Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Making problems disappear

Problem solving is the central activity of business and life. If we look at the behavioral training catalog/calender of any organization we are highly likely to find at least one course on problem solving. While I fully agree with the importance of developing problem solving skills, I feel that there are 'many levels of problems and problem solving' and that the traditional problem solving techniques/approaches are suitable for addressing only one type (level) of problems. These are problems that are resolved best by solving them (in the normal meaning of the word 'solving').

But there are some other problems (at a different level) that are resolved best not by solving them but by 'swamping them' (e.g. by putting them in the larger perspective of time, situation etc.), 'evaporating them' (e.g. by reducing the criticality/relevance) or even by 'making them disappear'.

This post deals with the third category(problems that are best resolved by making them disappear). While the details of this approach would require much longer/ more extensive treatment than what I plan to discuss here the essential idea is that this kind of problems are resolved by grappling/struggling with the problem unsuccessfully (over a significant period of time, somewhat similar to working on a Zen 'koan') and from that struggle developing/reaching a level of awareness which would make the problem disappear. Without getting into the details, let me tell a small story that illustrates this(although in a simplified manner).

While I was studying at XLRI for my MBA there was an elective on 'Management of Relationships(Applied Psychoanalysis)'. As part of that course we were given many case studies(actually these cases were highly sought after by those students who did not take that elective - because of the 'porn' value of psychoanalysis cases).

One of the case studies dealt with a woman who exhibited a 'strange' pattern of behavior. In some situations she behaved in a virtuous way and in some other situations she behaved in an immoral way. We were split into sub-groups and the task given to us was to make a presentation(in 45 minutes) on whether she was a 'Devi' (a goddess) or a 'Vesya' (a prostitute). Naturally, this kind of a discussion is unlikely to reach any conclusion - with some members arguing for one position and the others for the opposite position. While most of us were enjoying the discussion one of my friends (who was the most sincere and result oriented among us) was getting increasingly uneasy because we were nearing the time limit set by the professor while being nowhere near any consensus/agreement on the answer to the question posed to us. Finally he could take it no more and he said "OK, OK let us agree that she is 70% Devi and 30% Vesya". While there was some 'logical' merit in this solution' (i.e. if one were to analyze each of the incidents given in the case, one will find that in most of the incidents she behaved in a virtuous manner), in a way it completely missed the point. The 'real' purpose (though it was not stated explicitly) for giving us the case was not to solve it. The purpose was to develop our awareness of the paradoxical nature of the issue (and also to be aware of the tendency/compulsion of Indians to classify a woman either as a Devi or as a Vesya). So the solution was to grapple with the problem unsuccessfully and from that struggle develop/reach a level of awareness which would make the problem disappear.

Related Link : For further discussion on the topic, see here


Anonymous said...

dear prasad, i came to know about your blog thru "discussionleader" blog at Harvard Business Online. the stuff you have posted is excellent. i find this post awesome since it explains a problem-solving method ("make them disappear") that i could relate to immediately. i will explain briefly. i have had a difficult relationship with one of my higher-ups at work for quite some time. and like you said, i had been unsuccessfully trying to make sense of the situation that caused me a lot of anxiety. recently, i decided i must try to understand this person's motivation for behaving this way. so i realised that his behaviour was not merely an indication of his personal traits but was also deeply influenced by the work culture and in fact he was probably just conforming to it as there is a strong emphasis on groupthink especially at top management level. while that does not change his mindset towards me (i am pretty outspoken & a straight-shooter and mostly don't sugarcoat the truth), it enables me to reconcile his behaviour which i thought to be that of a bully till a short time ago. so i guess what you mean is that although the disruptive issue still remains, its perceived negative impact is mitigated thus enabling the person to think more rationally than before when probably his/her emotions had become overwhelming. and then the basic problem can be better solved. i would really like it if you were to reply to my comments.
also, could you please post on the other problem solving methods you know with real life examples.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much for the comment. Please see the post 'Of problems, paradoxes, koans and wisdom' for my response.