Puzzles and Problems

By May 6, 2010Business

My colleagues in Ashridge Consulting are fond of contrasting ‘problems’ with ‘puzzles.’ Puzzles are tricky but solvable (like a crossword or Sudoku) whereas ‘problems’ are more intractable. This contrast resonates with Heifetz on adaptive challenges, which my colleague Chris Nichols explains as a distinction between the complicated (a puzzle) and the complex (a problem). For a leader, their role and approach should change depending on the nature of the situation they face, as should their strategic process.

Keith Grint has argued similarly, with his use of Rittell and Webber on tame and wicked problems, where the former might be construed as an easier version of a ‘puzzle’ while the latter require a leadership response similar to that of a ‘problem.’ My own metaphor for this classic distinction is perhaps a simplistic one. A labyrinth is complicated but uni-directional, while a maze is complex and full of dead-ends (so the Minotaur lived in a maze, really, or Theseus wouldn’t have needed Ariadne’s red thread). Optimistically, the maze analogy assumes that even complex problems are navigable if, in Heifetz’s terms, you ‘get on the balcony’ so you can see a way through (cf Einstein, and Watzlawick et al on second order change).

This argument has also been immortalised in the book Wittgenstein’s Poker. On the evening of 25 October, 1946, the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club convened in H3 at King’s College to discuss puzzles. Dominated by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the group considered that there were no such things as ‘problems,’ merely ‘puzzles’ created by the incorrect use of language and therefore solvable through ‘linguistic analysis.’ That night, Karl Popper was to argue that there remained some genuine ‘problems’ in philosophy that were not susceptible to being solved in this way. Apparently, within minutes of the two men meeting for the first time, Wittgenstein threatened Popper with a poker and stormed out. I think this original philosophical debate adds a useful gloss to its modern counterpart.

In an earlier blog entry I drew an analogy between philosophy and the lost property office, where the problems of philosophy are the items that lie on the shelves, unclaimed by other disciplines. The linking together of the managerial and philosophical debates on puzzles and problems suggests a parallel process. Like Grint, I think that a key task of leadership is to turn problems into puzzles, collecting them from the lost property office and delegating them to managers who can establish ‘standard operating procedures’ for their rapid resolution. And, like Heifetz, I would counsel against a category confusion between puzzles and problems, either in the mind of the leader or as a manipulative device to pander followers. But Wittgenstein’s obsession with language is salutary, and serves to save this debate from being written off as a rather arid intellectual conceit. Another colleague of mine, Hamish Scott, argues that strategy is essentially about Translation. A good leader is able to interpret the organisation’s intent to each level of the organisation, and to facilitate a sense-making cascade from top-to-bottom. The language of finance is also a key tool in explaining how an organisation works and how it is performing. And a further colleague of mine, Paul Davies, uses McKinsey’s classical strategy tools to show that attending to ‘the basic question’ and being ‘mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive’ about the terminology being used in the analysis is the only way to ensure a robust thinking process when confronted by the problematic. Perhaps in a global marketplace it is old-fashioned to obsess about precision in language, but in a world where management jargon is used less for precision than for obfuscation, I would like to see much more attention being paid to how leaders can improve their language and reasoning skills. Apart from anything else, it might bolster organisational trust. As Peter O’Toole tells the young emperor in The Last Emperor: ‘if you cannot say what you mean, you can never mean what you say.’

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