Focusing on the Problem – Part Two

John Schmitt shares his thoughts on formulating a complex problem -- continuing his series of essays on problem solving.

In my previous post I discussed focusing on the problem from the perspective of the amount of time and effort decision makers spend on studying a problem versus considering courses of action.  In this post I’ll continue the discussion of focusing on the problem—but from the perspective of how to focus on the problem, especially with respect to the complex problems that plague society.

You’ll have to permit me to get theoretical for a bit and assert that problems don’t actually exist in an objective sense.  What exists are what organizational theorist and systems thinker Russell Ackoff called “messes,” tangled sets of conditions in the world.  A mess only becomes a problem when somebody, looking at the mess from a particular perspective with a particular set of interests, (1) asserts a causality and (2) decides that the mess is unacceptable and must be addressed.  Where one person sees a problem, another may see an acceptable state of affairs or even an opportunity.  Ackoff called the process problem formulation:  out of the messes they observe, problem solvers must formulate—i.e., give form to—the problem to be solved.  They impose a logical construct upon the mess so that they can then address the situation logically.  In that sense, understanding a problem is not a matter of proper reading of reality but of creation.  Problem understanding is a constructivist act.  The problem construct is a model.  So it is not a question of getting the problem right.  As the statistician George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  It is a question of getting the problem useful.  

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Box

The way you formulate the problem matters significantly because the way you formulate the problem points directly to the way you choose to solve it.  In fact, problem formulation and problem solving are not merely linked cognitive processes.  They are the same cognitive process.  Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, in another of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite books, The Sciences of the Artificial, said that “solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” 

I’ll give an example:  There is an epidemic of gun violence in the American city of Chicago, with dozens of young men, usually gang affiliated, shooting each other every weekend, and often catching innocent bystanders in the crossfire.  In no way trying to downplay the tragedy of the situation, that’s the “mess.”  What’s the problem?  Some say the problem is too many guns on the streets.  If the problem is too many guns, the solution is straightforward:  get the guns off the streets.  Others say the problem is not enough police.  If that’s the problem, the solution again is straightforward:  put more police on the streets.  Some say the problem is too many police on the streets.  If that’s the case, get the police off the streets.  Some say the problem is a lack of economic opportunities for young men in the city.  If so, the solution is more complicated, but it is still clear:  create more jobs.  And some say the problem is the breakdown of the stable, two-parent family.  If so, the solution is more complicated yet but still visible:  fix the family.  Different people, with different perspectives, looking at the same mess and seeing different problems. 

(This example also illustrates the reality that our most challenging societal problems—the ones we haven’t solved yet—tend to be multidimensional in interactively complex ways, which means that you can’t understand the problem by deconstructing it into its components and understanding each of the components because it is the interaction among the components that produces most of the complexity.  In their hugely important but terribly named paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” [1973], Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the construct of the “wicked problem” to capture that idea.  Wicked problems have gained renewed and well-deserved interest in recent years.  You can read the original paper here. The Chicago gun violence example is adapted from the Rittel & Webber paper.

Since the problem formulation points directly to the proposed solution, if you formulate the problem in the same old way, you’re bound to get some variation of the same old solution.  If you’re looking for a breakthrough solution, you need to figure out a new way to conceive the problem.  I would suggest that most breakthrough ideas throughout history, in practically any field, have resulted from someone who was able to turn the problem on its head and see it in a completely new way.  

My favorite description of the phenomenon comes from T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Chapter XXXIII), his memoir of serving as a military advisor to the Arab Bedouin forces fighting against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine in World War I.  Although nominally only an advisor, Lawrence was the de facto commander, responsible for developing the strategy the Arabs used against the Turks.  At one point early in the campaign, he is struck with illness.  Delirious with a fever and drifting in and out of consciousness as he contemplates the military situation (“One afternoon I woke from a hot sleep, running with sweat and pricking with flies, and wondered what on earth was the good of Medina [the campaign objective] to us?”), he turns accepted strategic principles upside down in reconceiving the campaign.  He devises an unorthodox guerrilla strategy to help defeat the Turks and their German advisors—and in the process lays the groundwork for the creation of an Arab state in the Mideast.  I suspect the fever may have been a fanciful literary device, but, no matter, the description of his winding thought-journey through the problem space is compelling.

Examples abound:  Mao Zedong re-inventing revolutionary warfare in the 1930-40s; President Richard Nixon resetting the Cold War by his overture to China in 1973; Johan Cruyff revolutionizing soccer in the 1960-70s by reconceiving the game as the challenge of creating and exploiting space; or Steve Jobs rethinking the very purpose of a cell phone.

We have a name for such people now.  They are “disruptors”—and it is meant as high praise.  I believe that the ability to reformulate complex problems in fundamentally new ways that lead to innovative solutions is perhaps the most powerful cognitive ability known to humankind—and precisely what we need if we are to manage society’s toughest problems.  The question is:  Can you train that ability?  Some people are naturally more iconoclastic than others—it may help to be an outsider and “untrained” in the orthodoxy, as Lawrence described himself—but I believe you can improve the ability to look at situations in disruptive ways.

I’ll offer some suggestions in a later essay.