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Comments: Approaches to problems

World Problems Project

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It is useful to review some of the ways in which individuals and organizations tend to approach problems. Russell Ackoff (1986), for example, suggests that there are four ways of treating problems: absolution, resolution, solution, and dissolution. To absolve a problem is to ignore it and hope it will go away or solve itself. To resolve a problem is to do something that yields an outcome that is good enough, that satisfies. To solve a problem is to do something that yields the best possible outcome, that optimizes. To dissolve a problem is to eliminate it by redesigning the system that has it. This note develops points raised earlier concerning Problem disguises and problem evasion.

1. "Key" or "Log-jam" approach: With this approach, the emphasis is on finding the "key" problem or focusing on it (once the assumption has been made that it has been found). The implication is that through the "key" problem a way forward can be opened. This conceptual dependence on the existence of a single factor or "handle", necessarily ignores other factors as irrelevant. It can perhaps be better illustrated by a "log-jam", as a complex of problems, in which appropriate strategy is the search by experts for the key logs which need to be moved in order to release the whole pile of logs to flow down-river. This mindset implies reliance on expert analysis and application of optimal force at a precise location. Any action on logs viewed as non-key is disparaged as irrelevant, if not counter-productive and dangerous.

2. Problem avoidance approach: With this approach, the way forward is not to focus on problems but on next steps, whether in terms of solutions, strategies or visions. Any focus on problems is considered disempowering. The assumption here is that the problems will tend to resolve themselves once appropriate actions are undertaken to implement visions of a desirable future. Focusing on problems exaggerates their importance and distorts thinking counter-productively.

3. Saviour approach: Some individuals or groups put themselves forward, or are put forward by their disciples, as providing the appropriate approach to problems. Whether religious or ideological, the emphasis is placed on associating with their belief system through which appropriate responses to problems emerge. Large advertisements may be placed in the international press encouraging people to subscribe to the approach, or appeals may be launched through other media. This process is favoured by certain religious groups and sects who see little hope through other methods.

4. "Concrete" approach: Especially following the failure of other kinds of initiatives, many individuals and groups favour dealing with problems on a case-by-case basis, avoiding general explanations, models and solutions. Conceiving of problems divorced from the concrete setting is considered inappropriate, especially when a focus on "poverty" in the abstract distracts attention from poverty in a particular community. There is even some question as to whether problems can be effectively approached by any other strategy.

5. Prerequisite explanation approach: Some individuals and groups require a satisfactory explanation, usually scientific, of the nature of a problem, before taking steps to deal with it. The assumption is that a problem must be fully understood before any useful action can be taken. Some bodies use this prerequisite, by the selection of appropriate experts, as a means of postponing action when "no proven link" has been demonstrated (eg air pollution and acid rain).

6. "Macro-mega" approach: Problems may be viewed as so vast and all-embracing that they are beyond the capacity for effective action by individuals or groups. The prerequisite for action thus becomes some form of consensus, usually unobtainable, amongst the disparate forces that govern society. This may also be used as an effective device for avoiding individual responsibility and as a way of "sweeping smaller problems under large carpets."

7. Mandate approach: Any individual or group with a specified responsibility can reject consideration of a new problem as not falling within a pre-defined mandate. Here the prerequisite is some form of mandate, which may be quite unobtainable in the case of a new, cross-sectoral problem that may fall within the concerns of all or none. Declaring that a problem is somebody else's responsibility is frequently used as a means for avoiding it.

8. "Allopathic physician" approach: Problems may be approached like diseases of the body. Symptoms then need to be noted in order to diagnose the underlying disease. Encouraged by the mindset of allopathic medicine and its many miraculous cures, specific remedies may then be envisaged, whether in the form of "drugs" or "surgery". Just as the physician has available hundreds (if not thousands) of drugs, an array of specific remedies can be envisaged to the many problems which may emerge. But just as with physicians, the number of such "drugs" is now so great that it is difficult, even for specialists, to keep up to date with the latest and best techniques, since many remedies of the past go out of fashion. The situation is exacerbated by consultants associated with particular schools of thought who, like pharmaceutical companies, distinguish themselves by advocating new remedies (if necessary misrepresenting their advantages and concealing their weaknesses) in order to outmanoeuvre their competitors. This approach favours the idea that to every specific problem there is a specific solution. It plays down the complementary idea that problems emerge within a context on which attention might more usefully be focused, as in homeopathic medicine. The allopathic approach may be used to avoid dealing with systemic problems.

9. Image approach: Where individuals and groups are primarily concerned with their own competitive advantage in a complex society, problems may be approached in terms of their image-building effect. In this situation the problem itself is only of importance as a vehicle which may advance or undermine the cause of those mandated to respond to it. Especially for politicians, problems may be acknowledged as important for only as long as they are a current political issue, particularly one receiving media coverage. In this case a positive image is a prerequisite for action.

10. Profiteering approach: Problems may approached only in terms of their profit-making potential. A problem becomes significant to the extent that goods or services can be sold in the process of remedying it. The stress is not on whether such products are an appropriate response to the problem but whether a market can be defined and developed that perceives this to be the case. In the worst cases this approach leads to sale of totally inappropriate, and even dangerous, goods -- or, worse still, to the provocation of problems for which solutions can be sold.

11. Doom-monger approach: Some groups and individuals benefit from viewing the accumulation of problems as leading to a catastrophic situation in the not too distant future. For some this is viewed as Nature's judgement on humanity, for others it is God's -- especially in the light of apocalyptic visions. According to the latter, such final catastrophes may be viewed quite optimistically as presaging the arrival of God's Kingdom on Earth.

12. Grass-roots approach: For some, problems can only be effectively understood at grass-roots level by the people. Grass-roots insight and resources are what is required to respond to the problem. The way forward is through trusting in and mobilizing the people -- or, better still, enabling them to organize themselves in response to the issues they consider relevant.

13. Technocratic expertise approach: Technocrats tend to hold the view that they have all the systems modelling skills necessary to identify and deal with problems. In this view, all that is hindering an appropriate response is the complex of irrelevant political issues which prevent the technocratic elites from marshalling and deploying the necessary resources as required. This approach is favoured by those who believe that there is a technical "fix" for every problem. It is also favoured by those scientists who hold that only the objectivity, rationality and intelligence of science is adequate to the task.

14. Elitist diplomacy approach: Those in power, or with access to the powerful, tend to hold the view that problems can best be approached by suitable negotiation amongst the power elites. Only they can decide what problems merit consideration and with what degree of urgency. Only they are in a position to design appropriate strategies to deal with them. Once an appropriate strategy has been determined, preferably behind closed doors, it can then be suitably packaged for media presentation to ensure political acceptability.

15. Multinational enterprise approach: Some within the multinational business community hold the view that only they have the necessary combination of resources to be able to manage the problems of the planet in all their complexity. Here the stress is placed on managerial expertise in dealing with a complex environment and forming the necessary coalitions of resources in response to a highly dynamic situation. In this view, the realism and experience of the business community in ensuring a viable economic and social environment is what is required.

16. Conspirator approach: Given the complexity of society and the inadequacies of most formal modes of action, some hold that the only effective approach to problems is through "behind the scenes" action by the like-minded. This allows for much more sophisticated and far-reaching strategies, especially in the light of esoteric or new paradigms. Problems can then be redefined within more creative contexts allowing for approaches which would otherwise be impossible, especially if they had to be explained to non-initiates.

17. Conspiracy approach: Problems may be viewed as resulting from the activities of secret coalitions of forces, which may or may not be acting in the interests of the planet as a whole, however they define their objectives. These may include cartels, secret societies, intelligence agencies, religious groups, financiers, or even extra-terrestrials or the agents of Satan. From this perspective, problems are merely symptoms of the actions of some conspiracy, and are deliberately provoked to achieve certain designed effects.

18. Empathy approach: Problems may be viewed according to whether they evoke an empathetic response or not, namely whether the individual or group can identify with those exposed to a problem. Problems which do not arouse empathy are considered meaningless or the responsibility of others.

19. Deviation-from-orthodoxy approach: Problems may be viewed as symptoms of deviation from some mode of behaviour or thinking prescribed by doctrine or dogma, whether ideological or religious. As such they constitute a form of infringement of taboos, which may indeed have been established by custom. In this approach the emphasis is on reforming the offender rather than dealing with the consequences of his action.

20. Divine intercession approach: The problems of the world may be viewed as quite beyond the capacity of humanity. The only viable approach may be considered some form of divine intervention to assist individuals or groups in their efforts. For those holding this view, prayer invoking such intercession may be perceived as the most appropriate response to problems.

21. Reorganization approach: Problems may be approached as resulting from defects in the organization of the bodies or programmes within whose mandates they ought to fall and which are expected to be able to contain or regulate any imbalances in the social or natural environments. Typically this results in shifts from centralization to decentralization, or from privatization to nationalization, in order to respond to problems more effectively. We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up in teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing and a wonderful method it can be for creating an illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization. (Petronius Arbiter, Roman Governor of Bithynia, who committed suicide in A.D. 65).

22. Problems as enemies: Whereas enemies have traditionally taken the form of opposing groups or individuals, increasingly humanity's enemies take the form of problems. There has been much learning concerning responses to enemies of the traditional kind. The question is whether this suggests any insights into understanding the challenge of problems and options for dealing with them, especially given the tendency to confuse the problems with those perceived as representing them. Traditional responses include:


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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