Summary: The Art of Problem Solving

This is an ongoing summary of Russell L. Ackoff’s book, “The Art of Problem Solving”. Ackoff is one of the originators of systems thinking and a pioneer for problem-solving as a methodology and philosophy: both things I deeply love!

"OT" means "Own Thought", or comments I'd add along the way.

Creativity in society and education

Educators generally help managers develop competence, communicativeness, and (sometimes) concern for others.

Great managers make their own breaks by developing courage and creativity.

Creativity can be learned: we know this because it can be lost by children growing up. Jules Henry (1963) asks what would happen,

…if all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive…and so on.

Ackoff says the answer is clear: society would be radically transformed by the inquisitive generation thus produced. It won’t happen, because most affluent adults do not want to risk the loss of benefits they now enjoy.

OT: unless we train and place adults thus-minded, and piggyback a revolution off their goodwill! Adult education is likely to be a part of the puzzle.

Schools, in general, repress creativity by posing fake ‘problems’ with one ‘real’ answer: any attempts to answer differently, or dissolve the problem by attacking its assumptions, are punished.

OT: This mostly derives from the education system constraints of semi-automated exams producing with results legible by other systems, e.g. end-of-school exams for university, GPA for recruitment services, etc.

The key to growing creativity is methodically identifying self-imposed constraints, and deliberately removing them. While there are rules-of-thumb for doing this, they’re hard to articulate directly. It’s better to learn to intuit them, from studying lots of examples.

A general form for problems

Problem-solving involves both conceptualising the problem and resolving it to an outcome of at least satisfactory effectiveness.

Before starting the problem-solving process, decision makers must develop a concept of the problem: a model or representation. This concept has five components:

  1. The decision maker(s).
  2. The things a decision maker can control (controllable variables).
  3. The things a decision maker cannot control, but affect the outcome (uncontrolled variables/‘the problem environment’).
  4. Constraints on the possible values of controlled/uncontrolled variables.
  5. A minimum of 2 possible outcomes with different effectiveness.

Example: someone wants to buy a car.

  1. Decision maker: the car buyer.
  2. Controllable variables: the make/model, accessories, finance options.
  3. Uncontrolled variables: sales taxes, licensing costs.
  4. Constraints: a self-imposed spending limit, new cars only.
  5. Possible outcomes: a good car, a bad car, or many variants in between.

“Solving a problem” is selecting a course of action that produces the most effective outcome. Effectiveness is the product of efficiency and value.

The most effective course of action optimises. A “good enough” course of action satisfices.

The general form of a problem, therefore, is:

  Outcome value = f(controllable_variables, uncontrolled_variables)

Any definition of "problem" must involve choice between more or less effective outcomes.

Art, omnipotence, and growth

Ackoff means “art as in aesthetics (the pursuit of beauty)”, not the more common “art as in uncertain”.

Work nowadays is dominated by the “Puritan ethic”, which characterises it as an ascetic activity: necessary and necessarily unpleasant. Just as the fun has been taken out of work, there is little that is beautiful in education.

OT: this is because of the systematisation (i.e. splitting apart, artificialising) of power acquisition through formal curricula – when naturally, power acquisition is the result of natural, problem-oriented learning.

Ackoff argues that the one agreed human ideal is omnipotence: a desire for the ability to satisfy all other desires. When presented with a genie, the obvious course of action is to wish for infinite wishes. If one were omnipotent, they could fulfil all other ideals. Therefore, omnipotence is the ultimate aesthetic ideal, and so it’s morally imperative for us to ensure continuous and simultaneous progress of every person towards omnipotence.

The pursuit of omnipotence necessarily rejects everlasting stability (as in Plato’s Republic). And so, in the ideal state, man would not be problem-free, but would be capable of solving a continual flow of increasingly challenging problems.

OT: Which is exactly how we train makers.

The pursuit of omnipotence also rejects everlasting dissatisfaction and instability. Ackoff uses the “aesthetic function” – the iterative visions of a more desirable state produced by a balance between the creative and recreative in Art – to explain this.

OT: Balancing the creative and recreative in programming is important to us too.

Four things are required to progress every person towards omnipotence:

  1. Continuous increase in our grasp of knowledge, understanding, and truth. (Ancient Greece: The scientific pursuits)
  2. Continuous increase in availability and access to the means to 1). (Ancient Greece: The political-economic pursuits).
  3. Continuous reduction of conflict between mutually-exclusive satisfactions. (Ancient Greece: The ethical-moral pursuits).
  4. Continuously-improving visions of more desirable states. (Ancient Greece: The aesthetic pursuits).

Point 4) is the aesthetic function, and it must be beautiful: so as to encourage aspiration and commitment to the pursuit of its visions. Art provides this in two ways:

  1. Platonically. Art is creative: a destabilising stimulant.
  2. Aristotelianally. Art is recreative: a stabilising palliative.

Therefore, Art, being both creative and recreative, is the cure to its own ills. It provides both the satisfaction of pursuing goals and the satisfaction of attaining them. It produces an unwillingness to settle, but also the “pause which refreshes”, thus recreating the creator.

Therefore, adding creation (inspiration) and recreation (fun) to problem-solving puts art into it. Doing so reunites work, play, and learning, and thereby reunifies core components of what it is to be human.