Russell Ackoff (1979) has one of the most compelling metaphors for complex problems I have encountered so far. He called them “messes”. How many times you heard, or have spoken the phrase “this project is a mess” yourself? I have countless times. That said, the word “mess” means many things to many people so it means not much at all without context. Ackoff defined it as follows:

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and chairs.”

The only real means to achieve a shared understanding of a problem is through dialogue. Unfortunately, in this day and age where hours are equated to cash and naïve simplicity reigns, time spend on understanding problems is viewed as time wasted.

“Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler” – Albert Einstein

Management demands action, not talk and collaborative analysis. Especially the kind of meetings that involves debate and discussion are seen as “just talk”. This is understandable considering the number of meaningless meetings most people experience, but I believe debate and discussion are necessary to create a shared understanding of a problem. I would not use the same time split as Einstein, but that is only because the problems I work on are not saving the world.

“Given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.” - Albert Einstein

The next time you’re in a meeting to address a problem, pay attention to how much time is spent discussing or understanding the problem vs. how much time is spent on solutions. If your experience is typical, perhaps a few minutes of an hour-long meeting about the problem will be spent understanding the problem.

When I started paying attention, I realized meeting after meeting that the problem would be briefly summarized and then people would spend a huge amount of energy brainstorming or fleshing out solutions.

“It's so much easier to suggest solutions when you don't know too much about the problem.” - Malcolm Forbes

So, what happens when we don’t understand the problem? When the problem is not well understood, “solutions” only create new problems. In fact, there’s no guarantee the solutions will address the problem at all. Conversely, the more we understand the problem, the more likely we understand the root cause and can create countermeasures so the problem won’t recur. Understanding the problem is the first step of any problem-solving. The second step is defining how you measure success. After all, you would like to know if your solution is actually solving the problem.

“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.” – Russell L. Ackoff