Thursday, October 25, 2012

Solving unsolvable problems

Most news is about problems. Managers are dealing mostly with problems. Work is tiring. The world is tiring.
I found three viewpoints enriching. The first is to look at recurrent problems. The solution usually can be found in a system dynamics framework, Identifying the delays and the overreactions in the system.
The second is to look for persistent problems that continue whatever money, time and effort is spent. The Romans already knew what to look for: cui bono? Who benefits from the problem not been resolved?
The third is to look for historic success stories when whole societies took off and stayed successful for quite some time. The Roman republic is itself an interesting case, especially the time between 220 and 167 BC. The period to look for with the Netherlands is the decade 1588-1598. The creations of the early consulate in France, 1799-1803, survived the end of the Napoleonic era; many are still in place.

Here I want to discuss the issue of persistent, apparently unsolvable problems. So, who benefits? The most easy explanation, that pretty often hits the nail on the head, is that an unsolvable problem draws attention away from an other undesirable condition that has a whole group profiting. When attention and emotions are diverted, other muddy waters remain unexposed. It is the essence of stage magic: directing the attention of the audience away from what is really happening.

The obsessive attention of the McCarthy-area in the United States directed a lot of FBI-attention to suspected communists. The Maffia had a field day.
The obsessive - but quite natural - attention of the public with kidnappings and murders takes attention away from white-collar crime.
Government departments may knowingly include one very controversial item in their annual budgets, absorbing a lot of parliamentary attention, to have the rest of the budget more easily accepted.

We can also look into the internal dynamics of persistent problems. The first who benefit from such problems, are the groups whose raison d’ĂȘtre is that problem. Groups who point out environmental problems have a vested interest in not really solving the problems - or to find ever new ones.
Many individuals are married to their personal problems: they are getting a steady stream of attention and they have an excuse not to face their life and do something about it.

And think of the international problems of drug-use and drug related crime. Of course the producers of drugs have their vested interests. The War on Drugs ensures very large profits and many crime fighters earn a living from it. It makes drugs use risky and so interesting. Most people lead dull lives. Most of them do not actively engage in mayhem, but movies and games depicting sex and violence and horror have a captive market. So drug use may have the lure of the dangerous and the forbidden. Drugs are sexy.

So always ask when a problem remains in the spotlight: what remains in the (relative) shadow? The Greeks need to learn to behave more responsibly with public money. They sure do need that. But the banks also need that. And they, like the Greeks, learn only when it hurts long enough and bad enough. The financial problems are unsolvable because many people are doing whatever they can to avoid the solution. Shifting the burden: a well-known systems disease.

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