When we say solved, what does it mean?

How many ways are there to solve a problem?  Any problem.

Well, … there is really only ONE way.

Well, it would be just  as in solving a mystery.


When we work at solving a ‘mystery’, we do not see the situation remain “mysterious”.  End of story.  We may have a sequel.  But that is another mystery to solve.  Not as in ‘solved’, comma, “To remain a mystery”, for the next person to resolve when he takes over “my chair”.

Now, that would not make sense, would it?

In the same vein, when we say we have solved or desire to solve a problem “in real life”, it should not come back again.  And I shall go on to be as bold as to say, ever.

Crime.  Drought.  Epidemics.  Substance Abuses.  Human-Wildlife Conflict.  Abject poverty.  Unemployment.  Productivity.  Gender Violence.  If we know or even believe intuitively that it could come back, then, honest be truth, we really have not “solved” it, in the first place.  So, we would need to say it is so.  May be an attempt to dabble in the game, or “we are testing the waters” or “scratching the surface” or even “just passing my time”.  But, of course, saying as such would not look as good on the CV.  So we don’t state the obvious.  That does not absolve us from our responsibilities as problem solution makers.

So what do we mean when we say to “solve” a problem?  Let us for now place the word within quotes, so that we may keep the interpretation loosely for now.


Fighting Fires1Most early forms of management within organizations were trained to “put out the fire” and to get good at it.  Quite easily terms we borrowed from the military.  And we amply rewarded the heroes for “saving the day”.  And they were promoted to management and bestowed by the higher-ups royals and decked with ranks and authority at their beck and call.  For the rest, it observed protocols, acts, bills, orders and ordinances.  Sounds familiar?

Most concepts of management as we know today, “came from man’s early experiences with running military organizations” – the first forms of organized systems in the world a stone’s throw away from our heydays gathering, hunting and finally farming.  As we formed settlements, tribes and government, the need to protect our lands became increasingly important.  Going to war and getting ourselves organized, was the first step of governance.


Spotting Fires1However, then, the more we became organized, the more we got better at spotting  problems, before they burst into flames.  And so, we developed a whole host of administrative posts to “deal with the problem on an on-going basis”.  Human Resource Management.  Technical Director. Operations Management.  Quality Assurance Management.  Work Improvement Teams.  Research & Development.  Training.  Seminars. Workshops. Public Relations.  Reward Systems.  Task Teams.  Consultant.

Then we began to realize even when we take a shot at the problem and not just their consequences, the problem did return.  Some of us even retired on the job so as to keep up the fight since the problem would not go away.  We had to keep fighting it.

Now, this stumped us.  It was looking like, as if “disrespecting authority”.  Or risk feeling dented or worse, treated as being part of  the opposition.  The authority says it would take care of the problem.  We therefore, sometimes, pretended as if it is not there.  Perhaps a new person, takes over the position and finds himself clearing the “mess” created by his predecessor.  In days of restructuring, merging, acquisitions, and reorganizations, or when we have the money to throw after the problem, it looks like the problem, disappears.  It was as if it was covered by a veil or a mask or swept under the carpet.  However, it did not stay that way for long and its ugly face, continue to rear up.  When we lift the carpet up, the problem is still there.  It did not go away.  After some time, it returns.  Again.  Much to our consternation.


Now, this got tiring.  Most, as management transitioned from government to private organizations, it realized that unless, we did something, continuing to shoot from the  at the problem, costs us dearly, that “ate  at  our margins” and faced possible wipeouts by our opposers, competitors, and sometimes even whole industries.  “What is causing the problem?” we asked.  So, we then began to hear of how we needed “to step back” and see the forest for the trees.  That spinned off a whole of host management concepts such as ask “The 5 Whys”, “Root Cause Analysis”, “Systems Analyses”, Fish Bone Analysis, Business Process Reengineering, Balanced Scorecard and Pareto who said, 80% of the problems are caused by 20% of the causes,

Cause of the Problem

We thought we hit the jackpot!

But the firemen heroes now glared at the whole situation in frustration.  On the one hand, it takes away the reason for which they had trained their whole lives for so as to “fight the enemy”.  They were good at spotting them and pulling them out and shooting them down.  Will now, this new management mumbo-jumbo not take away “my glory”.  They seemed to want to ask but again, afraid to do so.

On the other hand management, were upset, for having to ‘slow down’ to ‘look for causes’.  We needed to hit the road running, they would say.  That’s just like looking for the needle in a hay stack.  It could be anything?  Or anywhere.  How would we know for sure?  Let’s just stick to the “tried and the tested”.  They concluded.

So for now, how many “ways”, have you spotted so far to skin the cat?

There was:

  • Fire-fighting – dealing with the consequences of the problem
  • Problem Spotting and “solving”
  • Identifying the Causes

Did you notice these three?  Good for you!  Congratulations.  We just completed “Management 101” that is not taught in schools but experienced in life.


And what if we say, none of these, solves the problem?  Period.

Remember?  We said there is only one way.  If there are three ways, then it is not any of these, would?  These are part of a continuum.  It would be like, “the before”, “during” and “the after”.

So, none of these actually solves a problem.  That I would say makes a good reason for the evolution of management.

So what does a Systems Thinker mean, when he says “solve a problem”?

Here’s a no-brainer.  If the problem, keeps coming back, then, we no longer are looking at solving the problem.  But rather we would need to solve the reason (s) for their recurrence.

Here’s why it is a no-brainer.

If whatever is causing the recurrence of a problem, goes away, that would mean, no recurrence = no problem.

So, when we say to solve a problem, we would mean to say ‘we deal with the recurrence of the problem, learn to reverse and then diffuse it.

That is just it!

Now.  What would it take to make that happen?