How to Approach Problem Solving

Most of us, most of the time act as if all problems can be approached in the same way: break it down into component parts then apply standard remedies to each component. Do we really believe that is the best approach to all problems? Not if we have been around the block a few times with our eyes open.

Sometimes problem solving is easy. The problem is singular, well defined, fully understood with wide agreement on the most effective response. Here reductionist thinking and algorithms work well: if A, then B. For this type of problem, we can fruitfully decontextualize and mechanistically deconstruct the situation to efficiently arrive at an unambiguous perception of the straightforward problem with its prescribed solution. Access to memory is the only limiting factor to mastery. You don't even have to experience the situation yourself because the context doesn't matter. Marvel Comic's Dr. Strange reading all the magic spells in the library and immediately becoming a master magician.

The actual world is, thankfully, more interesting than comic books. Many problems are not simple: they don't occur one-at-a-time; not all issues are known and in many areas, there is a lot of disagreement if not direct contradiction across recognized procedures. Our task is to identify problem types accurately and approach them differently.
One useful way to sort problems is along two dimensions: how well do we really understand this issue and how much agreement is there about what to do about it? Simple problems are in the fourth quadrant: well understood clear-cut situations with high consensus on interventions. Recognize the symptoms; prescribe the remedy; obtain expected results. Every time. Clear the airway, supply oxygen, restart the heat, stop the bleeding.

When we don't fully comprehend the situation and there is no agreement about how to respond, we have a chaotic problem: the first quadrant. This occurs when we confront a new challenge previously undetected or newly emerged. HIV-AIDS in the 1970's was like that; H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola in 2014-16.

The most important response to chaotic problems is to recognize that they are exceptional; not fitting the expected patterns. This is hard because we see what we expect to see. The mind glosses over discrepancies and fills in the blanks to produce a normalized perception. The well-known U-Tube meme of the guy in the gorilla suit crossing a mall is an example: almost no one there or even watching the clip sees the gorilla because gorillas are not expected in malls. Magic, incidentally, works the same way by manipulating perception.

The correct approach to chaotic problems is to study them further in the hopes that patterns can be determined that look like a series of simple problems. This is the realm of focused research. Minds can be trained to notice small anomalies. The chaos around HIV-AIDS, H1N1 and Ebola eventually settled into a familiar infectious disease paradigm.

Problems in the other two quadrants present the most danger to the public. Quadrant 2 problems are not at all understood and yet there is consensus on interventions to be pursued. A lot of damage can be done in well-meaning ignorance. Quadrant 3 problems are understood well enough, but there is no agreement on appropriate action. Efficacious response requires levels of cooperation and coordination not well supported by current social structures.

We will return to these perilous problem types in subsequent posts.

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