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No Problems – No Solutions: Only Complex Emerging Realities

November 4, 2010

Here is something for you to ponder upon: in today’s complex world, THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS TO SOLVE AND THERE ARE NO SOLUTIONS ABLE TO ‘FIX’ THEM. We are fooling ourselves when we believe otherwise. Robert Fritz makes this really clear:

“We have been trained to think of situations that are inadequate for our aspirations as problems. When we think of them as problems, we try to solve them. When you are solving a problem, you are taking action to have something go away: the problem. When you are creating, you are taking action to have something come into being: the creation.” [1]

Why is it so misleading to focus on solving problems? Let’s remember that how we label things influences the meaning we attach to these things. Words we use and thoughts we think are not neutral: they directly participate in creating our own reality and influence each one of our actions. When we think in terms of ‘problems’ we think in terms of ‘things’ or ‘situations’ that we want to see go away: we see hunger in developing countries and we send foreign aid to get rid of it; we see water and air pollution and we want the manufacturing companies that are at the origin of the problem to address it, promptly. Of course, when we go to the store to buy the products originating from these same manufactures, we don’t really think about the fact that, through our purchasing, we ourselves become an active participant in the pollution issue. We believe the problem is not ours; it’s in someone else’s backyard.

None of our ‘fixes’ eliminate problems. Most often, they mitigate symptoms. At the best, they alleviate pain and misery for a few, a much necessary temporary relief. Perhaps, they make us feel less guilty. Unfortunately, our solutions rarely attempt to address the root causes of problems. Consequently, our fixes create negative long-term side effects and unintended consequences, which are often worse than the symptoms they were meant to address in the first place. (The list of such examples is long: for instance, the desertification of the Sahel region near the Sahara desert was a consequence of the alteration of the local agricultural patterns due to the introduction of development policies to revitalize the area, after the arrival of the French in West Africa in the late 19th century—policies which included digging wells, conducting veterinary and medical campaigns and opening new markets. Counterintuitive? Indeed it is! [2]

Our realities are not static; the specific issues we deal with are, in fact, dynamically evolving situations, which are under the influence of the complex interactions over time of a multitude of individual actions occurring in diverse entangled systems. The structures of these systems have been developed over decades, sometimes centuries, and are grounded in old worldviews deeply embedded within us. We have become blind men, unable to perceive reality as it really is.

The writing of the physicist David Bohm provides a deep source of inspiration and insights for learning how to see reality with fresh eyes. Bohm explains that because thoughts control us, they are at the origin of all that we do:

“…the general tacit assumption in thought is that it’s just telling you the way things are and that it’s not doing anything—that ‘you’ are inside there, deciding what to do with the info. But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us. Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally. This is another major feature of thought: Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn’t want to know that it is doing it. And thought struggles against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with the way of thinking. That is what I call “sustained incoherence.” [3]

For Bohm, thoughts and actions cannot be considered separately: together, they make a whole. Consequently, he urges us to take the time to examine our thoughts so that we can start seeing reality as a whole. When we focus on the whole, we start seeing patterns—thought patterns, intangible patterns and physical patterns. These patterns are a source of deep insights into 1) the nature of our current reality (present); 2) how this reality came into being over time (past); as well as insights or clues on what might be done to improve our current reality (future).

The process of focusing on the past, present, and future, all at once, is highly generative: the pattern development history helps us unfold reality from the past and create new understanding from which one can re-interpret the present. When this happens, the original problems we started with dissolve as we now have the ability to uncover the dynamic and complexity of what is. From this place, creating the future becomes straightforward: we know what must be done and what action to take since our mind is now capable of painting a different reality.

Since the mind constructs its own reality, breaking out from our old ways of seeing is an art; it is a creative process. It is what Pierre Wack, the father of scenario planning at Royal Dutch/Shell, called “The Gentle Art of Reperceiving.” As Wack puts it:

“Decision-scenarios, by being alternative “ways of seeing the world,” are a systematic method for breaking out of this one-eyed view. In a proper sense, such scenarios confer a gift of second sight and can achieve something very precious: the ability to re-perceive reality.” [4]

As change agents and leaders, we have the responsibility to learn how to really see patterns and hidden realities as well as create new realities; we also need to help each other do the same. As Peter Senge argues:

“ Leadership is about creating a domain in which human beings continually deepen their understanding of reality and become more capable of participating in the unfolding of the world. Ultimately, leadership is about creating new realities.” [5]

“Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in a nonhabitual way.” ~William James

[1] Fritz, Robert (1999). The Path of Least Resistance: Designing Organizations to Succeed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
[2] Brough Wayne T. and Mwangi S. Kimenyi (2004). “Desertification” of the Sahel: Exploring the Role of Property Rights, in Perc Reports, Special Issue: Africa. Vol 22, No 2, June 2004.
[3] Bohm, David (1994). Thought as a System. Routledge, London.
[4] Wack, Pierre (1984). The Gentle Art of Reperceiving. Working paper. Reprinted by Global Business Network by permission.
[5] Jaworski J. and Betty S. Flowers (1996). Introduction to Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership. Introduction by Senge, Peter.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 5, 2010 1:45 am

    Thanks for this piece. More depth than I feel capable of participating in at the moment. However, all of it rings so clearly for me. I like to think. And I like to imagine how I might shift my thinking, and see what shows up in my world.

    I recently was presented with the idea that all “reality” is just history of past thoughts. So imagination becomes more and more attractive. To shift time and space to connect past imaginations to thoughts and then to the things of “reality” that I can touch, taste, smell, feel, see. Not the way I was taught, nor the way I learned for a long time. I like this way better.

    Thanks for sharing your explorations.

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