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How to approach "solving" problems

A couple blogs I read mentioned the same Russell Ackoff way of looking at problems and how they are typically solved. This apocryphal story from James Lather gets us going: 4 Ways to Solve a Problem

A man you know is hungry.  There are 4 ways you could solve his problem:

  1. Slap him about a bit. This will take his mind of it.  Hunger gone, problem solved. 
  2. Give him a fish to eat.  Hunger gone, problem solved. 
  3. Give him a fishing rod and show them how to fish.  Hunger gone, problem solved. 
  4. Develop a first world infrastructure with trawlers, freezers, distribution centres, corner stores and fish fingers.  Hunger gone, problem solved.

Ackoff's four ways of looking at problems parallel these "solutions":

  1. You can absolve the problem: ignore it and hope it goes away.  
  2. You can resolve the problem: fix it for the time being, possibly by doing the same things that have worked in the past.  
  3. You can solve the problem: possibly going deeper and do something that creates a more optimal solution to the problem.  
  4. Or you can dissolve the problem: change the system so that the problem no longer arises.
Think about the idea of "firefighting" that managers find themselves doing. They often find themselves fighting the same fires - or the same sorts of fires - over and over again.  They resolve the problem in the moment, but then it comes up again in different ways and in different situations. But it is the same. If the business leader could dissolve the problem, they could move to a better level of performance AND break out of their Groundhog Day life.

A slightly more entertaining version of this comes from Squire to the Giants in his post So, you think you've got a problem! where he uses these concepts to comment on some of the current discussions in the political spheres.  He also includes some direct quotes from a collection of Ackoff's writings on the topic.

 

 

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