Why Do (some) Problems Defy, no, NOT Change?

Part I

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana, Sunday December 16, 2012 edition.

As individuals we face problems daily.  And, we do not doubt our ability to deal with them in our everyday life.

We see a traffic buildup on one side of the city.  We find another way to by-pass the traffic to reach the destination before the traffic does.  Until, of course, the by-pass itself begins to see a traffic buildup.  We would just keep finding another by-pass.  That’s the grind of our daily lives, is it not?  We are good at finding solutions.

As legislatures, managers and enforcers placed in positions, we bear the badge of authority and believe in the power of our word or of our hands and feet to make a difference to such problems.  We are measured for doling out corrections each time the problem surfaces.  We become effective at doing so.

And should we fail to do so, it looks like project implementation is not taking off or the officer or the function is not performing well.  The enemy is out there.  Or, we may sometimes, shrug them off as ‘things that are beyond our borders and therefore our control’.

However, sometimes, such confidence can pull wool over our heads that lead us to believe that we can deal even with the stubborn ones, in pretty much the same way.  We would say to ourselves, well, just work harder.  We will overcome it.

Stubborn problems are issues that despite efforts to manage or contain it, while at first they may look like they are relenting, the results are short-lived (two-to-three years).  And, then it comes back again, and it hits harder and faster, each time worse so than before.  But we are often not cognizant, that the hit is the consequence of stubborn problems.

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?
Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

A case example

For example, in our efforts to survive the arid climate conditions we are in, we fix the problem by having more of us engage in pastoral farming.  This works fine and continues to work well for some time.  Animals are happy.  Owners are happy to see animals thrive without much effort unlike the way crops do.  It feels to us that we have fixed the problem.  And when it does not, we believe that we have not worked hard enough, and so we say to ourselves, just push harder, all will be well.  That is, in the short run.

In the long run, it has another effect.  With time, such practices would lead to more livestock which in turn leads to an increased wiping out of the greens that would have otherwise fostered rainfall.  In some countries, this means it now only receives summer rainfall and at shorter spells.  It means, crops are harder to grow, and even less vegetation is happening or in some instances, there is a wipeout of vegetation or fosters only vegetation that thrives without water.  This causes climate conditions to become even more arid during the year.  The very conditions worsened from when we had started.

Still, we might attribute the causes of such effects as beyond our control, for example saying such effects are the consequences of global warming.  This now makes it easier for us to handle the cause.  We don’t do anything till the world does something.  More importantly, it absolves ourselves of the choices we have taken by our actions (and our livelihood) and their consequences.  Surely, our actions did not make all that much of a difference.  We believe.

But notice something else.  When droughts and eventually famines do strike, they wipe out the livestock and their numbers.

This is now, an attempt by “the system” to do a correction, as a way to help itself to recover from the onslaught of depleting vegetation.  The correction by the system is usually not as visible to us as the span between the consequences and the actions we took, happened at very different points in time.  We took the decision many years ago.  We see the consequence today.  We believe they are not related.  We dismiss the death of livestock, as just another event.  It is business as usual.

Can we see how our actions lead to conditions that lead us to choose the decisions we make and make the conditions worsen off?  Is it logical?  No, it is not.  As Peter Senge, the author would say, “the effects of our interventions over time are not obvious”.  But in the absence of “seeing it”, at best, we persist with the illogic.

We now have a stubborn problem in our hands.

I am sure we can think of lots of other examples of stubborn problems in your country.  Economic growth declines.  Lack of wage increases.  Divorce rates.  Rainfall levels and/or water tables (Nov/Dec 2012 series of this column).  New HIV/AIDs infection (coming in Jan 2013).  Unemployment (October 2012 series).  Inflation.  National school grades.  Performance in agriculture, manufacturing and retail sectors.  Lack of economic diversification.  Corruption.  Crime.  Economic strife.  Obesity.  Diabetes.  Road accidents.  Poaching.  Budget deficits.  Wars.  These are some, among others.

Firstly, the stubborn nature of such issues is usually not that easily visible at the onset, till we have had to face them for years on end, sometimes even decades.  It escapes our attention even for the best of us when tasked to manage them for the short-term (three-to-five years).

Where such problems exist, managing one time occurrences are easy.  Recurrences makes them tough to understand and exhausting to deal with,


To understand why such problems persist or resist our efforts to change their course, we need to first understand what causes their persistence.  Interestingly, why is it that despite an abundance of complex analytical tools, had they not allowed us to escape the illogic of the above situation?  To understand this, it helps to appreciate that there are two kinds of complexity.  Detail complexity and dynamic complexity.

Most organizations (and professions) are designed to deal with the first kind.  Detail complexity.  As it would be, when one “drills down”.  How many baskets did we sell last month?  What was our profit this year?  How many permits did we issue?  How many offenders did we incarcerate?

We are however, not quite as skilled and organized to deal with the second.  What causes sales or profits to keep falling despite our efforts to correct it?  Or why does crime keep rising despite our efforts to correct it?

But first, what does the word complexity mean here?  The dictionary says “it consists of related parts” (as in composites) or “complicated” (as in a complex problem).

But it is perhaps the Latin word “complexus” from which this word derives its meaning that sets it apart for us.  It says “embracing, interwoven”.

To see the interwoven nature of a problem, it would require our minds to “zoom out” from the problem.  However, our years of drilling our minds down to details, makes the experience of letting go of the problem enough to see its dynamic nature, a new and rather anxious moment for many of us.  It is understandable.

However, when we do not see the interwoven nature of these issues, it makes some of the most persistent issues of the day, well … remain stubborn.   Yet the solutions to some of our most pressing issues lie in learning to see and work with this interwoven nature.  There is no easy way out.  No shortcuts.  No magic pill.  Unfortunately.

First, let’s see what the interwoven nature of a problem could look like.


Let us use an example.

Let us take ourselves back to the year 2001.  9/11: The day when the two planes hit the World Trade Centre.  Notice what happened.  Overnight, airports around the world responded in exactly the same manner.  First stunned.  And then a mad scramble to ‘shore its security’.  Yes? Fifteen years later, the reactions have not changed.

Overnight, we saw passengers snake their way over two-hour waits to security screens.  No belt, shoe or stone were left unturned.  Do you remember those days?

A single passenger underwent several levels of security screenings.  A typical airport would have thousands of passengers passing through its doors in a single day.  In a month or in a year, we would say well, that was a lot of work!

We refer to such works as ‘Detail Complexity’.

Most professions, sophisticated tools of forecasting and business analysis and national performance management systems are designed to train their focus on details.  They are designed to handle the sort of complexity in which there are many variables.  As does, following a complex set of instructions to assemble a machine or taking inventory in a retail store.  But none of these situations is especially complex dynamically.

Systemic Thinking on the other hand, focusses its attention on ‘Dynamic Complexity’.

Let’s go back to the same context.

To find the dynamic complexity we start by asking, ‘Why did we do what we did’?  Why did we build those screens?

Well we say it was important to do so, so that we can ‘weed the terrorists out and fend the innocent’.

Who are the terrorists?  We think they come from the mountains and deserts deep within Asia from the other side of the world.

Yet, should we cross the oceans over to “the enemy”, and ask them the question, “Why did you do, what you did?” what do you think would be their answer?  “Well, they bombed and killed us on this side.  That’s why we bombed into the World Trade Centre.  Surprised?”

So what do you notice?

Each side can see a root cause.  A straight line.

View of the Western World:  Terrorist Actions —-> Threat to the Western World —-> Need to take actions.

View of the Middle-Eastern World:  Actions by the Western World —-> Threat to the Middle-Eastern World —-> Need to take actions.

But the two straight lines form a circle.

The same was of the story of the Cold War and the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR half a century ago and terrorized two generations of people across the world.  And before that World War II and before that World War I and before that European colonization and I am sure we can trace it all the way back right into the history of mankind.

The underlying structure that controlled our everyday actions and events have remained the same since time immemorial.

From our individual viewpoint, each side achieves its short-term goal.  Both sides respond to perceived threats.  But in the long term, their actions, create the opposite outcome, increased threat.  The long-term result of each side’s effort to be more secure, is heightened insecurity for all.

Does it make sense why the threat would keep coming back?

Some might add, well, the recurrence of these threats has been happening since biblical times.  If so, will ‘corrections’ carried out by one side acting against the other ever put a stop to the other side carrying out its corrections back at us?   We know, that will not stop the problem.  And continuing to fight ‘the other side’, only becomes very expensive.

But notice this dynamic complexity view only becomes clearer to see when we allow ourselves to zoom out of the hustle and bustle of managing the detail activities at the airports.

In ancient Chinese times and even now, lovers may give a knot as a token of their love.  The ‘true love knot’ and the ‘double happiness knot’ are given or used at weddings to express mutual love and growing old together in fidelity.  Knots connoted love and marriage in Chinese culture.  When we stand back and look at our lives, they take on the appearance of knots all knobbly, and inextricably interwoven.  But remember, that these knots are weaved using a single piece of string. It is not that difficult to follow the complexity when we stand back  far enough to make meaning of the interwoven nature together.

Chinese Knot
The Chinese Knot

The real leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity, not detail complexity.  Balancing market growth and capacity expansion is a dynamic problem.  Developing a profitable mix of price, product (or service) quality, design, and availability that make a strong market place is a dynamic problem.  Improving quality, lowering total costs, and satisfying customers in a sustainable way is a dynamic problem.  “Unfortunately, most ‘systems analyses’ focus on detail complexity not dynamic complexity.  Simulations with thousands of variables and complex arrays of details can actually distract us from seeing patterns and major interrelationships.  In fact, sadly, for most people ‘systems thinking’ means ‘fighting complexity with complexity,’ devising increasingly ‘complex’ problems.  In fact, this is the antithesis of real systems thinking.”—- Dr Peter Senge.

Once we understand complexity, it is simple! Sheila

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