Problem solving in a complex world: A perspective that helps me to be thankful

Categories: Problem Solving

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I realized there is something for which I should give thanks and most of us never do: some problems just can be solved.

Why should we be thankful for that? For me this knowledge eliminates the pressure to be perfect. When I strive to make significant progress on unsolvable problems as opposed to finding the “one and only right answer” I relax a bit and cherish the progress I do make.

How do I know there are problems that can’t be solved? Because wicked problems (defined in 1972 by Rittle and Webber) exist along with tame ones. Tame ones (why doesn’t my car work?) have solutions. They may be complex and difficult to figure out, but they have answers. Wicked ones don’t. They typically don’t have well-defined boundaries, are very resistant to change, appear differently to different people, and don’t have a definitive solution (how will we know when health care is excellent and we can stop improving it?). Wicked problems are the big, nasty messes – education, poverty, corporate cultures.

Of course, as we try to solve these problems we still devote ourselves fully to making significant progress. The complexity within these wicked problems requires other approaches that one person figuring out the right answer though. It requires more perspectives than our own. It takes integrating diverse perspectives, teamwork, collaboration, humility, learning to grasp the systems involved – the elements and interactions at play – to determine the significant the leverage points.

In this world of wicked problems, as my friend Aleco Christakis explained to participants in one of his structured democratic dialogue Co-labs:

Whether [a collective judgment] it is right or wrong only God knows. Really. We also don’t know whether we are complete or incomplete. We still don’t know that too. Completeness is something that mortals like us can only struggle with and never really get there.

Putting these problems into an appropriate perspective is one of the reasons I’m so thankful these days!

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