Breaking Our Addiction to Problem Solving

“A Great Need”

Out
Of a great need
We are all holding hands
and climbing.
Not loving is a letting go.
Listen,
The terrain around here
Is
Far too
Dangerous
For
That.

Sufi Poet Hafiz

 

Among our society’s many addictions, there is one that threatens to hasten the end of life as we know it: the art and science of problem-solving. We’ve all seen Problem Solving in action. We understand how it works. Indeed, we’re all accomplished Problem Solvers. Perhaps too accomplished. Sometimes Problem Solving just applies a band-aid Solution, as when the Solution simply shifts the Problem someplace else in the system. (The use of title case indicates reference to the current virulent strain.)

Another approach to improving a problem situation is to sit down with others who care about the situation and … talk. Or, mostly listen, actually. Listen for what concerns others have, and for what the group has in common. Listen for the issues that are the most contentious, the ones causing the most tension. As the dialogue progresses participants begin to hear new patterns, and new understandings emerge. Dialogue leads to more robust solutions than Problem Solving.

On the other hand, Dialogue involves more people and takes longer. Participating in dialogue sessions about a complex interdisciplinary problem is mysterious, possibly even frightening. If you’ve participated in planning for a family wedding, you may have some sense of what it’s like to have strong feelings about something that you don’t really understand because it has so many moving parts.

Problem Solving is meant to steer clear of this kind of cognitive dissonance; dialogue is meant to bring the participants to its source. Problem Solving is meant to keep the resolution process happening on schedule and in budget; dialogue … not so much.

The Power of Problem Solving

How does Problem Solving make the process so clear and manageable? The basic steps of the process:

  • First, Define the Problem. (This one’s essential! Fail here and you open the door to Chaos!)
  • Then Gather All the Data You Can Find about this problem. (It always helps to reach beyond strongly held opinions to actual evidence.)
  • Next, if the problem is complex, break it into smaller, more manageable pieces, and solve each of the pieces. (Good old Divide and Conquer.)
  • There are lots of versions of this last part, but they boil down to this: make decisions about which Solution is best and how to implement it.

What’s so great about this linear process is that it’s so simple. You just have to do the steps in order, and when you’re done, you’re done! Another big benefit is that, done competently, it always works! You always get a Solution.

Problem Solving Meets Social Complexity

All four of the steps outlined in the previous section have deep flaws when dealing with problems with significant social (as opposed to technical) complexity, but the first step, Define the Problem, is probably behind the most confusion and suffering. It’s also one of the most addictive elements.

Define the Problem. That “the” says the problem is a thing that can be known objectively, like the chair I’m sitting on. And “define” says that the objective thing-ness can be captured, in language, with a definition that lays out the problem’s features clearly, precisely, and completely. In this fictional world, there are no people to have differing points of view about the problem or different understandings of what the “real problem” is. The Problem just is, unchanging and absolute.

Of course, most people don’t believe that problems have this kind of objective existence. However, most people speak and act as if they do, especially here in the United States! In the UK and Europe, for example, most professionals are at least aware of an active and growing branch of operations research called “problem structuring methods”.

“Problem structuring methods (PSMs) are a broad group of model-based problem handling approaches whose purpose is to assist in the structuring of problems rather than directly to derive a solution. They are participative and interactive in character, and normally operate with groups rather than individual clients.”

What’s the Problem? An Introduction to Problem Structuring Methods, by Jonathan Rosenhead

To my knowledge, there is in the US no corresponding academic field devoted to helping groups create a shared understanding of the nature and scope of unwanted situations. Problem structuring isn’t taught in our universities, nor is it supported in our planning, design, or decision-making tools.

This kind of blanket failure to acknowledge that problems are socially constructed points to an extraordinary kind of blindness in our culture. A blindness that hints of a serious addiction to a mechanistic and alienated world view.

It’s like that old joke: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

The corker to our collective oversimplification of the nature of Problems is our overuse of Problem Solving! Virtually all of the institutions that sustain our society and our environment — agencies, departments, and corporations, for example — have fixated on Problem Solving as a kind of process silver bullet, despite the fact that Problem Solving backfires so frequently. Instead of improving undesirable situations, our over-use of Problem Solving aggravates the very conditions it was meant to improve, and leaves a sticky residue of undissolved “Solution” that complicates any further efforts to get to the cracks in the foundation (i.e. the deeper causes of the Problem).

Why We’re Addicted to Problem Solving

An alternative way to approach a complex Problem — let’s call it Dialogue — yields more robust “solutions” because it takes social complexity as seriously as technical complexity. Dialogue seeks broad participation and the long view. It advises you to involve stakeholders early, collectively examine the history, context, and assumptions around the unwanted situation, envision a sustainable future, explore a range of approaches, and reduce risk by pushing promising solutions into prototypes and pilot projects early so their lessons can inform the whole process. Dialogue is both cheaper and better than Problem Solving, but not always faster.

How is it that Problem Solving is so popular if it backfires so often? There are many reasons, at many levels. Here are a few:

  • Education and culture only teach us one approach to Problems: Problem Solving. It’s possible to get a PhD in engineering or management without ever questioning the paradigm in which there are Problems, which are generally ‘bad’, and specialists who can make them go away with good Solutions.
  • Problem Solving appears to be faster than alternative approaches, because (in principle) it not only tells you when you’ll have Solution but also what needs to be done to get there. Unfortunately, the Solution you get may not be very robust, and it may simply conceal the Problem for a while.
  • Our economic system encourages Problem Solving. Quick Fixes are much cheaper and easier to sell than engaging the whole system, taking the long view, and creating a collective commitment to a holistic approach.
  • If you are in a position of power, it is much easier to control or influence the outcomes of the Problem Solving process.
  • The human brain is better adapted to Quick Fixes than to complex, drawn out inquiries. There is a lot more adrenaline (and other hormones) at play in making a quick either-or decision and jumping into action. Extended multi-stakeholder dialogues require discipline, listening skills, critical thinking, empathy, curiosity and other qualities that must be developed over time and used regularly.
  • We are psychologically and socially addicted to Problem Solving. Any time one keeps repeating a behaviour that one can see is not in one’s best interest, it’s likely to be an addiction. I like this reason the best. It encapsulates the other reasons, and points to a simple, practical way out: the very personal and accessible hard work of coping with or breaking an addiction.

Treating the Addiction

So let’s face it, we professionals, we who constitute the institutions that take care of society and environment, have gotten ourselves well and truly addicted to seeing Problems wherever we look, and using our Problem Solving skills and tools to create and implement Solutions. This condition, known as Quick Fix Syndrome, is extremely hard to cure, especially once it affects those who would be leaders, and has lead to the downfall of more than one advanced civilization. This is because the Quick Fix part of the brain gets inflamed and swollen with Confirmation Bias, causing the Take-Time-to-Reflect-on-the-Big-Picture center to shrivel and cutting off blood to the Let’s-Talk-About-It gland, which quickly atrophies, and so on.

In case you think of addiction as a condition that only affects smokers and junkies, you’ve been missing out on one of the most exciting new areas of psychology. There is growing acceptance that behaviors can be just as addictive as drugs, and that behavioral addiction is much more prevalent than substance addiction. (See also “You’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love”, or, on a more serious note, David Brin’s article, “An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry, and Social Psychology“.)

So how do you break the addiction to Problem Solving?

I’m sure you already know the first step. Admit to yourself that you have an addiction!

Then, just begin to notice when you catch yourself jumping from feeling uncomfortable in a situation to labelling it as a problem, and then automatically thinking about ways to avoid or fix the “problem”. This applies as well when a friend or family member is telling you about a difficult or painful experience. You might respond with a “solution” to their “problem”, but often what is needed is empathetic listening and curiosity about what solutions, if any, he or she is considering.

As an advanced exercise, see if you can notice when an unwanted situation can’t be problematized because there is no possible “solution” for it, such as when a colleague announces “I am surrounded by idiots!”.

It is also very supportive to kicking the Problem Solving habit if you learn to distinguish mere problems from “wicked problems“, and to become familiar with tools for addressing wicked problems. (Note that I didn’t say “for solving wicked problems”!) Expanding one’s range in this way can help anyone deal more gracefully with life’s unsolvable problems.

Finally, what the world needs now is a widespread acknowledgement that we don’t really know how to address wicked problems (myself included!), and that we have a lot to learn in a short time if we want to preserve life as we know it.

Talk to Me!

Thank you for reading this far! This is the first in a series of articles on the general topic of wicked problems and how to deal with them.


 

Acknowledgement: I’m very grateful to Eugene Kim for (a) conversations that contributed to this article, (b) review and good suggestions about the draft version, and (c) his staunch support over the years that I should be blogging. (Look, Eugene! I did have the time, after all!)

  • Mike Hertel

    Jeff: brief reactions: I’m addicted to problem solving. Reading this makes me uncomfortable because I re-realize that lots of “problems” can’t be “solved” and that goes against my insatiable desire to have all “problems” be solvable. Nevertheless, I recognize that in many cases I cope with situations (problems) rather than solving them. Is that what we’re after with dialogue? Coping? Managing? Addressing? What’s addressing a problem? Are we trying to find ways to “tame” a wicked problem? Or is there some way of defining or illustrating paths forward when we’re facing a particularly wicked problem?

    In other words, because so many are attracted to linear problem solving, there’s a danger that the message you’re presenting will be rejected because people find it discouraging. It would be good if you could get to “a method for addressing wicked problems” pretty fast.

  • Just curious: where does “Satisficing” (Herb Simon) fall into this conversation?

    Great post, Jeff!

    • Hi Jack. Great question. It’s tempting to put satisficing somewhere on a scale of degrees of problem wickedness, but perhaps we don’t have to go there.

      Here’s my lay understanding of satisficing: a valid solution to a problem doesn’t have to be “correct”, just “good enough”. Kind of obvious these days, but in the context of the mid-50’s is was a breakthrough idea, because design and problem solving were being treated like mathematics on steroids, i.e. in those days one could get the right answer to any problem, but you had to be super smart to do it for the most complex ones. Simon’s “satisficing” concept saved planners from their own hubris by providing a way to keep linear problem solving intact while softening the “right answer” requirement.

      But Rittel went much further with “wicked problems” (15 years later), which require planners to reject basic tenets of problem solving. For example, Rittel talked about the irrelevance of “expertise”, due to the “symmetry of ignorance” among experts (such a sweetly provocative turn of phrase!). Also, Rittel’s practical response to dealing with the complexity of wicked problems was to introduce IBIS, a tool for organizing problem solving conversations among stakeholders!

      Since satisficing doesn’t involve embracing crucial distinctions like sense making, knowledge construction, or social complexity, it’s basically just a hack on traditional problem solving.

      (There. My first authoritative declaration as a blogger! Oh, this is fun!)

  • Great start Jeff –looks like you are setting out to illuminate the herds of elephants in the room of problem solving.

    I’m hoping things aren’t as bleak as you make out — people working for sustainability, resilience, community – who already sense the underlying systems integration of all that we tend to analyze rather than synthesize, are at least on the same path, I hope.

    But we are all short of tools that we all can use. Really looking forward to you your next posts.

    Philip

  • Thanks for writing the post, Jeff. I think David Bohm’s book, “On Dialogue”, lays out what an ideal dialogue session would be. There are even Youtube videos of its execution. In its ideal state, Bohm’s definition would not work in a corporate setting. Still, it’s pretty amazing to see unfold.

    Although not taught in Academia, “systems thinking” (http://www.systemswiki.org) is probably the closest to the spirit of the structured problem solving approach. Frankly, I think dialogue mapping and systems thinking should be integrated.

  • Jeff you are a terrific writer and should have done this years ago!

    • Thank you, Paul!

      Wait. Is that a criticism? 🙂

  • Michael Randel

    This is great, Jeff.

    Your analysis of the challenges associated with problem solving reminded me of the work that Dave Snowden has done on Complex Adaptive Systems and his Cynefin framework (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin).

    While there can be a place for problem solving approaches in the simple and complicated domains (where past experience and technical expertise do have a role to play…), it is clear that it is inappropriate to bring these simplistic and reductionist approaches to the complex and even chaotic domains – though unfortunately too many people try to do so!

  • David

    Great post. Ironically it appears as though you have identified a problem- addiction to problem solving and are searching for a solution. Linear step 1 – recognize whether it is a wicked problem. Linear step 2 if yes, employ tools (dialogue mapping maybe) to best address the problem. Linear step 3… It’s a hard habit to break!

    • When I was doing research in software engineering during the 1980’s we were finding more and more problems with the “waterfall” model of software development. David Parnas gave a talk that cleared the whole thing up for me. He said that the process of creating a complex software system was actually quite chaotic and non-linear, and that project management is really about telling a story that makes it sound like it’s linear and all is going according to plan.

      In other words, you have to understand the nature of the cognitive universe (loosely structured chaos), and how to craft (and recraft, etc) a nice linear narrative about it, so that outsiders have a way to peer into the process and have a sense that, yes indeed, everything is under control.

      So, yeah, we have to be able to explain how to deal with a wicked problem using a linear process, especially if we’re trying to sell Dialogue Mapping services! I prefer to think of it not as a habit but as bilingual fluency. 🙂

  • Haydn Thompson

    Radiant!:)

    • Thanks, Haydn. Good to know it’s working.

  • Great piece, Jeff! It resonates with the approach to “addressing” (NB not “solving”) wicked problems in social innovation processes in the Tilburg region. Check out https://communitysense.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/the-tilburg-story-of-knowledge-sharing-for-social-innovation/ The bit on wicked problems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhZZUgX9nl4#t=190

  • Jeff: Surprised to see you back to this old argument?! To be fair to your readers and to the creative problem solving community of practice you might point out exactly which “problem solving” method you are building your straw man argument against here.

    You must already know that the model and step logic that you reference here is old and certainly not universal.

    The notion that a problem is defined before fact-finding has not been the case since the 1950s. Would automobile designers today build arguments against worse case scenario cars from more than half a century ago? That would create a rather false narrative.

    It would be more constructive to try building arguments against what is actually going on in this arena today.

    Regardless of how it might be repackaged, the argument for more argument is not a new one. The reality in many organizations is that argument represents the existing legacy conditions, which they are often deeply addicted to, and which leaders seek to overcome due to poor performance outcomes. Where does the addiction come from? Argument and debate continue to dominate in academic circles, which tend to be on different time schedules working with different output expectations.

    Consultants trying to sell more argument to organizations already immersed in argument is a little like suggesting to Eskimos that what they really need is not only more snow but snow making machines. On the other hand argument represents a familiar approach for many so there is a comfort factor there. Suggesting that folks should remain within comfort zones is rather different from actually working on changing-making behaviors.

    Good luck to all.