The Gap Between the Size of Our Problems and the Narrowness of Our Thinking

We are in a race against growing ignorance and the forces that take advantage of it. Either we educate people to tolerate complexity or the forces of ignorance will overwhelm us.
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Power Point and the Afghan War

On Tuesday, April 27, 2010, a complex diagram appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It was the featured centerpiece of an article in which the U.S. command specifically blamed power point for unnecessarily complicating analyses of how to win the Afghan war. The basic complaint was that armed with power point, junior officers produced diagrams that were too complicated for senior officers to comprehend. General Stanley A. McChrystal, head of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, summed it up when he said, "When we understand this diagram, we'll have won the war." He was right, but for all the wrong reasons!

The particular power point slide that was the unrestrained object of General Stanley McChrystal's contempt attempted to portray as many of the overall cultural, drug, government corruption, and military factors that were involved in fighting and winning the war. Most important of all, it attempted to show as many of the interactions as possible that existed between the various factors. Indeed, this was the whole point behind the slide even if junior officers didn't necessarily understand any better what they were doing. Because they neither exist nor function in isolation, without seeing all of the factors and how they interact and reinforce one another positively as well as negatively, one cannot formulate effective strategies for fighting the war.

However, since they were neither educated nor rewarded to appreciate systems thinking, senior officers didn't understand that merely by assembling in one diagram as many of the factors as possible that affected the war, junior officers were attempting to show the true nature of the full mess that had to be managed.

Blaming power point for showing the complexities involved in fighting the Afghan war is equivalent to blaming the telescope for showing the detailed features of craters on the Moon that by definition cannot be seen by the naked eye alone. We should be praising our instruments for showing us the full and messy dimensions of reality, not blaming them.

We Are Confronted with Messes on Every Front of Our Existence

The late system's philosopher Russell Ackoff was the first--and to the best of our knowledge, the only person--to appropriate the term mess to stand for a system of problems that were not only constantly changing in direct and rapid response to one another, but were so highly intertwined such that they couldn't be separated either in principle or in actual fact, i.e., basic existence. In other words, the individual problems that constituted a mess didn't exist independently of one another or of the entire mess of which they were "parts." Individual problems couldn't even be defined, let alone solved, separately from one another. The notion of "individual problems" was thus more a figure of speech than it was a characteristic feature of reality. Indeed, the idea of separate, individual problems is so flawed that it is a complete and fundamental misrepresentation of reality.

Increasingly, on every front of our existence, from the environment to the global economy, health care, the fight against terrorism, etc., we are confronted with messes of ever greater and growing complexity. And yet, essentially none of our basic systems (educational, economic, public and private, etc.) have prepared, allowed, and rewarded people to cope with and to manage messes. As a consequence, the gap between the size of our problems and the narrowness of our thinking grows daily.

Enormous hurdles stand in the way of merely acknowledging the existence of messes, let alone in managing them. We not only have to face head on the tremendous emotional and political resistance that exists in our culture towards dealing with complexity, but we have to find ways of surmounting it.

First of all, the academic world is of little help. In fact, it is a big part of the problem (mess). It has not assisted either in accepting the existence of messes or in pioneering methods for their management. Despite all the talk about interdisciplinary cooperation, academics are still mainly rooted ("glued to" may be an even better term) in narrowly constituted disciplines. They think that by "digging deep" they are dealing with complexity. But most of the time, they are only pursuing extremely narrow agendas that are of interest only to other specialists.
Second, Western knowledge is deeply steeped in the search for simple solutions. But if a "problem" were simple enough such that a simple "solution" provided by a single discipline sufficed, then it wouldn't be a "problem" in the first place. (John Dewey's seminal book, The Quest for Certainty, could equally have been entitled The Quest for Simplicity.) It certainly wouldn't be a mess.

Third, most people are generally overwhelmed by complexity and hence yearn desperately for simple solutions. (So-called "reality TV programs" exist in large part to satisfy the insatiable need for seemingly simple emotional problems that can be solved in 30 minutes or less.) Instead of confronting problems that are broad, general, and interconnected with all the other problems that are parts of a mess, most people prefer to focus on narrowly defined exercises (e.g., x + 6 =11; find x) because they are emotionally far less demanding. But contrary to expectations, approaches that at first appear overly ambitious actually have a greater chance of managing messes; moreover, when they succeed, smaller and more detailed problems often simply disappear.

Fourth, the rise of conspiracy theorists of all kinds who seek their own special brand of simple solutions is especially disturbing. These are rooted in splitting the world sharply into various kinds of "good versus bad, if not 'evil,' guys." Binary thinking, i.e., thinking in terms of ones and zeros, may be necessary in creating integrated circuits, but not in creating integrated communities and approaches to problems.

Fifth, technology such as the Internet, which was supposed to usher in an age of unparalleled information and intelligence, has spawned an age of unparalleled misinformation and ignorance. Twitter may be one of the fastest, cheapest, and easiest ways of misinforming the greatest number of people and focusing the greatest amount of attention.

Sixth, the general ignorance of the American public and the unceasing and uncanny ability of the Republican Party to take advantage of it by proposing simple solutions to complex problems shows no signs of letting up. Indeed, the Republican Party shows no end to its ability to take complex problems completely out of context--for instance, blowing the deficits out of proportion--and in persuading large numbers of people to accept their definitions of "the problems."

Make no mistake about it. We are in a race against growing ignorance and the forces that take advantage of it. Either we educate people to tolerate complexity or the forces of ignorance will overwhelm us. Either we learn to manage messes or they will mismanage us!
Those individuals, organizations, and societies that learn to appreciate messes will have a decisive, competitive advantage over others.

Ian I. Mitroff is Professor Emeritus from USC. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. Murat Alpaslan is an Associate Professor at Cal State Northridge. Their latest book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Messes and Mega Crises. This piece is taken from a book in preparation, A Perfect Mess: Why Everything Is a Mess and How to Cope with It, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

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