story about this. Farid was a high school kid who had to work to help out his family. Thanks to a mentor got the chance to own a flower shop. If he’d asked his customers what they wanted they might say more variety, lower prices, or faster delivery.

Those were unimportant changes.

What really mattered was ease.

Farid had to make flower buying easier. “I looked around and everyone closed at five-o’clock and I stayed open until seven-o’clock and we started to get a lot of customers coming home after work.” Latent needs mean figuring out what job your customer is hiring you for.

From there Farid opened another shop. He needed a better point of sale system so he built one and then started building them for others. That became a business itself. At the time he was only home three days a month and in a moment of peace, embarked on a cruise.

It was there that Farid saw it. His next idea. The next big thing. It was there he saw arranged fruit. “I got a knife and started doing it. The same way we did the flower shops, you just experiment until you get it right.”

He sent some initial attempts to friends. They told him it wouldn’t work. “Who’s gonna buy fruit on sticks in a basket, come on.” Now there are over 1,100 Edible Arrangement stores in eight countries around the world. This was something nobody asked for but many wanted. It was a latent need.

That’s what Stevyn Colgan did too. He noticed something and then talked to people about it. He met people for tea, in the street, and anywhere they were. In talking to them he found their focus; fear. If flowers were about ease, affection, and signaling then crime was about fear and loss. That was the need.

Colgan had to consider how “strong emotions such as fear and anger or a sense of injustice can skew people’s perceptions and lead them to imagine problems where there aren’t any.”

Stevyn Colgan spent his career in London but he worked as if he were in Switzerland.

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Market research for companies or citizen conversations for the police both better begin with minimal bias. Marketing consultant extraordinaire Mark Ritson said, “The minute you start getting paid to work for a company, on a product, or on a service it’s impossible to see that product the way a customer sees it.” Terry O’Reilly, a Canadian Ritson said, “Don’t ever assume you know the answer.” A potential protege Rob Fitzpatrick said to ask questions so unbiased not even your mom could lie to you.

“One of the most important lessons I ever learned was that solving problems means focusing on the actual problem, not the perceived problem-they can be two very different things.”

Bums weren’t always mean. Drunks weren’t always violent. Teens weren’t always dangerous. Bums tend to be people with mental health issues. Drunks tend to be people who want to have a good time. Teens tend to be people who just need a place. In talking with people Colgan found that small tweaks could change everything.

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Conditions and timing matter. A recent example is the May 2019 Uber IPO. In the delightful Acquired podcast hosts, David and Ben note that Uber rose thanks to good timing and great conditions. San Francisco had few licensed cabs. The iPhone app store opened to third-party developers. A slew of people thought about mobility, traffic, and becoming very very rich. Those conditions were ripe for something.


Crime also requires the right conditions. Colgan explains using a triangle with interlocking pieces for the offender, victim, and location. Prior to prevention, the aim was to remove offenders but that didn’t always work.

What if, Colgan wondered, we worked on the other parts instead.

One problem he faced was grifters working crowds with the shell game. They were hard to catch, hard to convict, and harder still to keep out. What if instead of grifters at markets Colgan got magicians instead.

So Colgan hired someone to demonstrate the sleight of hand. Like Penn and Teller explaining cups and balls the marketplace crowds were entertained, educated, and somewhat inoculated against grifters running a similar show.

But it’s hard to measure and demonstrated effectiveness when what’s measured is how many of one type of puzzle piece is booked at a precinct.

Rory Sutherland, a book supporter, fellow Nudgestock speaker, and author himself calls this McKinsey-itis and diagnoses it as a condition where people are addicted to numbers so they don’t appear stupid to their boss. “Business is throwing away opportunities by failing to be more random. Businesses believes you should only test those things you can post-rationalized in retrospect,” Sutherland evangelizes.

Free housing for the homeless seems to be one example. Colgan writes about Mayor Ted Clugston who (now) thinks it works. Yet how does a community convince people that, on net, free housing helps more than it hurts? How does a community, Colgan wonders, not see that what influences drug use the most is the people and places an addict was around when they did drugs. 

Free housing and magicians are only two ways to change the conditions and timing. Colgan used Lollipops to calm drunks. He repainted a soccer pitch to stop bullies. Sometimes just turning on the lights to relieve a bottleneck changes behavior.

Fellow Brit, Owen Slot spoke at Google about how the British Olympic team recovered from an underwhelming 1996 Olympic Games. Slot describes that team as “happy amateurs.”

Which they kind of were. The British team didn’t have resources the same way other – notably, larger – countries did. So the country contributed money, time, and expertise.

One sport on the precipice for success was cycling. The engineers made lighter and faster bikes. The nutritionists prepared tastier and healthier meals. The teams made better kits. They had better everything.

But the athletes needed one more thing. They needed their seats adjusted. Riders were often embarrassed to talk about it, but they missed too many training days due to saddle sores. Once they declined the seat a few degrees the saddle sore problem was solved.

Due to a changed culture, lots of hard work, and one small but important tweak the team transformed one gold medal in 1996 to twenty-seven gold medals in 2012. It was the same place. It was different results.

In his work, Colgan spends little time talking about removing offenders, in part because that’s the status quo and we over-index on that solution. But he found that small changes led to big results.

“A sudden, unexpected and left-field idea seems so much more exciting than one that’s been arrived at by slow, methodical research and testing, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that ‘unexpected’ and ‘left-field’ is a guarantee of success.”

Colgan’s book is full of fun and successful stories but he notes they failed a lot too. There were things that didn’t work or didn’t get adopted and even though his unit was eventually called “The Problem Solving Unit” it wasn’t quite that easy.

Readers should pick up this book to be inspired to act different, to find where they are over-indexed and ask a few more questions like ‘What if?’.


Thanks for reading.

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