“We frame problems in terms of solutions we know how to deliver”

About 500 years ago Nicolaus Copernicus wrote a paper that would have profound implications on our view of the world. Prior to Copernicus, mainstream society believed that the Earth was the centre of our solar system. Copernicus made a case that showed instead that the Sun was the centre of our solar system and that the Earth and other bodies rotated around it. His paper had staggering implications for society and for some time he resisted making his findings public for fear of scorn. His work remained deliberately low key for almost 30 years for this reason. Copernicus had information which did not fit the prevailing paradigm of society. Rather than change its patterns of thought to fit this new information, society’s tendency was to throw out the disruptive information. It took a lot of persistence, at the time of Copernicus, to overcome the momentum of legacy thinking.

Today the challenge has evolved. We live in an age that is rich with new ideas and a society that is quick to assimilate them. But an underlying blindness remains. It is a blindness that we acquire unconsciously in the process of becoming schooled into adulthood. More formally this schooling is conveyed in the form of various disciplines e.g. Business, Science, Humanities etc. The language through which we learn them contains within it a simple distortion. For example, if I take a hammer and strike a typical windowpane with it, it would seem obvious to conclude that the windowpane broke because I struck it with a hammer. The hammer and the force that I apply it with are the cause of the window pane breaking. I could construct a test to prove this hypothesis and strike the windowpane with a feather instead and it will likely remain intact. And so on. The evidence is strong. The problem here is with the word cause. It seems so innocuous and “because” of that, it taints our perception deeply. What we may not recognize in this example is the role of the windowpane itself.  The same experiment applied to a brick wall will yield a different result. When we forget the role of the windowpane we forget to consider a big part of the reality that we are interested in. What we initially see as a cause is but part of a richer situation. Even then there may be other factors more subtle that we do not see and account for. What we see is actually defined by what we expect, not vice versa. To quote Robert M. Pirsig  “Seeing is not believing. Believing is Seeing1.” The real problem here is that we are rarely taught to recognize this distortion and accommodate for it. Our disciplines are taught to us in a matter of fact way and we become conditioned towards a certain way of relating with the world, through these disciplines. We see anything outside of this way as a misfit or distortion. Like the citizens of the earth centred solar system we keep our patterns of thinking and throw out what we see. An Eskimo does not see ice in the same way that a city dweller might. Although ice remains ice, everything about it changes when our way of perceiving it changes. The problem is not outside of us.

In the context of business, this distortion can show up as interpersonal conflict, poor decision making, surprise outcomes, economic shocks to name but a few. It is not a problem of lack of information but narrowness of perception. These situations arise in good measure because we cannot see the situation fully for what it is, like the role of the proverbial windowpane in the earlier parable.  What we see is defined by the particular discipline one has been conditioned in, like operations or marketing or cost accounting etc. The disciplines are not problems in themselves. They can provide a diversity of perspective which is valuable in itself. The problem arises when we only see within the particular discipline and therefore cannot value what lies outside of it. We are conditioned to “frame problems in terms of the solutions we know how to deliver2.”  Not vice versa. This conditioned blindness is kept in place, in some measure, by our language. Listen to the conversation in corporate boardrooms, the classes in business schools or look at the headlines on Bloomberg, Reuters or other popular media and you will read “Wall street opens higher on earnings optimism”, “Stocks advance on profit outlook as gold rises” etc. Tomorrow the rationale and theories will have changed. They contain an unconscious acceptance that there is an explanation within our grasp, a cause that can be found and so we see what affirms this unconscious expectation. Taleb3 calls this kind of perception, confirmation bias. It’s what we don’t see that makes tomorrow’s headlines different, and this pattern we don’t recognize easily.

How do we transcend this conditioning? It cannot occur from within the practices that we are schooled in, like strategy, economics or leadership because the distortion in seeing is within their structure. A key step is to dis-identify with these disciplines. You are not an accountant, a lawyer or scientist etc. You have these skills but they are not you. They are tools in service of your interaction with the world. As a child you could use your hand to explore and understand your surroundings without having a concept of hand in mind. Said another way, when stuck with a problem, one should first look at the valuing system/discipline rather than the problem itself because the form of the problem is a function of the valuing system. There may be several valuing systems in play at the same time. The obvious one is the particular formal discipline through which one interrogates the situation. An operations expert was tasked with getting people to use staircases instead of escalators as a way of saving energy. He slowed down the escalators, had them shut-off when not in use and even placed barriers to prevent people with large objects, such as shopping trolleys, from getting onto them. Little changed as people found workarounds to these measures. A psychologist when tasked with the same problem focused instead on incentivising people to use the stairs. He painted them the colour of piano keys and installed a system to play a corresponding sound when stepped on. Droves of people chose the stairs. The operations expert neglected people’s valuing system and in fact stoked them, the psychologist got people to revalue the situation. This is not to say that all problems require psychological solutions. It is simply to make the point that when we look beyond our conditioned way of perceiving, novel solutions can be found.

The language distortion that is embedded within the tools that we are conditioned in is more subtle, yet perhaps more pernicious. It is a way of valuing that is beneath the rules of the discipline. This is the trap of being blinded by familiarity. For example: we widely accept that gravity causes the apple to fall from the tree. Credible scientists have confirmed this and we are taught it this way. We take the word “cause” for granted and use it loosely in our conversations. The reality is a far more complex situation then it seems on the surface. For starters apples were falling from trees long before we had any concept of gravity. We might have had other concepts then and believed them with equal vigour at the time. Gravity is a concept. We have chosen to define it in a certain way and superimposed this definition on reality. This is not a problem in itself because we need some framework to work with reality. The problem occurs when we mistake the map for the territory and disregard anything that does not fit the concept or, try to explain away the reality so that we can keep our concept intact. The problem occurs when we accept implicitly the cause that we have established in the language of a particular discipline. Progress cannot occur in this way. We can buy some time but eventually the concept is so far from an evolving reality, that whatever we build from it misleads us, resulting in shock outcomes. Then we re-evaluate our concepts. This is where the world of business is at present. The discipline is producing unexpected outcomes of severe consequence. It’s time to use the constructs of business with more caution. We need to listen to ourselves and others more closely and look for the implicit “causes” that we embed in our conversations and news headlines. Catch these “causes” and ask whether what you say and hear is really true. Perhaps a new perspective will start to arise and we can then start framing solutions in terms of the problems that we see.

  1. Pirsig, Robert (2011-11-30). Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (p. 68). Random House. Kindle Edition.
  2. Beck, Don and Cowan, Christopher (2006). Spiral Dynamics. (p. 22). Blackwell
  3. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness. Audio Edition