Dr. Russell Ackoff was an architect, system thinker, and philosopher who constantly studied human systems and human behavior. Although, one of the most fascinating systems of human behavior he examined was problem solving.
His overall mantra seemed to mimic the famous Albert Einstein quote:
Like Einstein, Ackoff thrived on creative thinking and would constantly shift boundaries to reframe problems, including the problem of problems and problem solving. How very meta of him.
He explained his thinking so beautifully, when he said, “a problem is to reality what an atom is to a table. People experience tables not atoms”. We experience the whole, and reality is a whole mess of problems interacting simultaneously. “Reality is a system of problems”.
So, if problems are just interacting concepts which create reality, the real question we should be asking ourselves is not how can we solve this problem? But, how can we change our reality?
Sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it?
Think of it this way. Ackoff described 4 different ways people can treat problems: absolution, problem resolution, problem solving, and dissolving a problem.
1. Absolution is the way we treat most problems, we ignore it and hope it will eventually go away.
2. Problem Resolution means we look into the past to find a resolution which is “good enough”.
3. Problem Solving is what we were taught in school. We were told this is the best thing you can do with a problem. We look for the “optimal solution”, the best thing to do in the current situation. This approach is research-based. But, no problem ever stays solved in a dynamic environment and every solution creates new problems, so it's a temporary and ineffective way to treat a problem.
4. Dissolving a Problem is the best way to create lasting change. We can only dissolve a problem through design. More specifically, "by redesigning the system that has it, so that the problem no longer exist".
As an architect, Ackoff received professional training in design and later obtained a profound understanding of how systems, problems, and design are beautifully connected. He explained that an architect designs the entire house first, and only changes the design of a single room if it makes the house better. He recognized that when we take a system apart and break it down, we cause it to lose all its essential properties. And in return, we lose our understanding of how that system works because we can no longer examine the interactions within it. We need context in order to adequately address problems, and context is found within its environment, its interactions, its system.