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[ba-ohs-talk] Solving complex problems

Title: This is the email that I promised (threatened

This is the email that I promised (threatened?) earlier.


The closest we have to a technology of solving complex problems is that for developing complex systems. Unfortunately, its history is less than stellar.


When tackling a complex problem with a large socio-political component, there are some steps that make sense.


A concern throughout the problem solving effort is to prevent the discussion from polarizing, and to correct polarization when it does occur.

This really means trying to keep all the participants focused on the problem instead of creating problems with each other.


Toward this end, we need to begin with delineating the nature of the problem. Since there are socio-political components, this means attempting to determine all the concerns of all the stakeholders. Sometimes a part of the problem is just identifying all the stakeholders who should be having input.


Note that this is dramatically different from obtaining everyone’s view of how to solve the problem. Views of solutions may give a handle to the concerns, the proposed solutions are not requirements or constraints, and tends to promote the polarization that can stall fruitful discussion.


Let’s take a crack at some definitions.


Situation – the actual state of affairs. This has nearly been corrupted to mean “an undesirable state of affairs”, but I intend this in its emotionally neutral form. Note that statements of the situation are impacted by individual perception, amount of information, viewpoint, etc.

Here is an area where open discussion and large-scale participation can be extremely useful.


Problem – an undesirable state of affairs, a departure from the ideal scene, a situation that needs to be changed. This must e stated in terms of outcomes, not proposed solutions.


Proposal or Solution – some change in the existing situation that claims to be workable and to move the situation in the direction of meeting more of the concerns that cause the situation to be seen as a problem.


As the nature of the concerns becomes evident, the conflicts become clearer. It isn’t just that there are conflicts between people, but that their goals are at odds. This is an indication that some balancing is going to have to be done. Some concerns will change in priority as it becomes clear that the value of some outcomes is more valuable than others. When there are only a few groups involve, this results in negotiation to attempt to arrive at an acceptable set of compromises. When it works well, we evolve solutions that everyone can live with even if they aren’t exactly what anyone would have preferred. This approach has been successfully employed in conflict resolution at several levels. Gerald Weinberg describes some of these techniques in his books on General Systems Theory.


As the set of concerns develops, it reaches a point where we can attempt to design a solution that takes the requirements and constraints into account. Each proposed solution needs to be evaluated as to the extent to which it addresses each concern, and how the solution can be improved. Designing such solutions is not easy, but until we know what the requirements and constraints really are, starting polarized arguments over proposed solutions that were never designed, validated as workable, and reviewed for impact is counter productive.


There are system development technologies that attempt to do some of this that may serve as models.


We need tools that allow us to interact with each other, and to extract what we learn in the process. Keeping all players focused on solving the problem rather than focusing on conflicts with each other is the social component of the discussion.


We now come to the true bootstrapping challenge – advance the technology for solving complex problems, and then evolve sets of tools to help with whatever aspects of those advances we can see a way to augment.


If we can do that, we can build better tools to augment human ability based on what people need to collaborate on the solution of complex problems – the first complex problem is creating tools to augment human ability. Yes, I know that sounds recursive, and it is intended to be. Refining prototypes and uncovering new concerns in the process and then refining again is the essence of developing anything in an area which is as yet unknown.


This is the method of history – try something; if it helps, do more of it; if it doesn’t help; stop doing it or approach the issue in some other way. What we fail to do is analyze the data from these experiences systematically to discover successful ideas – the task is too big for the tools at hand.


So I return to the tool concept that I propose – tools must support individuals in augmenting their own abilities; they must allow that organized knowledge to be communicated, discussed, improved, argued for and against, etc; the tool must allow summarization of what has been learned so that it is possible for anyone new to the area to follow what has gone before with only enough discussion of ideas that didn’t make the cut so that it is clear what was rejected and why. This is the essence of education – I can learn calculus without having to read everything Newton wrote on the subject, or the endless debates that occurred during its formulation, but the entire history is available if needed.


We have many of the technical elements defined: addressability, 3-layer architecture, peer-to-peer communication, ways to structure the presentation of discussions even if the discussion themselves are not that well structured, etc. We also now have some prototypes of approaches to parts of the problem.


I think we need to go back to basics again and look at the concerns involved in the problem of augmenting human intellect in the light of what we have learned from our discussion and the construction and use of the prototype tools that we have in order to determine what new concerns need to be added and which concerns need better approaches.


One of the most profitable short-term things that can be done is to get the email list to reflect the purple number in the archive so that it is possible to link the email record to what has gone before. I know that this is being worked on. Many or maybe even most of the members of the list might never use this feature, but those of us who do will advance the research into the augmentation of human intellect just by our use of a tool which does a small part of what needs doing.




Garold (Gary) L. Johnson