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Don’t Fix Problems, “Dissolve” Them!

November 12, 2009

Russell Ackoff, the father of Systems Thinking, died a few weeks ago. The Ackoff Center Weblog website posted an obituary which begins with these words:

“Professor Russell L. Ackoff has been described as a Renaissance Man, architect, city planner, philosopher, behavioral scientist, trailblazer in the field of organizational operations, the pre-eminent authority on organizational systems theory, best-selling author, world traveler—even a humorist. Recognized internationally as a pragmatic academic, Russ, as he was known to all, devoted most of his professional life to “dissolving” complex societal and organizational problems by engaging all stakeholders in designing solutions.” [emphasis mine]

Today’s societal and organizational problems are complex:
• They involve numerous interrelated and interacting components;
• They are dynamic, i.e., they operate in a non-linear fashion, which means that causes and effects are far apart in time and space;
• They present unpredictable behaviors.
Complex problems cannot be resolved by applying old models and conventional solutions. Yet, while most people do agree with Einstein’s famous quote that “[P]roblems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” Ackoff once pointed out that, in fact, very few people know how to develop and apply new thinking to tackle their problems. We seem to be making the same mistakes over and over again. Here are a few typical pitfalls:

We do not challenge our assumptions.
We analyze problems from the lenses of our accepted mental models and worldviews, which we have developed through years of enculturation. Our current worldviews are limiting our ability to see problems with fresh eyes (we only see what we are trained to see) and restricting the solution space available to us.

We tend to fix problems by addressing symptoms and not root causes.
We are scared of complexity and try to reduce it. We focus on the tip of the iceberg and refuse to look for what’s underneath. Our environment pressures us to fix the problem, now! We “think” we know what the origin of a problem is and rush to conclusion with predetermined ideas of what an effective solution might be, only to find out later on, as the problem shows its ugly head once again (or is it a new one?), that the solution only provided a temporary patch.

We think in terms of linear cause and effect and not in terms of feedback loops.
Linear cause and effect means that a system’s output is proportional to the input. While this might be true for simple system, the majority of today’s problems are non-linear: problems get worth over time under the influence of reinforcing feedback loops that amplified their effect.

We forget to take delays into consideration.
We think we can predict what is going to happen. But in a complex world there is always a delay between the actions we take and the impact our actions have on the system we are dealing with. A solution that seems to have been working just fine for a while suddenly creates unintended consequences that are often worth than the problem we were trying to fix in the first place.

Dissolving problems means that we are able to make problems disappear. As Ackoff and other systems thinkers taught us, systems thinking, systems dynamic, and system modeling provide useful approaches and tools to:

Focus on the system’s structure and behavior.
In contrast to the traditional reductionist approach, which focuses on understanding the parts or components of a system, the systems approach puts the emphasis on understanding the interactions between the components (i.e., on defining the structure of the systems) in the goal of uncovering the system’s patterns of behavior. The understanding of the underlying structure that shapes a system’s behavior provides clues on what to change in the structure to influence the system’s behavior.

Make mental models and worldviews explicit.
There is nothing wrong with worldviews as long as we recognize they are not ultimate truths. A model (whether it is a causal loop diagram or a stock and flow diagram) is a representation of a particular worldview, i.e., the representation of the particular way an individual or group of individuals understand how a system operates and generates its behavior. By engaging multiple stakeholders in the development of models, different perspectives and understandings emerge as each participant sheds a different light on an issue.

Challenge our assumptions.
The process of modeling is a learning process: stakeholders are encouraged to challenge their assumptions and investigate new territories by including new variables in the model that change the structure and dynamic of the system. An “Ah-Ha” moment occurs when a completely new understanding of the problem arises: these new insights generate much opportunity for creativity and the development of unique solutions.

Identify the key leverage points.
A model helps uncover key leverage points, i.e., those critical variables that one needs to focus on to have a maximum effect on the performance of the system under consideration.

Dissolving problems requires discipline, practice, active listening and creative thinking supplemented by creative tools and methods for designing new solutions. It also requires us to remain flexible and humble, as our comprehension of the behavior of complex systems always remains incomplete.

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