Monday, March 29, 2010

Problem solving is the problem

A quote I have been coming back to frequently is this one from H. L. Mencken:
For every complex problem there is always a solution that is clear, simple and wrong.
This seems to be more and more true as we face issues and conditions that require an approach different from what know as problem solving.

Problem solving has us believe that things can be clearly defined and are discrete in themselves. It also leads us to believe that to solve a problem, all we have to do is look at the issue in the narrowest context and apply a short-term, straight-line fix.

Although there are issues and conditions that can be successfully addressed this way, fewer and fewer issues and conditions will respond to this approach—and certainly not the most important ones.

Nearly every problem faced by an organization is exceedingly complex. Yet we act as if simple cause and effect is at work. We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong.

When we consider the truly critical issues of our time such as environmental deterioration, poverty, endemic ill-health, urban blight, social polarization, etc., we find it virtually impossible to view them as problems that exist in isolation --or, as problems capable of being solved in their own terms.

The reason the important problems do not respond to simple, problem solving solutions is that they entail much higher levels of complexity:
  • Things are much more interconnected and interrelated. Our actions and their results are now widely separated in time and space.
  • The future is unfamiliar and unpredictable. Solutions cannot be calculated in advance based on what has worked in the past. Emergent solutions have to worked out as situations unfold.
  • People involved look at things very differently because of greater diversity and lower trust. Solutions cannot be given by authorities; the people involved must participate in creating and implementing solutions.
High complexity demands new ways of solving problems. 
When there are low levels of complexity, simple, straight-line solutions often will be enough to stay on track. Simple problems can be solved using processes that are familiar:
  • focus on the parts of a problem in isolation,
  • rely heavily on what has worked in the past or elsewhere (“best practices”), and
  • participants  are open to solutions proposed by leaders or experts.
As we focus on lasting change in groups, organizations and the community, we are dealing with increasingly high levels of the three types of complexity where success only comes through using processes that:
  • focus on working with all the parts as a single system,
  • accept that solutions emerge as situations unfold, and
  • involve the people concerned in developing the solutions.
The problems we are seeing today are more and more the unintended result of the solutions implemented during the last round of problem solving.

We can draw our lesson from Einstein:
A problem cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which it was created.

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