Solving the wrong problem precisely

“A problem well put is half solved.” Dewey, 1938

In 1998, Ian Mitroff adapted an article from his book Smart Thinking for Crazy Times, which dealt with preventing misdirected thinking, or the time, talent, and resource drains that result from solving the wrong problems. In all its brevity the article made a lot of sense to me, so I turned it into a concept map, which I will briefly describe in this post. The article was called Solving the Right Problems. In another article, Errors in systems approaches (Adams and Hester, 2012), my attention was caught by a table in which Ackoff (1974, 1999) summarizes the characteristics of two types of problem solving, those of the machine age and those of the systems age, roughly corresponding with linear and non-linear management, respectively. In this post I will combine Ackoff and Mitroff to show the essence and relevance of both, not only in politics but also in business.

Management fads         solving-wrong-problemMitroff’s main point is that management (or political leadership) is prone to fads, i.e. falls victim to the idea of management programs (e.g. Total Quality Management, reengineering, downsizing) as total cure-alls. These are not wrong per se, but as hyped ‘cure-alls’ they typically fail to address the right problems that are hidden in complex issues. Their continuation or adaptation should be subject to critical thinking and, most of all,  wisdom.

True competitive edge      Mitroff states the bottom line of systems thinking as follows: “Those who are adept at smart thinking know how to cut through complex issues, ask the right questions, and solve the right problems. The ability to spot the right problems, frame them correctly, and implement appropriate solutions to them is the true competitive edge that will separate the successful individuals, organizations, and societies [and worlds??] from the also-rans.”

Some good questions      According to Mitroff, some of the most basic questions facing all institutions, public and private, include:  What business(es) are we in? What business(es) should we be in? What is our mission? What should be our mission? Who are our prime customers? Who should our customers be? How will the outside world perceive our actions? Will others perceive the situation as we do? Are our products and services ethical? Clearly, these questions are geared somewhat to the business community. Similar questions can be generated using Churchman’s 12-category teleological model as used in Wicked Solutions. The insights and answers with regard to these twelve categories need to be in balance, i.e. systemic inquiring (and design) systems are themselves systemic, too. So, in Churchmannian terms, first nine categories are dealt with by asking: Who or what or how is or ought to be (1) the purpose; (2) the client/beneficiary; (3) the measures of success; (4) the decision-maker; (5) resources; (6) environment; (7) the designer; (8) implementation; (9) guarantor (of ultimate success)?

The wrong problem, precisely        Considered linearly (but watch out!), the problem-solving process has four distinct steps: (1) acknowledging a problem; (2) formulating the problem; (3) deriving the solution to the problem; and (4) implementing the solution.  Although all four steps of the process are crucial (Wicked Solutions makes you understand why), Mitroff thinks we ought to pay particul solving-wrong-problem-preciselyattention to the interactions between the second and the third steps. The bottom left cell covers the situation of solving the wrong problem precisely. It is the main concern of his book (and the article derived from it).

Muddled thinking types      Above fundamental management flaw results in muddled thinking, which blinds leadership to 5 basic types of error: (1) picking the wrong stakeholders (so: consider at least two stakeholders who can oppose one’s actions); (2) narrowing one’s options (so: produce at least two very different formulations of any key problem); (3) picking the wrong language of variables (so: as 2., but at least one in technical terms and one in human terms); (4) narrowing the boundaries/scope of a problem (so: broaden the scope of every key problem up to and just beyond one’s comfort zone); and (5) failing to think systemically (so: manage paradox or contradictions; in most cases, the interactions between important problems are more important than the problems separately; N.B. the novel ‘framing’ step in Wicked Solutions achieves that exactly and more, i.e. keeping problem and solution space as open as possible before defining either of them).


Rise of the systems age       Over the past 250 years or so we have witnessed the Scientific Revolution (part of the Age of Enlightenment), the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Great Inventions (automobile, aircraft, telephone, radio, light bulb), the Age of Infrastructure Systems, and finally the Age of System of Systems (transportation system, communication system, energy system). In the future all systems will be connected in a ‘smart’ way. For the time being it is a messy affair (just think of the agriculture-energy-transportation-industry-climate nexus, the financial systems, or the place of humanity in all that), but let’s call the ‘ideal’ world that of the Smart, Human and Natural Future or perhaps the Poietocene (Design Age) as I suggested earlier. According to above Ngram the systems age may have started around 1955 and is in full gear since 2000.

Machine-age vs. systems age       The transition from machine age to systems age may have occurred somewhere in the 1960s or 1970s. In 1974, Ackoff compared the two for a number of characteristics:machine-age-and-systems-age-thinking

In 2012, Adams and Hester suggested that “in addition to these characteristics […] a complex system can be differentiated from a simple system by the rich contextual environment.” In a way it is the context that turns complicated problems into complex, messy ones, also known as “wicked problems”, requiring a ‘teleological’, systems approach to be dealt with properly. After a rich career in operations research (OR), Ackoff stated that “managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.” The 6 characteristics translate well into the key terminology used in Wicked Solutions (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2016) , a workbook that guides users through the steps and stages of a systems approach that addresses their own wicked problem. Environment is one of twelve categories that form the core of the systems approach.

Muddled thinking and messes        Mitroff says about the five types of muddled thinking that they may be distinct in the sense that they are clearly identifiable, but they are not independent: they interact. In below concept map I have made an attempt to visualize this interdependence, using some of the characteristics of machine-age and muddled-or-systems-thinkingsystems-age thinking identified by Ackoff. Muddled thinking (the ‘green’ parts) limits the role of stakeholders, which directly or indirectly narrows the problem-solving options. It also adopts a machine model involving passive parts fitting neatly in a clearly-defined boundary, which suits a language of variables in terms of technical concepts. In contrast, systems thinking appreciates patterns among system parts and between system parts and the system (or rather ‘problematic situation’) as  a whole. Many of the key patterns can only be understood using human concepts. Different stakeholders have different, partial perspectives of the situation, requiring an inquiring system, which can only be provided  by the systems approach or something very similar. The boundary ‘separating’ the problem (or intervention design) from the environment is subject to debate. It is the only way to do justice to the dynamics of interaction and expand the problem-solving options and become truly smart and innovative.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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