A big picture.

What kind of problem do you have?

Maybe it’s not really a problem you have. Moving along the scale getting worse, it could be a ‘situation’ that you are in or maybe a right mess. It’s always good to reflect on what you’re trying to improve, before start doing anything, as there is more than one way to progress and getting better without making things worse is always good.

We can think of moving from problems, or difficulties, through to messes.

At the problem and of the scale, everyone can agree what is wrong,  and there is agreement on the solution. A keyword there is solution, there is a solution that people agree on, and the problem can then be solved.

Problems are solved with a scientific, analytical approach. And science is cool, without science, smartphones, laptops, the internet and modern drugs wouldn’t exist.

Problems and solutions are popular descriptions, but in a situation where people don’t even agree that there is anything wrong, then can you talk of a solution?

We often create situations like these with the outputs of analytic scientific thinking and advances. It’s usually our fault.

For example ‘what do we do when our cities are full of cars’, or ‘what do we do when our children only communicate with friends online’.

There are many perspectives to situations like these. If you make and sell cars, then you’ll want to fit even more cars in cities. If you are concerned with children’s safety outside of the home, then online communication removes a lot of physical risk.

Once you attempt to take all the perspectives into account,  thinking about reaching a solution by ‘breaking the problem down’ to get the solution is totally inadequate.

The is where the idea of messes (as described by Russ Ackoff) is useful, not only to categorise what you are dealing with, but also suggest an approach that may make things better.

And this is where a systemic approach to problems is useful. It could be described as understanding the relationships between parts of the system, as much as understanding the parts themselves.

Systemic approaches won’t tell you what to do. They may give you a framework to think, and to clarify your situation. Often this is enough, and you can accept the new reality, or you may think of actions, feedback to monitor, and your situation and approach may evolve into something better.


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