What are problems and what can we do about them?

When we think about problems in the world. We often want to remedy them. To do something which will make them no longer exist. So we commonly use the term “solve” as the action we will take to treat the problem. This sounds very good, “we will solve problems” and it is largely the motto of our scientific technological endeavors. But we must understand the nature of “problems” and the meaning of “solving” a little better.

For instance what we call problems are often symptoms, and the true nature of the problem is a cause which we cannot see as easily. If you are to receive a tooth filling, you may think you have solved the problem, however you are only treating the symptom. To truly do away with the problem of cavities, we must redesign the behavior which is the cause of cavities. Namely, brushing your teach regularly and eating less candy.

This brings me to four different ways problems can be treated:





1. Absolution

Absolution means to ignore a problem and hope it will solve itself or go away of its own accord.

2. Resolution

Resolution, your 2nd problem solving option, means to employ behavior previously used in similar situations, adapted if necessary, so as to obtain an outcome that is good enough.

This approach to problems relies heavily on experience, trial and error, qualitative judgment, and so-called common sense. It is the approach to problems most commonly used by those who govern and those who manage public processes. Moreover, this approach has little lasting power because it deals with symptoms and short-term effects, but does not eliminate the cause of a problem.

3. Solution

Solution means to discover or create behavior that yields the best, or approximately the best, possible outcome, one that “optimizes” the situation.

Problem solving usually involves research, often using experimentation, quantitative analysis, and uncommon sense.

Unfortunately, few problems, once solved, stay that way. Solutions deteriorate by causes like:

Changes in the environment.

Changing societal goals.

New information.

Moreover, solutions generally do not exist in isolation from other problems. Solutions obtained to problems isolated from the other problems with which they interact generally produce one or more new problems. These are often more serious and difficult to solve than the original problem.

4. Dissolution

Dissolution, means to redesign either the society that has the problem or its environment in such a way as to eliminate the problem or the conditions that caused it, thus enabling the society involved to do better in the future than the best it can do today.

The methodologies used to do this are called Design Thinking and System Thinking. They are not always easy ways of thinking, but the rewards are well worth your trouble!

This article comes streight out of the thinking of Russell L. Ackoff. Originally trained as an architect, and a pioneer in the field of operations research, systems thinking and management science.

You can find a really powerful presentation by him on YouTube. It is a bit long, but if you found the ideas in this article interesting, I highly recommend the video. He covers these topics and more in very eloquent understandable ways.

Thanks for reading!