Category Archives: Problem Solving

Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems?: My response to the TED Discussion

This post is my (first) comment in response to the discussion “Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems?  The Discussion was started by Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief & Publisher, MIT’s Technology Review. 
He says:  

“I think that  blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

I ask:

I.  Who says we can’t solve big problems?  If I measured my child’s height, and then measured it again a week later, my friends would laugh at me if I complained to them that my child wasn’t growing.   Who’s to say what the appropriate time-constants for change are, in such a huge dynamical system as our World?  About a hundred years ago (only a hundred years!) the son of a President of the United States died because his blister became infected, and there were no antibiotics.  That our progress isn’t shared by all is indeed a tragedy, but there’ve been many huge problems solved in the past 100 years.

II. Who’s to say that we can choose which problems are solved first, and legislate when they must be solved?  That level of control over nature and mankind is indeed a very Western conceit. The “illusion of control” makes us impatient with all the small incremental steps we take as we slog through the swamp of reality, one step back for each one+ step forward.  cf. The Tao Teh Ching

III. Perhaps there are seeds of an answer in Pontin’s MIT Technology Review article “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems“?  I suggest looking at the 3 orthogonal dimensions: 1) Leadership, 2) Technology, and 3) Stakeholders.   The Technology is probably almost there, no?  The Stakeholders are extremely diverse, many perceiving that they’re involved in zero-sum games, hence hindering cooperation.  Finally, could it be that the Leadership is sorely lacking.  A Leader (or Leaders) must have the charismatic power and legitimacy (of a JFK) to craft and impart a Vision that can mobilize the stakeholders’ buy-in, and the economic and political power to galvanize the Technological machines of government, education, and industry.

Without vision, the people perish”    — Proverbs

From the above ruminations, I suggest that the issues are more a matter of Will, Leadership, and Sustainable Commitment to a Vision, rather than technology, education, or short-sighted venture capitalists.  We’re now in a period of technological consolidation.  With hindsight, you wouldn’t want to fault the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Warren Buffett when they were amassing their huge fortunes, that are now being directed to the betterment of mankind.

Share Button

A Humanistic Art of Thinking: Better

This post includes the October, 2012 response I submitted to the US “Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity” (IARPA) Request for Information (RFI),   IARPA-RFI-12-04 

The RFI was in support of “Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem Solving (SHARP)”

“A Humanistic Art of Thinking: Better”

Based on interviews I conducted with over 20 leaders of Modeling & Simulation, Systems Analysis, and Analytical Techniques for a number of multi-billion dollar Space and Defense Programs, it became clear to me, and to them, that there is a pressing need to re-evaluate and make explicit the common baseline of definitions, assumptions, methodologies & models, and analytical techniques for problem-solving.   This was true even for those very highly qualified upper level managers and subject matter experts (SME’s).

How people think is a very personal, often sensitive topic usually jealously guarded and shrouded in mystery, even to the individuals themselves. Nonetheless, there is a teachable Art of Thinking, as attested to by many books and essays throughout history. What distinguishes a great mind is beliefs, images, passions, attitudes, and habits of thought, with the willingness to consciously choose techniques that work, setting aside those that don’t, even if it forces them out of their “comfort zone”.

“The difference in the success of men, is the difference in their methods.”  — Ernest Dimnet in “The Art of Thinking”

Our suggestions are pragmatic, psychological, and pedagogical rather than scientific and technical. In defining what we suggest as the meta-system of interest, we consider the relationship of what’s often described as “hardware”, “software”, and “wetware” (the latter being the physical brain), plus the “Database” of relevant models, facts, relationships, tricks and techniques.  By “software” we include the programming within the conscious and unconscious mind. We also include in the meta-system the mentor, guide, or instructor who conveys (and ‘models’) that body of knowledge and practice in direct interaction with the students, possibly in a supportive community of learners.

We all have access to thousands of years of human experience, research, and analysis regarding how to think well.  Our premise is that although much of that is well-known to those of an academic, philosophical, or intellectual bent, it isn’t necessarily widely disseminated in usable, pragmatic form among “thinking-practitioners”.  The admonition that “when all else fails, read the manual” seems appropriate here.  The “low hanging fruit” in strengthening human problem solving is not (only) to focus on increasing potential raw intelligence (wetware), but in identifying the useful “manuals” for human reasoning, combining useful parts into a course syllabus and organized content, and with an appropriate ‘guide/mentor/instructor’ conveying that material in what’s as much a “training” as an “education” course.  In such a course, the students would have the opportunity to “model” the teacher’s thought-attitudes, methods, and processes. We suggest that the high-leverage, near-term achievable approach is to improve the brain’s “software” using a very humanistic, inter-personal classroom experience.

“The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”  — Goethe

Observation:  There is too much reliance on their high-intelligence among problem-solvers, and too much trying to prove how smart they are, rather than what we should be doing, which is trying to prove how well we deal with our own intellectual and emotional limitations. A basic premise here is that there are specific thinking and problem-solving knowledge and skills that can be learned, with a practical outcome of enhanced problem-solving in practice,  i.e. improving the “programming” and “software” of the mind, rather than increasing the power of the mind’s “wetware”.

“to be an inventor you need a good imagination, and a pile of junk”   — Thomas Edison  

(cf. our Mind Map of Problem-Solving Techniques and Methods)

The “guide/mentor/role-model/instructor/facilitator” must have the appropriate knowledge, personality, and sensitivity. This includes background knowledge of such topics as Meyers-Briggs Personality profiles, research into ‘styles of thinking’, and possibly possessing a very right-brain, humanistic approach to teaching . We suggest designing a course that includes much of the material in a number of “Art of Thinking” books, including Edward de Bono’s books, Socrates and Lao Tzu’s perspectives, and many others’.

Harrison and Bramson, in their Art of Thinking book, report that the ‘synthesist’ (dialectic) is the most rare style of thinking in the US.  Perhaps Western Culture, especially US culture, would benefit from emphasis on teaching dialectic/synthesis-styles of thinking as part of improved whole-brain thinking skill development. This is particularly relevant with the increasing importance of Asian Nations, whose cultural background arguably gives them a more right-brain, synthesist style of thinking.  (cf. the two Nisbett books referenced below)

The ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind and suspend them there without becoming confused, is the mark of a mature intelligence”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

To develop “habits of thinking” it’s not sufficient to just know this material intellectually or academically. The thinker must “own the process”, have a firm commitment to it. Be willing to get out of their comfort zone*, ‘slow down’, avoid premature closure, value the ‘process’ as much as the ‘solution’, try to NOT be the quickest, and consciously look for how to apply a large and diverse set of potential methods and tools, e.g. look for the Yin & Yang of each new situation.

“Many of the tools of thinking are simply attention-directing tools.”  — de Bono “Teach Your Child to Think

* “If you’re not out of your comfort zone you may be learning, but you’re not growing”  — ebr


1. “The Art of Thinking”

2. “Naval Operations Analysis” 3rd Edition (includes my materials on Measures of Effectiveness)

3. “Notes on Measures of Effectiveness” by E. Rockower, 1985.

4. “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn” by Richard W. Hamming, Gordon and Breach 1997

5. “Six Thinking Hats”  2nd Edition by Edward de Bono, Back Bay Books, 1999

6. “Teach your child How to Think”  by Edward de Bono, Penguin Books 1994

7. “Systems Thinking. Applied. A Primer” by Robert Edson, 2008;

8. “The memorable Thoughts of Socrates” by Xenophon

9. “Solitude: A Return to the Self” by Anthony Storr, Ballantine Books; 3rd edition (May 6, 1989)

10. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”. – Albert Einstein

11. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard Nisbett

12. Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count by Richard Nisbett

13. A “Mind Map” for An Art of Thinking, Better (cf. “a bag of tricks” for problem-solving)



Subscribe to my blog

Share Button

Concentration of Power: Focus, Lanchester, & Network Effect

Consider 3 models of Systems of individual entities  (think: people, computers, companies, Social Network Analysis, Network Theory, Dark Networks, … )

1)  In the Analysis I offered regarding Large Organizations becoming out of touch with reality, there was the tacit assumption that individuals ‘inside’ the organization were somewhat blocked from seeing and interacting with the outside world, possibly because of more internal demands on their time, lack of visibility to the outside, lack of empowerment to deal with the outside, and an illusion of being protected from the external world.

2) In the realm of the “Network Effect”, the tacit assumption is that the individuals are not limited in their interactions with the outside by their connections.  The focus is on the increased channels of communication, possibilities for collaboration, a flat organizational structure…  The additional noise, spam, distractions are not usually considered (although I will address that regarding the importance of boundaries, solitude, privacy)

3) Small or large organizations where there is a strong culture of entrepreneurship, individual responsibility and ownership.   Here survival is important, but the sense of urgency for innovation and growth is paramount.   In an ideal situation, the organization is relatively more ‘flat’ in terms of lack of hierarchy, fewer ladders to climb, and greater exposure to the environment.  There is no sense of a “zero sum game”.  This is very much what I experienced at PayPal in 2000 – 2001.   The company was mostly ‘surface’ (as compared to my ‘sphere’ analogy in a previous blog)… with little indication of an insulated ‘inside’ cut-off from the market.

Next, I’ll review the network effect paper I wrote in 2001 at PayPal, its relation to eBay and leveraging eBay’s Network Effect, Lanchester Theory of Markets, and concentration of power.   I concluded that the best expansion strategy to leverage the network effect, and concentration of effort, was to go after one region or market at a time.   Then one would more rapidly reach the ‘tipping point’ and develop an advantage that would be hard to lose.

Subscribe to my blog

Share Button