Solutions Looking for Problems
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Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

Americans are solution oriented. They go for the bottom line quickly. A person is measured by, and prideful at, how quickly they can arrive at a solution. It is a part of our culture. Ask any non-American - they see it plainly. It's the water we swim in, so we live with it, unquestioningly.
   Unquestioningly. Therein lies the problem that we will look at here. Ask two questions, get two answers, connect the dots and extrapolate an end point - you can't get to a reasoned solution quicker. OK - ask a third question, get a third answer, and verify that your line of reasoning is reasonably straight. That adds carefulness to speed - especially if you choose the question carefully so it won't kink the line too badly. Don't ask a fourth question - it might screw up the picture. In between a solution and the solution to a problem lie a lot of questions - mostly never asked.

In between a solution and the solution to a problem
lie a lot of questions, mostly never asked.

Though this may be a typical American stereotype, it is not an exclusive American failing. It as a human failing. Though different human cultures manifest the symptoms in different ways, and to different degrees.
   We are knowing people. We know the answers. That's important to us. Our kids believe it. We learned as children that as adults we would have the answers.
   In general most questions are created to satisfy answers. Answers come first naturally. Too many unanswered questions is insecurity, uncertainty, and life threatening. We all have answers - send on the problems.
   In the world of science we dream up an hypothesis, then we search for proof that it is true. Scientific communities employ the concept of peer review to weed out this natural bias to justify an answer. It works well there (sometimes too well) as another natural force is at work which seeks to discredit anything new.
   In the world of business - on the production floor, in product development planning, at organizational strategy meetings - we have answers first as well. But the business objectives and the political environment both conspire to support a solution once it is advanced, rather than measure its achievement potential or discredit it. The driving objectives are things like increased production yield, or more innovative ideas, or higher purchasing leverage, not optimal operation or absolute truth. There is a job to do and this problem solving stuff gets in the way.
   Stuart Kaufman, discussing the laws of self organization and complexity in his landmark book, At Home In The Universe, reflects on the application of some of this knowledge to business problems: "... if we are going to develop [this knowledge] into a rational management technique, whether in business or more broadly, then we must confront directly the fact that we almost always misspecify the problems we wish to solve. We then solve the wrong problem and stand in danger of applying our solution to the real-world problem we confront." Later..."We must learn how to learn in the face of persistent misspecification." Kaufman cites examples in production where solutions are implemented in the face of inadequate problem understanding, simply for the lack of sufficient information. It happens all the time, even with the best of intentions.
   Buffer inventories were not a problem until the lean JIT solution was spelled out. ERP wasn't needed until someone dreamed up what it was. Look at the quandary the Internet has presented to most of the business world - here is this great big solution that business is struggling to find a problem for. Business will, and life will never be the same again; but business, in general, will fit problems to the solution, not vice versa.
   What would help is a discipline that objectively defines a problem before considering solutions. Better yet, a discipline that defines the criteria for evaluating potential solutions. The operative word here is discipline.
   Action learning employs a discipline to define a problem before considering solutions. "Action learning is a continuous process of learning and reflection, supported by colleagues, with an intention of getting things done. Through action learning individuals learn with and from each other by working on real problems and reflecting on their own experiences." [Action Learning, McGill and Beaty, 1992, A guide for professional, management and educational development]. Though a little too disciplined for my liking, action learning brings people with specific and different problems together and guides them through a collaborative process. Early in the process each person must first define their problem with assistance of the others, and defend their eventual definition before moving on to solution creation.
   My research for the last nine years has been focused on agile enterprise and agile manufacturing. Much of that has been done by analyzing business practices and processes that exhibit high adaptability, trying to understand how they do that. Because I am focused on the way things respond to unanticipated change, I look closely at the different types of change that systems can respond to effectively. The analysis procedure employs a discipline that asks "How does this system respond to changes of type X?", and "Specifically what changes must this system deal with of type X?" I call this Response Ability (Ra) analysis, and have found that eight different types of change are sufficient to provide a very comprehensive picture.
   Best practices described in terms of their steady state process characteristics do not in fact reflect the best part of best practices. In real life a process is subjected to uncertainties and often unexpected deviations from the ideal norm - such as supplier-caused surprises, resource outages, or large demand fluctuations. In addition to steady-state characteristics, the nature of operating dynamics and response capability must be understood as well.
   A sizable body of knowledge from hundreds of collaborative learning workshops has been developed about what makes things agile. Enough that now we can employ this knowledge to build new things or reengineer old things to be agile. But we don't walk up to a process design task with an agile solution in the pocket.
   We've learned that this same questioning discipline useful in analysis can define a set of acceptance criteria for a problem solution. This discovery came as a result of collaborative design workshops - where every participant had an answer, unfortunately all generally different. In searching for a process that could mediate among competing solutions without simply favoring the most articulate or most adamant argument, it became evident that the problem itself would self-select the best solution - if it were sufficiently understood. So we set about analyzing the problem to be solved in the same way we had previously analyzed agile solutions: looking for the operational dynamics.
   Basically this is a structured analysis activity defining the system's response requirements in terms of four categories of reactive change and four categories of proactive change. This is an important initial step as it creates an objective profile of the "problem" to be solved by the design - building an unbiased evaluation criteria for subsequent design solutions. It also provides a foundation of "assumptions" that guides later evolution when conditions affecting these assumptions change. In short, the Ra profile provides both the justification and the verification of the eventual system design - and does so in terms of the dynamics of the system's operating environment.

I now believe that Ra analysis is an effective way to define any problem, even if you are not focused on obtaining an agile solution. Other disciplines may be just as effective if they incorporate some structure that ensures a 360 degree consistent understanding. The important concepts here are to look at all aspects of a problem, not just those with the immediate alligator teeth, and to do so with some consistent framework that puts them in a common context. Ra analysis employs the context of response to change, and as a result has the added advantage of defining a problem in its operational dynamic context rather than its steady-state idealistic context. Many aspects of Ra analysis have been discussed here in these essays previously, and detailed procedural references exist in the library at
   Next year (2000) two unique 3-day collaborative conferences will take place in Taos, New Mexico, back-to-back. One will focus on the cultural-translation problems of agility, probing, for instance, how you interpret empowerment in a control culture differently from the interpretations in a competency, collaborative, or cultivative culture. The other will focus on problems of knowledge work and knowledge workers in the agile enterprise, looking, for instance, at how to get enough knowledge workers, and how to outsource knowledge work effectively and safely. Both will begin with a strawman Ra profile of the problem, and evolve this profile as the conference proceeds. Both will develop new understandings and new solutions as a result. Each will have some expert opinion speakers to seed the thinking, but they will not be offering solutions, instead, they will help us understand the problem. These will be collaborative conferences, with everyone involved in seeking new understandings of the problems and solutions. For those interested in participation, dates for these conferences will be set in the last quarter of 1999 and posted at

1999 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #055 - Originally Published 7/99 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

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From: "Sharon VanderKaay" Date: Sat, 31 Jul 1999
Rick, I am totally impressed by your essays. I can't believe I didn't discover them before! I've been a knowledge evangelist for four years--recently upgraded to knowledge junkie--I think this stuff is endlessly fascinating. My specialty is helping organizations converge working and learning. I heartily agree with just about everything you say--including the thought that action learning is a bit too rigid, nevertheless a good concept.

My only point of disagreement: My background is in architecture and design. As someone who has lived in the world of innovation and ambiguity for thirty years, I have an allergic reaction to any effort to divide human beings into types (such as the tests for learning and thinking styles). I know consultants love to do this, and it gives their audience a great sense of comfort, but when one person says there are 6 types of whatever, and another person says there are 7 types, it all seems silly and artificial to me. It's also inconsistent with complexity
theory. Or, maybe, there are two types of people in the world--ones that like to divide people into types, and ones that don't!

Do you receive Tom Petzinger's newsletter? It's available by going to He's just made a video which will change the world. I look forward to reading future essays, and I'll be telling everyone about your web site. Best regards, Sharon VanderKaay.

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From: (Rick Dove) Date: Sun, 1 Aug 1999
You raise an interesting subject, and one I think a lot about. Too bad -- now you'll hear about it.

"Typing", it appears, is a fundamental animal brain activity. To my knowledge plants are not known to do this in any learned way, but animals are born with the ability to classify visual images, auditory experiences, events, situations, and other stuff into discrete categories - most readily good, bad, and indifferent -- and the many sub-classes such as prey/predator, comfort/discomfort, family/non-family, etc. It helps us all, dog, fly, mouse, and man alike, to reach decisions about what to do next in an uncertain environment.

I think it was the phone company that popularized the concept that short term memory can work best with no more than seven things to remember. Then came the Boston Consulting Group ... who's focused research on management thinking revealed that the best comprehension is when no more than four things are in contrast (admittedly a subset of humanity). These discreet (and limited size) models appear to mirror underlying brain processes.

All of this is simply about modeling a real and continuous world into finite representations that can be examined, discussed, and abstracted with some discreet and reasonably common understanding. It appears to be more about communication than about internal understanding - though that is debatable.

In any event, I think good model builders/users don't really take them as absolutes. Guest columnist Bill Schneider built a 4-type cultural map for organizations, and is quick to point out that it is an indicator tool, not a comprehensive portrait of the company. Guest columnist Bob Wiele would be the first to say that his 6-thinking-styles model is just a digital tool in an analog world; and that the choice of modeling six contrasting styles is simply a matter of specific tool integrity. The source of Bob's model is Jerry Rhodes (Conceptual Toolmaking: Expert Systems of the Mind), who appears to think that he has mapped out a real and sufficient 25 different machine-language sub-routines in the human brain processor. Rhodes allows as how this thinking stuff is quite complex, and the units chosen to describe the thinking system could be separated into hundreds or thousands of distinct parts - but that models of this sort are too large to be "practically" useful tools. He has done a beautiful and useful piece of work by my take, but from reading his book I do sense that he believes it holds more "truth" than is there.

One of the models I use, the one which divides all of change into four reactive and four proactive types, is not reflective of any absolute truth; but it is a very useful structured-analysis tool to trigger people's thinking. I have had my share of frustrating debates about how to classify a specific change that seems to fit into more than one of those eight categories. When I've attempted to tell people it doesn't matter I, and the model, have lost credibility with many - many people want unequivocal models. Over the years I've come to understand that it does matter, because how you classify something tells you what you think is important about it - an additional level of personal knowledge (not truth).

I'm with you on the innovation and ambiguity part; but I've found that it is difficult to communicate in that language - unless you are singing to the choir, or are an extremely talented artist and can convey your thoughts with a painted picture, a symphony, or in stories the like of Shakespeare's -- and -- you are communicating with someone who can appreciate the nuance.

>Or, maybe, there are two types of people in the world--ones that like
>to divide people into types, and ones that don't!

The right-brain, left-brain model would seem to satisfy your statement here. The holistic vs the piece-wise thinker. I am a student of learning theory and cognitive science, principally because I'm trying to improve my abilities to communicate concepts to others, and to understand the workings of collaboration. I find the various learning-styles models useful to stimulate my own thinking about this undescribable stuff. I've taken quite a few of the various learning styles tests and never found my "true" self in the discrete categories and results, but on occasion I have learned something about myself. And I do find them useful to help others understand that everyone doesn't think alike, even if we can't tell you how they really think.

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From: "Sharon VanderKaay" Date: Mon, 2 Aug 1999
> You raise an interesting subject, and one I think a lot about. Too bad --now you'll hear about it.

Hey, it's a treat to encounter someone who at least questions the concept of "typing." I'm with you with regard to sizing up situations by type. Gary Klein does an admirable job of looking at this subject in "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions."

Where I really start to squirm is when "assessment tools" ask me hypothetical questions, or present statements out of context, e.g. "I believe people are basically trustworthy." I refuse to participate or be "scored" by these typing instruments. (I could never get a job in a corporation--although the biz press often says I might be an asset as a contrarian.)

Beyond specific context and people involved, how I approach situations depends on how much sleep I've had, the humidity, and how busy I am. I can't stand the thought of being categorized as a hunter-gatherer, a warrior princess, or an eagle. The most creative people I know--personally or historically--don't fit into types in my mind. ...........Sharon

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From:  (Fran Morton), Date: Fri, 7 Apr 2000
Gee, can I play too? Like both of you I've pondered this 'typing thing' a lot. As a change consultant, HR pro and musician (organ, harpsichord, singing) I've seen many situations where people live up (or down) to the type, just because it's been uttered by an expert. Ex: to a woman with a low contralto voice, "Your voice is in the tenor range, that's unnatural for a woman. Do these exercises to bring it up to a proper range for a woman." This woman didn't sing again for several years. Even then it took lots of coaxing to repair the damage done by an 'expert' who gave her a damaging 'expert typing'.

Now, with my consultant/HR hat on -- in my experience it is enormously difficult to get business people to listen to, and act on advice that smells ambiguous in any way. I'm frequently tempted to quote Robert Townsend on the iniquities of B-Schools that turn out people who can't see anything unless it's in a four-by-four graph with a payback under 18 months!

But what's a change consultant to do? We have to persuade businesses out of that 'comfort zone' (another consultant's term) if we're to make any progress at all toward our goal. I've come up with two (imperfect) ways to make it look less like I'm asking my clients to step off the edge of the world --
1) Change readiness exercise that identifies how they learn, and how stuck are they in the status quo. The instruments I use are from the Learning Architect from Lominger Associates. It's based on years of research by the Center for Creative Leadership.

2) I've used Myers Briggs with some success on the 'personal typing' side. It seems to me it minimizes Sharon's 'silly and artificial' complaint in that its best use, in my view, is as a beginning point to understanding why some actions, people, issues are harder/easier for a given individual to deal with than others.

In many cases, I use these two tools simply to create a framework where a client can permit her/himself to hear what my old Texas aunt used to refer to as "horse sense, honey".

I learned an important lesson about typing/naming/organizing from teaching long musical compositions to amateur choirs -- they need some easy organizing principle they can use to assess where they are in a complex task without discernable signposts. Their willingness to stay with me through the learning and assembling process depended upon their ability to answer the questions -- "Are we there, yet?" "How much further?", "How much have we done?" "How well are we doing?" The way I kept track of these same things was too complex to mean much to them. I boiled it all down to a mini-project plan. Part of break at each rehearsal was to update our progress on the plan. Like many of my clients, they were able to concentrate and perform the more complex task because they had a picture of it in a structure they could deal with easily.

So, I guess where I am on this issue now is --

1) With Sharon 100% if typing is used to (or results in) boxing, exclusion, artificially limiting

2) Firmly in the 'it can be useful' category provided it's used to promote focus, concentration and equip people to do collaborative learning, deal with the essentials.

Thanks again for your thoughts. Fran
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From: (Rick Dove) Date: Mon, 10 Apr 2000
Thanks for your comments Fran,  I appreciate your insights. I especially appreciate you comments on the choir's need for a mental road map when following you into an unknown and complex area. Related images....

1) The depth of helplessness conveyed by the back seat plaintive whine: "Are we there yet" (not a bad title for an essay on the subject).

2) Driving to a new place for the first time, not quite knowing how far away it is, navigating by a series of land marks (rather than a map), wondering if one was missed and how far to go looking for the next before assuming you passed it or got lost - somehow coming back on the same route seems a lot shorter than going there. The only thing cut out of the return trip is the anxiety of missing context.

3) I have found that some people must be led to a solution step by step, gaining a thorough understanding of each stepping stone before the next, and a thorough understanding of all the steps before they can visualize the destination, let alone accept it - while others must first understand where they will be going so that they can place each of the stepping stones in a framework of context. The second type can play chess (though they may not), the first can't grasp the game, though they may learn how to move the pieces.

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