State a Problem in Simplest Terms

The other day, a long-term client of mine called me up to see a problem of theirs. Since it is a public sector organization they soon sent me a RFP (request for proposal) over email with a fairly detailed SOW (Scope of Work).

In the SOW, they mentioned all that needs to be done, almost breaking down each step. In short, they were proposing a detailed method to solve their problem.

When they followed me up over phone, I said, “With such a detailed methodology in place, why would you ever need me?”

Sensing that they did not get it, I elaborated, “Does it mean if you just have the results of those steps that you have listed out you get to the answer you are looking for? Do you think that such detailed investigations, which you have already carried out earlier, would inflate costs without getting anywhere close to the solution?”

Fortunately, they quickly realized the gap. They asked me, “What should we do then?”

I replied, “State your problem in its most basic and simplest terms. Complex, nagging problems can’t be neatly defined. Instead, you could just state your concern about the problem. That would trigger our collective minds to flow easily to reach a solution. For example, you could state that you are suffering from a headache every evening.”

“O.K.” they said, “Our issue is that we are responding as per prescribed textbook rules to solve this problem and the problem seems to be temporarily fixed but it resurfaces after some time.”

“Just state that. And then we follow the cues to get to a working hypothesis, a working methodology to test out the hypothesis, collect data, arrange and interpret the data, collectively understand the issue with the simplest theories that fit the facts of the problem, formulate practical actions, carry out those to test our hypothesis and learn more to eliminate the problem for good.”

In the next fifteen minutes they sent the revised RFP, stating their concern.

By stating a problem in its basic and simplest terms we allow our minds to pay attention to flow effortlessly towards a solution.

That is what is needed when we tackle complex problems – problems for which answers are not available in the books or can’t be googled.

The Secret of Everything.

image
The heart of all issues

This I think is the secret of solving or resolving any issue or creating anything worthwhile in the world, however difficult or hard that might appear to be.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a problem or issue of physics or a problem of engineering or a management problem or a personal problem.

So, taking time and patience to learn and master “connectedness” is worth spending a lifetime upon.

One can’t force it to happen. But when it happens consider it as a extremely rate and valuable gift, worth more than its weight in gold.

When one plays with this gift with perseverance it turns into the rarest of rare talent available to the world.

Possibly, we will never have a “Theory of Everything” but we certainly have a “Secret of Everything.”

So why wait to master that secret?

A baffling problem

Last week I was invited to engage with a baffling problem. It left engineers and managers of the power plant baffled for the last four months.

Instead of writing the technical details of the problem, which might not be of much interest to non-technical people I would instead write about my approach to solving baffling problems along with the principles involved. This is because we often wrongly interpret problems as technical, non technical, financial, social, etc. Essentially all problems are problems of the human mind. Invariably they always originate and live in the human mind. However, problems, as a rule, are always solved or resolved through enlightened (understanding, wisdom) consciousness.

The process, which I intend to highlight below, may be used to successfully solve both personal and professional problems or quickly adapt when a baffling problem (or a black swan) strikes.

The seven steps of the integrated process are as follows:

1. Look at the event as perceived in the present and the events that went before it.

Principles:
a) See all, sit still, breathe deep, care for the ill.
b) When drinking water think of its source.

2. Examine the responses of human beings to a problem. Spot the responses that emanated from stored memories (usually collective).

Principles:
a) Buddha is a toilet stick.
b) The gateway is found only after a long search and the long search is a spiral going inward.

3. Check implementation of the responses for assumptions, acceptance of imperfections, ignorance of facts and avoidance of details.

Principles:
a) See the whole universe in a glass of wine.
b) Can you see the cloud in the book?

4. Scan the various perspectives people have about a problem, i.e. how individuals feel about the problem. Identify the blind spots.

Principles:
a) No question; no answer
b) Cut the grass; pull the roots. 
c) Pine cones look at different directions but do they?

5. Listen intently to what they say and what they don’t say about the issue.

Principles:
a) Noise of the unsayable, unspeakable and unsaid is music.
b) Go up the mountain to meet the sage, know that it is you, come down to mix with the lakes and rivers.
c) A ruler and a worthy person who don’t connect, a musician and a listener who don’t find each other, or two potential friends who never meet; all lose.

6. Gain deep insight about the problem.

Principles:
a) Don’t catch the snake by its tail.                          
b) Birds are not afraid of directions.
c) Question, test and use every sense you have and believe that dawn would come.
d) Imaginary lines between stars guide us to new harbors.

7. Form understanding of the problem. Formulate viable solutions for minimal intervention. Exchange the understanding in the simplest possible terms as logically as possible to change collective consciousness. Leave it there.                                         

Principles:
a) No question; no answer.
b) Spirit is wrapped in reason and reason is wrapped in spirit.
c) One raindrop creates thousand ripples.
d) Don’t wish for spring; spring gives life to wish.

Chances are that baffling problems would no longer appear baffling and would soon be solved/resolved by people.

4 Way of Dealing with Problems

The four standard methods of dealing with any problem are the following:

1. Absolve

2. Resolve

3. Solve

4. Dissolve

Absolve

This appears to be the most common way of dealing with problems. It simply means to almost deny existence of a problem. We feel the problem but we are not ready to accept it as one. Instead, as it happens, we wish that it simply vanishes or goes away. This is the default mode, a very natural response to problems. We do that on a personal level. We do that on an organizational level. If it weren’t so, all organizations would be great places to work and all homes would have been heavens. A reasonable metaphor would be: ostrich putting its head in the sand, wishing the danger to fly off on its own.

Resolve

With this mode of dealing with a problem we simply copy some available solution. It might be one of the famous ‘best practices’ another organization or person is following. It might spring from some experience of someone who dealt with a similar problem before. Most often than not it turns out to be a wrong experience. Or it might be a very simple common sense approach to deal with a problem. Use of simple problem solving techniques like ‘why-why’ are generally used for this purpose. With this mode of operation we are aiming for a ‘good enough’ solution. We are not interested in the best possible way of treating a problem. It is something like most consultants do regularly in various organizations. A good metaphor might be: Having a headache? Take this pill. It would disappear in no time.

Solve

To solve a problem means to stop a problem from recurring or resurfacing. It would involve change or partial correction of behavior. It might be a change of behavior of a part of a machine, a particular behavior of a person or a method or a process. But it is never connected to the change of organizational behavior or change of organizational climate or environment or transformation of an individual. An appropriate metaphor might be: in winter wear woolens.

Dissolve

To dissolve a problem one has to redesign. We can redesign a machine so that its total behavior and its outputs change forever. It is something like transformation. Like, a person changing completely so that existing problems are never experienced again. It is a long-term change involving complete elimination of all the problems in the system. For an organization it means complete overhaul of its strategy, outlook, mindset and practices. A right metaphor in this case might be: give a man a fish, you would solve his problem of hunger for a day; but teach him to fish you have dissolved his problem of hunger for life.

 

Ruthless Honesty & Integrity

Excerpt from my forthcoming book — Solving Complex Problems through Vibration Analysis; An introduction to Non-linear Dynamics

 

One last thing before we move on to the next chapter. We have had a glimpse into the fundamental process of seeing a problem. We start with an open mind. Then we ask lots of questions out of curiosity, being mindful that we don’t know the answer. We intently observe. We then make intelligent guesses to come up with a hypothesis that relates all the problems in the system, interdependent as they are. Finally, we should still doubt as to whether we understood the system to sufficient depth. We simply can’t get rid of this nagging doubt till our solutions are proven effective through practical implementation. If proven, we learn. If not proven, we learn to unlearn our ignorance and set out to learn again. Either way we learn something useful.

This reminds me of an incident. Long back when I was studying vibration analysis under my Guru, Tim Henry of the University of Manchester, I was working on a small experiment with accelerometers. I was bit upset about the funny results I got and was ashamed about the wasted effort at the end of my week-long experiment. Tim asked me as to why I look sullen on a fine English morning.

When he came to know the reason for my long face, he just said, ‘Well, there is nothing to feel bad about. What you got is also useful knowledge. It would tell others that this method of finding out of what you wanted to find out does not work and this is why it doesn’t work and here are the results as evidence. There is no question of shame. Don’t you think it would save a lot of time and energy for other researchers who would come after you by choosing to avoid the path you just found to be incorrect? And you just learned more about the subject. Haven’t you?”

What a relief that was. Thanking him, I promptly went out to soak in the rare sun on a cold English morning. And that is where I was hit by the truth — all human search must be based on honesty – ruthless honesty — so that integrity of human learning can be preserved since quality of that integrity decides whether we survive better or not. I vowed — from now on, I must learn to take things as they are.

I also think: by learning to be honest with our failures and vulnerabilities and to resiliently respond to uncertain outcomes and situations is a vital step to get rid of fear and shame that hold us back.

 

Note:

This book acts as a further expansion and exploration of my previous book – Winning Anywhere – the Power of ‘See’

Problems, Landscapes, Habits; Leadership in the 21st Century

Excerpts from forthcoming book ‘Dancing on Peaks; Resolving Wicked Problems – A Nemetical View of Life

……

Fortunately, not all problems that we face in life are wicked. For most of these, though relatively few, we can get over them with our effort and practice. And we can do that so well indeed that they don’t seem like a problem any more. Like for instance, my getting to my desk, booting up my laptop, connecting it to the net and then letting my fingers fly over the keyboard at great speed to write this book is a simple problem. Though years back it took me some time and effort to master the process today it is effortlessly simple and predictable. But I remember my first brush with the computer, which was over two decades back and those were tense moments. It took me hours and some training to figure out MS-DOS and hours of brutal typing practice with some coaching from a friend. Resolution of such problems doesn’t require much thought. These can be easily mastered through controlled and dedicated effort guided by mentors if possible. The solution to such problems are known and are easily available. These I call the “library type of problem”. The operating context is predictable. It is something similar to mastering maths. A teacher or mentor is available and the answers are at the back of the book. We can refer to such ‘library type problems’ as problems of ‘flat landscape‘ since it is akin to walking in the park. Such problems can be easily mastered through the ‘habit of memory’.

Then there are problems that are slightly different to ‘library’ problems. It might be something like this – how can I get from my house to my office (10 km) in the shortest possible time and expense without sacrificing comfort. Given the information, such type of problems are straightforward problems. The problem opens up choices and a fairly intelligent choice has to be made. However, the result is always not guaranteed. Sometimes things can go wrong and we can be thrown off our desired intention. Such straight problems are fairly easy to tackle. And with some experience these can be tackled quite well. Hence I call these ‘experience type of problems. Such problems can be framed like – how to climb Mount Everest safely. There is one particular objective to be achieved. Once that can be done the problem no longer exists. More the experience better are the choices we can make and better can be the associated planning. And with better choices, planning and action the targeted outcome is achieved easily. Adopting best practices in the field also helps a practitioner. Hence such ‘experience problems‘ are problems of ‘single peak landscape‘. Such problems can be mastered through the ‘habit of planning and making choices‘.

Then there is a third type of problem which is continuous in time. We achieve something and then prevailing situation demands that we achieve something more. It is like scaling a mountain range, like the Himalayan range, which is full of peaks. We climb one peak and then we try to climb the next peak and then figure out how to reach the next. Sometimes we can get from one peak to the other peak quite easily, if they are nearby with a reliable connection between them. At other times we might have to take a detour, climb down from a peak and then scale up another. In real life this might resemble improving productivity or opening up new markets in a closed economy. While the economic environment doesn’t change much we strive to become better and better from our existing position. These are not very easy problems to resolve. It is similar to a cricketer who excels playing at local level and then aspires to excel playing his game at regional level before trying to move up and play at the national level. This is where complex problems start to surface. It would need enhanced cognitive skills, a basic level of contextual intelligence, ability to learn from mistakes, strategizing, refining intentions, better decision-making skills, emotional balance and continuous moment to moment adaptation without losing a sense of direction over long periods of time. Such type of complex problems may be termed as problems of ‘Rugged Peaks landscape‘. Such type of problems can be mastered through the ‘habit of time and learning‘.

However there is a fourth type of problem that needs constant adaptation in a complex environment. Such systems are called Complex Adaptive Systems. And the problems in this category can be seen as ‘adaptive type of problem’. Continuing our analogy of the ‘rugged peak’ problems, let us imagine for a moment that the ground below us continuously dances and also gives away at time. So the peaks, which were rather stationary in the previous case now start having different heights at different points of time. The peak that appears small suddenly grows big and the bigger peak suddenly drawfs in relation to the peak we are presently on. Nothing remains constant in both Space and Time. These are real ‘wicked‘ problems. Everything is dynamic leaving us clueless about both position and the rate of change (velocity) at any given instant. It might be better to call them the problems of ‘Dancing Peak landscape’.

In this book we would focus specifically on such problems. Such problems need a high degree of contextual intelligence, where previous experience would hardly be of any use. Sharp cognitive skills would be needed that would call for taking various perspectives at different levels along with a high ability to reflect, ability for deep understanding, instant strategy, quick actions and strong adaptation skills. This type of problem can’t be easily tackled by the habits of ‘memory’, ‘planning’, ‘making choices’, or by habits of ‘time’ and ‘learning’. Taking on such types of problems would need the habit of ‘practice of preparedness, attention and serendipity’, that is the habit of a ‘prepared attentive mind’ moving from moment to moment in time. This in Nemetics we call as ‘attentive contextual intelligence’, which is a mix of collective intelligence, combined with feelings, intuition, rationale and intelligence of an individual.

Finding such problems is not difficult. Actually such problems occupy most of our lives; problems for which we don’t have the answers and can’t predict when such type of problems would surface. And they are dynamic in nature. Slight changes in global economy throw national economies out of gear. It affects business operations, which must quickly adapt in order to survive. Customers change. Markets go topsy-turvy. Profitability goes under tremendous squeeze and the notions and targets of productivity and performance change continuously. Job markets fluctuate. Nature of jobs are redefined. Personal lives get affected. Even Nature gets affected. Climate changes. Plants and animals get affected. It then appears that we are caught in a deep and frightening whirlpool.

Under such situations, there are no answers at the back of the book. There are hardly any choices to quickly select from. There is no question of optimization. Experience hardly helps. Dedicated hard work might prove useless. Agility and resilience might have no real meaning. There is only one answer but we are left clueless. There are no best practices to follow, no techniques to use, no process to adopt, no framework to guide our minds. We either get it or we don’t. If we get it wrong we are doomed to be sucked into the whirlpool even deeper till we suffocate to death. If we get it right we live to see another day and perhaps another new moon. However, the only wherewithal we might have to rely on is the quality of our feelings and thinking brought together through the habit of ‘practice and serendipity’ or simply having a ‘prepared attentive mind’ since the need is to adapt moment to moment. Or simply stated, our contextual intelligence can come to our rescue to maintain balance.

In order to develop and apply such contextual intelligence to wicked problems operating in a ‘dancing peak’ landscape, Nemetics is an option. Nemetics is a flexible thought model that allows us to synthesize mathematical thinking, subjective insights and feelings to re-design our lives for the better. The objective of the flexible thought model is to make sense of complex adaptive systems and to act upon them. It may be effectively applied to various fields like organizations, manufacturing systems, engineering, organizational sociology, economics, design, system design, system reliability and even to psychology and a host of others fields.

In short Nemetics can be best described as a study of origins of the various complex phenomena within which we exist. Or in other words it is the ontological inquiry in general that seeks the transcendental truths operating behind everyday phenomenon.

This practice of Nemetics stems from the fundamentals of complexity science as applied to complex adaptive systems and is based on the time-tested principles of Engineering, Chaos, Complexity Science and humanities like social and economic systems.

Since the aim of Nemetics is to gain direct knowledge of the transcendental the fundamental premise is praxis for the simple reason that the theory of such complex emergence (a term which we shall deal with later) simply might not exist. It has to be worked out. The idea is to move from practice to theory and then to practice again.

In other words we first explain the situation, then act upon it and then only predict the outcome as a way of reflecting on our thought process and our decisions. We do so through attentive reflection. It is a practice to train the eye and mind to be prepared and attentive to spot emergence, engage with its structure and behavior, mull about the drivers that drive complexity and then exchange that helps to adapt to complexity.

Life is then in perpetual beta – no hanging on to assumptions, beliefs and opinions. That points to adopting a stance of nuanced but effective adaptation based on ‘attentive contextual intelligence’. It is a tall order, which asks us to do what is needed to be done and then keep adapting and tweaking as time goes on and situations change.

That is what Leadership of the 21st Century would look like. Problem solving would grow lesser in importance. Problem solvers would be passe. Problem and paradox resolution would take prominence. And persons who can resolve complex problems and have the ability to predict in the short-term would be highly regarded and would be in high demand. That can only be done by people who can gain direct knowledge of transcendental truths through their highly developed contextual intelligence. They with their highly trained minds would be simply priceless!

Summary:

  1. Types of Problems: Library problems, Experience Problems, Complex Problems, Complex Adaptive Problems.
  2. Types of Landscapes: Flat, Single Peak, Rugged, Dancing Peaks
  3. Habits: Time, Planning & Making Choices, Time & Learning, Attentive Contextual Intelligence
  4. It is not unusual to find combinations of ‘Type of Problems’, Landscapes and Habits co-existing within the same situation.
  5. Whole of life is nothing but a series of changes and issues waiting for resolution, facilitation, modification and nurturing to leverage us to new dimensions and states.
  6. Leaders of the 21st century would posses an unusually high degree of ‘contextual intelligence’ to reach essence of complex situations in a wink and know how to deal with those.