headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

October 2022

The Neighborhood of a Question

"Before you solve that problem, stop for a minute and think is it the right problem to solve?"

That's good advice as far as it goes, but let's stop for a minute and think about what's right with it, and in what ways it might fall short.

First, I notice the designation of "that problem." What makes it a problem? For whom is it a problem? Conversely, for whom is it a blessing?

Problem is a label that doesn't refer to an entity, but to the relationship between entities and an observer. This is an example of Michael Bolton's Relative Rule. Michael generalized from Jerry Weinberg's definition of quality, "Quality is value to some person," and formulated his rule as "For any abstract X, X is X to some person, at some time." In this case, a problem is a problem to some person at some time.

Next, I notice the phrase "the right problem." I get itchy whenever I hear someone talk about "the problem," "the solution," or "the" of any number of other abstract concepts. Which problem do you mean?

The definite article "the" suggests that there is only one problem, and that we (speaker and audience) both have the same understanding of what that is. Rarely are either of these two suggestions true. The first suggestion produces tunnel-vision, ignoring all other problems but the identified problem. The second suggestion leads us to believe that because we've given the same name to a concept, we share the same meaning. This obscures the degree of misalignment in our thinking.

If, instead, we use the indefinite article "a" then we're more likely to notice a family of problems, or that our starting problem is composed of many sub-problems, or both. This promotes thinking more holistically. It also promotes a more detailed description of what we perceive as a problem, since a simple name has already proven insufficient. That more detailed description might uncover some of the misalignment between our separate perceptions of what problems exist.

The word "right" suggests that there is a clear delineation between right and wrong. Such boolean thinking also blinds us to many possibilities. It is unlikely that there is any problem we'd like to solve at the expense of whatever collateral damage it may do to the blessings that we'd like to preserve.

Finally, there's the word "solve" which suggests a finality which is unlikely. Problems persist. Attempts to solve problems, especially direct attempts, often result in their morphing into a different shape.

Except perhaps for the most trivial of identified problems, problems don't exist as isolated phenomena. Instead, they are an attribute of the complex interactions of entities and relationships in our world. Our "identified problem" is likely similar to the "identified patient" that Virginia Satir mentioned with regard to family therapy. When working with an individual, she could help them make great progress on behavioral issues, but when they went back to the family system, the dynamics of that system brought back those issues. Without attempting to understand the system and make systemic changes, the identified patient could not be "cured." The same is true with identified problems. Meddling with a small part of that system while ignoring significant parts around it will often change the symptoms, while the systemic issues producing the identified problem remain.

John Ciardi said,

"A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of the idea."

Whatever we do with this particular identified problem, it's only a step toward the future that we're creating. If we take a short-sighted view, that future is unlikely to be the one we hope to create.

/signed/ George

P.S. Am I over-thinking this? People are not particularly precise with their language, and that's fine to a degree. But language also shapes our thoughts. In some cases, it limits the range of our thoughts. Or so it seems to me. What are your thoughts?

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