thinking about thinking

via NextD’s interview of Min Basadur and Jeff Conklin, is this response from Min Basadur to a question posed on ‘wicked problems’ and how to solve them.

Min Basadur: You are absolutely
right, GK, that there are others who have long studied wicked problems
or whatever subject of which wicked problems is a sub-set or vice
versa. For example, if you enter “creative problem solving” into a
Google search, you find 4,150,000 references. If you enter
“creativity,” you find 67,600,00; for “creative thinking,” you find
74,200,200; for ”problem solving,” you find 78,800,000; for
“complexity” you find 93,900,000, and you will find 1,060,000,000 for
“design.” Bottom line, there are numerous people and groups
independently studying this subject or subjects.

Because the subject is so ill-defined and jargon-laden, it is
virtually impossible for anyone or any of the various groups to corral
all of this thinking. The various thinkers in this field also have all
they can handle to push their concepts past other academics who are
engrossed in their own pet projects, most of which concern much better
defined fields of endeavor by the way.

I think what we are talking about is really the subject of “thinking
about thinking.” Most of education at every level up until recently has
focused on “content” – learning facts or what is known about a
particular subject, say biology. More recently, there has been an
emergence of interest in focusing on “process,” that is HOW we think
instead of WHAT we think.

Most people never “think about thinking.” Those who do usually
discover the subject just as Rittel and Webber apparently did: by
experiencing the real world and discovering that the people working in
a particular field with them are using thinking methods that fall way
short of what is required. They happened to be wrapped up in the
particular content of urban planning. I had the same experience when I
joined Procter and Gamble’s product development department after
completing my degree in Engineering Physics. When you join a large
successful organization as a young green person, you naturally assume
that everyone really knows what is to be done and your job is to learn
those things as quickly as possible. What you discover is that the
organization is really only a collection of individuals doing the best
that they can with what they have at the present time.

I ran into many excellent thinkers in my work, but was sometimes
frustrated in getting accomplished what I considered very simple
problem solving when I ran into what I later began to understand as
“linear thinking.” These thinkers were by and large excellent
engineers, but many had little interest in the “larger picture.” Their
interest lay more in analyzing and optimizing a small piece of the
picture and only that part that concerned their own “silo” (department
or sub-group). I began to sense only later that I was more of a
“horizontal thinker” in an organization where success had depended on
“vertical thinking,” i.e., executing a successful formula consistent
from the top down.

GK, this is what you termed moving from the specific to the general.
The only way I became interested in the subject of “thinking about
thinking” was by becoming AWARE of its existence and importance by my
discovery experiences. I later began to slowly realize and comprehend
that many outstanding colleagues at P&G had become successful by
executing the well-defined process they had learned and been trained in
for selling or marketing or manufacturing or R & D, etc. When they
ran into a totally different situation, such as managing entering into
an entirely new business, they sometimes failed because they had never
been in (or learned from) any important situations requiring what I
later began to understand as “strategic thinking.” That is, figuring
out WHAT needed to be done differently, not HOW to execute the old
formula that had worked well in past routine situations as they climbed
the ladder.

An expression that comes to mind is the “definition of basic
research.” “Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I
am doing.” To be an excellent, more complete thinker, that is to be
able to grapple with wicked problems, requires the ability to recognize
and be aware that that you may not know what you are doing before
running off and doing something (more often than not, a “wrong thing”).
Once I discovered that there were real gaps in the ability to think
among very smart people, I became excited about being able to make a
meaningful contribution to something important, and have made a career
out of attempting to simplify this fuzzy field. I have tried to build a
few simple frameworks to integrate the key unifying principles most of
the approaches and models all converge upon.

So here goes. In a nut shell, there are two kinds of problems:
simple and complex (wicked, if you like). The two co-exist in every
field of endeavor. Complex problems require substantial definition and
often across numerous dimensions. Simple problems need little or no
definition or redefinition. Some people try to explain this difference
by referring to and stereotyping specific fields of endeavor. For
example, engineering is often seen as preoccupied by responding to
well-defined problems with optimized solutions. This may be true in
many cases, but great engineers are often faced with much fuzzier tasks
and also have the ability to redefine even supposedly clear-cut given
situations for breakthrough advances.

Engineering work often requires the ability to manage complex
projects in uncharted or even unknown territory involving multiple
stakeholders; hidden challenges; fuzzy, incomplete, incorrect
information; and self serving interests to name a few. Scoping out a
new engineering project is one of the most complex and wicked problems
one will encounter. This challenge is very similar in nature to
challenges of trying to get issues of public policy, political
prioritization, urban planning, climate change, poverty, etc. even
mobilized, never mind resolved.

Real science is focused on understanding complex, unknown situations.
My colleagues and I call this the conceptualization portion of the
creative process (or the creative problem solving process, or the
innovation process, or the wicked problem solving process, etc.).
Einstein said that the real essence of science is the creative
formulation of problems and looking at them from new angles. Solving
problems already formulated was relatively easy, an exercise of mere
mathematical skill.I think it is a gross oversimplification to say one
field or another is more absorbed with complex or simple problems than
another. In addition to what I mentioned above, to say so would violate
the fundamental truth that complex problems tend to be
multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional. However, there are additional
gaps in our grasp of “thinking about thinking.” There is more to the
creative process than the conceptualizing and optimizing stages
discussed above.

Lovely read, go read the rest of the article. Its all frames and flash so sorry, no linklove. But it reminded me of my first exposure to de Bono’s theories on lateral thinking, back in NID’s library. There was a book, I recall it most clearly, on something called metamathematics. It opened my eyes. I ultimately dropped out two semesters later from the product design post graduate program after engineering. I do wonder if it was because I couldn’t bear to give up the rush of energy one gets in the brain when one solves a complex problem correctly? You just *know* its the right answer – think of Buckminster Fuller’s words – by this I mean, you can solve it mathematically after the fact by simply framing the problem correctly, then plugging in all the variables available to you based on the standard formula sheet for that area of focus.

Finance 101 as taught in B-school is a good example of this kind of conflation of what patterns you’re actually seeking in the ginormous pool of data available, every minute of every hour of every day today. I read in the news today that the biggest consumer of news today are other computers. Why do we exist?

Anyway, back to finance, a classmate of mine was having extremely difficulty in passing the class so I sat with her and realized her problem wasn’t understanding the financial concepts – she understood them way better than I did. Then how did I receive consistently higher grades in the class, she asked?

I asked her to show me step by step exactly how she approached solving each problem so that I could analyze where she stumbled in order to study the disparity in our invidual situations – her better at finance, but with lower marks that me.  It was a curiosity worth looking into.

What I discovered then, which made me exclaim, much to the entire class’s horror and delight, out loud,

"Oh no, Gretchen, the last thing you want to do on the finance exam is think!!"

Because you see, as basic problem solving theory taught to me by either my mom or my dad, must have been dad, its the fundamentals of algebraic problem solving – read the problem statement and identify all the variables for which the formula’s in that field of study apply. Put them down on the right hand side of the paper, for they will inform, which of the many formulas available for you to use on the formula sheet, you are to use to discover your path towards solving for the required answer.

Because she’d been taught in her "fuzzy math" generation of American schooling [wasn’t there a period in the eighties so for 5th to 7th graders?] to hold each variable in her head, she couldn’t keep them all in focus in her mind as she sought which formula to use. Whereas because I’d been taught to put them down on paper, I could "see" immediately what I needed to do as I matched them visually against the formula on the sheet in my hand.

So. Once you treat complex large scale systems design problems the same way…some are fuzzy and will always remain fuzzy due the complex nature of the human animal – this is human computer interaction. And some can be based on pure logic, because they are no more than one complex system meeting another.

Well, that’s a ramble. I don’t know enough to know what it means. oy.

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