Sunday, 8 December 2013

Kindness to problems

A couple of years ago, at the Lean Academy's Summit, Takashi Tanaka told me to be "kind to problems."

To this day, I'm not sure what exactly he had in mind, but it's been bugging me every since. How, indeed, do we treat problems?

Back when I was studying engineering (okay, still during the Cold War) my math teacher wanted us to find "pure" answers, reasonings that - elegantly - led all the way to "first" principles. He ranted against the new fashion of exploring math through number crunching simulations. Problems were interesting only inasmuch as they could be mathematized.

As a young man, I did systems dynamics simulations with, at the time iThink. It was exciting and interesting, but there never was any way to calibrate the simulation with real data (the data, wasn't good enough and the simulation…) No worries, I was told, the simulation in itself is a great heuristic that makes people think about complex dynamic problems. Making them think is valuable in itself. Never mind that the wonderful archetype of Tragedy of The Commons has never been found once in a natural situation. It remains insightful. Hmmm.

Now, Big Data offers the promise of being able to start representing who every individual behaves in a given situation. It's still very reductionist, but at the end of the day, it accepts that every event matters. It's too early to tell yet what kind of reasoning will emerge, but I'm convince that whatever it is it sure will be different.

I was trained to be unkind to problems - I was trained to force problems into existing frameworks and then jump to solutions. And, in doing so, I was trained to ignore people's unique experience and aggregate every story into one. No one describes this as beautifully as author Chimanda Adichie:

Being kind to problems, I now believe, is looking at as many instance of a typical problem as I can, as opposed to "solving" the problem mentally and searching for likely illustrations in real life. Being kind to problems mean being kind to people carrying the problem because their experience enriches the mosaic-like description of the problem. And, no matter how hard it is in practice, it, in the end, means being kinder to people with problems because how they experience things matters, regardless of how strange or distasteful their take on the situation feels.

I need to ask Takashi whether that's what he had in mind - but one thing for certain, being kind to problems means undoing a lifetime of conditioning of treating problems generically and seeking "ultra-solutions" before truly understanding what the problem really is, from the perspective of the various stakeholders.

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