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The Art of Problem Finding

For the past month I’ve been studying the notion of wisdom, especially as seen in the elderly. I’ve learned that to a significant degree wisdom is about the kind of intelligence a person accesses, develops and uses. The intelligence of the truly wise goes far beyond the usual notions of decision making and IQ. For example, Patricia Arlin, in an illuminating study, focuses upon wisdom as the art of problem finding.What Arlin emphasizes is that problem finding is not just solving an actual, clear-cut problem. First, it’s discovering, envisaging, going into deeper questions that will lead you to the important problems. Once you’ve surfaced a number of problems, you’ve got a second questioning task: which of these problems is/are truly important?Years ago, Robert Merton, the American sociologist, interviewed a number of Nobel laureates about how they decided which problems are truly important. Merton said that the laureates he interviewed “uniformly express the strong conviction that what matters most in their work is a developing sense of taste, of judgment in seizing upon problems that are of fundamental importance.”One Nobel laureate cited the help his mentor gave him: “he led me to look for important things, whenever possible, rather than to work on endless detail or to work just to improve accuracy rather than making a basic new contribution.” These people were experts in problem finding.Known unknownsDefense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was a genius at problem finding. He inevitably dug into and questioned the “known unknowns” to find the really important problems. On many occasions his approach was spot-on, leading the department to resolve many of its important issues. Plenty of us rejected his overall political strategy, but Rumsfeld really understood how to locate the fundamental problems that the military faced.Rumsfeld understood that managers are always faced by more problems than they can possibly resolve. Indeed, when I left the non-profit arena and went into business for myself, I had a fast-growing pile of unanswered questions. So much so that I had to spend time trying to decide which problems to ignore and which to focus on. Strategically, I understood that ignoring some problems is not only necessary but wise. So the issue becomes how to determine what to focus on. But there’s still another limitation.Much of the time, we’re working within a closed system. Typically teams limit themselves to what they already know. Problems are identified and decisions are made on the basis of collective awareness. That awareness informs which ideas are taken forward. Although the closed system often works, it becomes self-fulfilling and ignores the known unknowns. Teams only find the problems within the closed system.When the White House released healthcare.gov, it should have planned to encounter issues which were previously unknown. It may have done that, but obviously its problem finding didn’t go deeply enough.  Their conversation should have been something like, “Okay, everything looks good and we addressed all the bugs we could find. But, let’s assume that we are going to run into issues once we go live with this. . ..” Smart techies understand that complex systems are filled with known unknowns. Problem finding at the granular level will require far more insightful questions, “deeper questions that will lead to the important problems.”Great scientists are great problem findersArlin’s questions about Nobel laureates intrigued me, leading to another question. Why does some scientific research lead to great breakthroughs and other research disappear? As the Nobel scientists indicated, it’s a matter of taste. Taste is a highly cultivated pattern of choice. In art, it’s about the human ability to judge what is beautiful, good and proper. Choosing problems on the basis of taste leads to the breakthrough questions.  Because of my wife’s death to Alzheimer’s complications, I’ve been staying abreast of Alzheimer’s research. The breakthroughs have come because of the tasteful quality of the scientific questions. Here, for example, is the roadmap to a cure laid out in question form by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.What are the genes that contribute to risk for or protection against Alzheimer’s disease?What previously known Alzheimer’s genes can teach us about Alzheimer’s disease pathology and identify the role of the newly identified genes?  Which existing drugs or novel chemical compounds most safely and effectively disrupt the Alzheimer’s pathology generated by the highest priority genes?Then, building upon these questions, facilitate clinical trials of the most effective drugs by partnering with biotech firms or pharmaceutical companies to hasten drug development and approval.Research scientists build their studies upon questions. My conversations with a leading research scientist clarified another related issue. Each of the above questions, he indicated, will contain many more questions. Questioning is in the scientist’s DNA. Now business will need to build questions into its DNA.In my business of executive coaching, taste is a matter of overall personal and strategic development. Clients coming to me usually have a sense of their need, but the problems they surface usually need to be refined. Is this a strategic problem? Does this problem impact fundamental issues? Development that is tasteful inevitably has education, experience and insight underneath it. But most of all, it has questions of significance under it. The Nobel laureate’s focus upon taste reminds me and, hopefully, those in other disciplines that we in business are being bombarded constantly by business buzzwords and new approaches. To assess them, we’re going to need to look beyond the sales hype. Questioning is more and more going to take over the answering that was so prolific within the 20th century.  Questioning is the principle of thought itself—of answers, remedies and solutions. It’s the central element of our reasoning and logic. Over the last century business answers have detached themselves from questions. But the information age and the complex problems we face are taking us right back to questions.
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Problem finding
For the past month I’ve been studying the notion of wisdom, especially as seen in the elderly. I’ve learned that to a significant degree wisdom is about the kind of intelligence a person accesses, develops and uses. The intelligence of the truly wise goes far beyond the usual notions of decision making and IQ. For example, Patricia Arlin, in an illuminating study, focuses upon wisdom as the art of problem finding.

What Arlin emphasizes is that problem finding is not just solving an actual, clear-cut problem. First, it’s discovering, envisaging, going into deeper questions that will lead you to the important problems. Once you’ve surfaced a number of problems, you’ve got a second questioning task: which of these problems is/are truly important?

Years ago, Robert Merton, the American sociologist, interviewed a number of Nobel laureates about how they decided which problems are truly important. Merton said that the laureates he interviewed “uniformly express the strong conviction that what matters most in their work is a developing sense of taste, of judgment in seizing upon problems that are of fundamental importance.”

One Nobel laureate cited the help his mentor gave him: “he led me to look for important things, whenever possible, rather than to work on endless detail or to work just to improve accuracy rather than making a basic new contribution.” These people were experts in problem finding.

Known unknowns
Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was a genius at problem finding. He inevitably dug into and questioned the “known unknowns” to find the really important problems. On many occasions his approach was spot-on, leading the department to resolve many of its important issues. Plenty of us rejected his overall political strategy, but Rumsfeld really understood how to locate the fundamental problems that the military faced.

Rumsfeld understood that managers are always faced by more problems than they can possibly resolve. Indeed, when I left the non-profit arena and went into business for myself, I had a fast-growing pile of unanswered questions. So much so that I had to spend time trying to decide which problems to ignore and which to focus on. Strategically, I understood that ignoring some problems is not only necessary but wise. So the issue becomes how to determine what to focus on. But there’s still another limitation.

Much of the time, we’re working within a closed system. Typically teams limit themselves to what they already know. Problems are identified and decisions are made on the basis of collective awareness. That awareness informs which ideas are taken forward. Although the closed system often works, it becomes self-fulfilling and ignores the known unknowns. Teams only find the problems within the closed system.

When the White House released healthcare.gov, it should have planned to encounter issues which were previously unknown. It may have done that, but obviously its problem finding didn’t go deeply enough.  Their conversation should have been something like, “Okay, everything looks good and we addressed all the bugs we could find. But, let’s assume that we are going to run into issues once we go live with this. . ..” Smart techies understand that complex systems are filled with known unknowns. Problem finding at the granular level will require far more insightful questions, “deeper questions that will lead to the important problems.”

Great scientists are great problem finders
Arlin’s questions about Nobel laureates intrigued me, leading to another question. Why does some scientific research lead to great breakthroughs and other research disappear? As the Nobel scientists indicated, it’s a matter of taste. Taste is a highly cultivated pattern of choice. In art, it’s about the human ability to judge what is beautiful, good and proper. Choosing problems on the basis of taste leads to the breakthrough questions.  

Because of my wife’s death to Alzheimer’s complications, I’ve been staying abreast of Alzheimer’s research. The breakthroughs have come because of the tasteful quality of the scientific questions. Here, for example, is the roadmap to a cure laid out in question form by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.

  • What are the genes that contribute to risk for or protection against Alzheimer’s disease?
  • What previously known Alzheimer’s genes can teach us about Alzheimer’s disease pathology and identify the role of the newly identified genes?  
  • Which existing drugs or novel chemical compounds most safely and effectively disrupt the Alzheimer’s pathology generated by the highest priority genes?
  • Then, building upon these questions, facilitate clinical trials of the most effective drugs by partnering with biotech firms or pharmaceutical companies to hasten drug development and approval.

Research scientists build their studies upon questions. My conversations with a leading research scientist clarified another related issue. Each of the above questions, he indicated, will contain many more questions. Questioning is in the scientist’s DNA. Now business will need to build questions into its DNA.

In my business of executive coaching, taste is a matter of overall personal and strategic development. Clients coming to me usually have a sense of their need, but the problems they surface usually need to be refined. Is this a strategic problem? Does this problem impact fundamental issues? Development that is tasteful inevitably has education, experience and insight underneath it. But most of all, it has questions of significance under it.

The Nobel laureate’s focus upon taste reminds me and, hopefully, those in other disciplines that we in business are being bombarded constantly by business buzzwords and new approaches. To assess them, we’re going to need to look beyond the sales hype. Questioning is more and more going to take over the answering that was so prolific within the 20th century.  

Questioning is the principle of thought itself—of answers, remedies and solutions. It’s the central element of our reasoning and logic. Over the last century business answers have detached themselves from questions. But the information age and the complex problems we face are taking us right back to questions.

0 Comments

Leave a reply

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