www.forbes.com /sites/luisromero/2021/12/18/the-universal-solution-to-every-problem-already-exists/

The Universal Solution To Every Problem Already Exists

Luis E. Romero 10-13 minutes 12/18/2021
problem-solving, solution, systems thinking, light bulb

Light bulb

getty

The above title makes a big claim. The claim is true. But before laying out the arguments to support it, I need to set forth a concept of reality that, albeit a bit abstract, is logical, well-supported, and instrumental in understanding the idea of a universal solution. Please bear with me for a moment. This definition is no longer than a few sentences. Here we go:

Reality

Reality is, by design, the aggregate result of everything that happens, which is always subject to the laws of causality (i.e., action, reaction, and traction) within time and space. This makes reality a collection of agents (i.e., entities that take action) and phenomena (i.e., the actions themselves and their intended and unintended consequences). These agents and phenomena are interconnected because they affect each other. They are also dynamic because they change throughout time. And finally, they are cyclical because—in the absence of perfect learning—agents tend to repeat some of their actions, “good” and “bad,” sooner or later. Phew! I promise this definition is almost over. So, since real problems can only occur within the parameters of reality, we can unequivocally conclude that real problems are also interconnected, dynamic, and cyclical. And guess what; so are their solutions. Knowing this holds the key to solving every problem, at least in theory. And this is no small matter. 

Ok, the abstract definition of reality is over. What I hope comes across clearly is that reality is complex, and understanding how it works is critical to solving problems and achieving our goals. Many of humanity’s most brilliant minds have provided explanations of how reality works, including Einstein, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Ortega y Gasset, Jay W. Forrester, Edgar Morin, etc. One thing we can conclude from their work is that any approach based on systems thinking yields the best results. This is because reality is best modeled as a system.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is the capacity to break down reality into its fundamental components and describe the patterns of interaction among them. This is how we unveil reality’s interconnectedness, dynamism, and cyclicality, allowing for a balanced understanding of the whole and its comprising parts. This is crucial for the solution to any problem.

Many brilliant minds have applied systems thinking, formally and informally, for millennia. In doing so, they have solved important problems, and equally significant, they have discovered the existence of universal patterns in the way reality unfolds. From physics to economics, from biology to philosophy, from engineering to psychology, these patterns hold true for most, if not all, systems. However, in the world of academia, these patterns are often articulated in field-specific jargon, using words like entropy, feedback, dynamic equilibrium, control mechanism, individuation, etc. This creates a hurdle for the general public to access, understand, and use these universal patterns to solve their problems and achieve their goals.

Fortunately, someone took it upon himself to translate these patterns into everyday language while preserving their enlightening qualities. This person is Peter Senge, and his “translation”—as I call it—is the 11 Laws of Systems Thinking, presented in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline. 

Senge’s 11 Laws of Systems Thinking are a crystal-clear roadmap to describe how reality works, how problems arise and stick, and how people fail and succeed at solving them. By looking at a problem through the lens of the 11 Laws, it becomes almost impossible not to find a suitable solution. Plus, by keeping them in mind as mantras, we develop good observational skills, good judgment, a sense of opportunity, and a whole array of other skills that are critical to solving problems and attaining success. This is why I call the 11 Laws the universal solution to every problem.

The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking

Below are Senge’s 11 Laws of Systems Thinking with a brief explanation based on my experience as an entrepreneur, consultant, and researcher. I suggest that you read the 11 headings first in one sweep, and then dive in on those that seem more interesting to you. Hopefully, you will end up delving into all of them.

1) Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”

Today’s problems are always the result of past decisions, which, in turn, usually stem from trying to solve a previous problem. For example, today’s industrial food production helps feed millions who otherwise would go hungry. However, the use of preservatives, colorants, and nitrates in industrial food production poses unprecedented health hazards. This illustrates the fact that, since most solutions are not definitive, the key to continued success by solving future problems lies in our ability to reframe reality and change our behavior on a regular basis.

2) The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

Implementing long-lasting, significant change takes a lot of effort. This is because it always hinges on the people involved modifying their worldview. This requires inspiration and convincing rather than “pushing.” When someone recommends or imposes change on the way we do things without helping us understand and willfully accept the need thereof, most of us respond with resistance. Only when the necessary explanations and incentives are provided will we be open to changing our ways. This process most often takes time, so patience, commitment, and humility must be part of the equation.

3) Behavior will grow better before it grows worse.

In most cases, people create new problems unknowingly. This means that while we may be performing well at whatever we do, we may also be sowing the seeds of future problems unknowingly. So, when such spoiled seeds come to fruition, we are faced with an unexpected problem that seems to come out of thin air and contradict how well things were previously going.

(Laws #4, #5, and #6 are different takes on the difference between simplicity and simplism).

4) The easy way out usually leads back in.

Simplicity is very different from simplism. The former is the way of the expert, while the latter is the way of the incompetent. Simplicity results from conquering and resolving complexity, while simplism results from ignoring it or rejecting it. Therefore, simplicity leads to success, while simplism most often leads to failure.

5) The cure can be worse than the disease.

By being anxious and simplistic, we will most likely make decisions that will worsen the problem at hand. By implementing the wrong solutions today, tomorrow’s problems may dwarf those of today. This is a throwback to Law #1.

6) Faster is slower.

Simplism is the illusion of achieving simplicity without the proper understanding and hard work. So, by being simplistic, we believe we are moving forward faster when, in reality, we are just delaying the solution indefinitely.

7) Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

Most complex problems find their roots way back in the past and in some unsuspected part of the system. This makes it difficult to discover them. For example, a recurring migraine may find its cause in bad postural habits going on for years. Political instability in a given country may find its roots in slow, silent indoctrination that started decades ago. Whether we are dealing with a human body or the whole world, internal components affect each other across time and space in dynamic ways, making complexity the law of the land. Detailed observation and analysis are required to understand it properly.

8) Small changes can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

The same way a lever helps us move a heavy object, leverage helps us solve a complex problem. From a systemic point of view, leverage is the ability of just a few variables to produce a widespread impact within a system of many more variables. Such few variables are called leverage factors and, when understood and activated correctly, they can produce big results. For example, in some cases, one single change in someone’s posture may improve their digestion and rid them of migraines. Posture, in this case, would be a leverage factor. At any rate, the higher the complexity of the problem at hand, the deeper the leverage factors are buried underneath superficial patterns that may be very misleading.

9) You can have your cake and eat it too but not all at once.

You can put your cake in the fridge and save it for later. Yet, if you eat your cake now, it will no longer be in the fridge for a later feast. This is a perfect analogy for the use of money, time, and effort. If you purchase a car, the money you spent on it will no longer be available for investment in other initiatives. If you spend time on solving one problem, that same time cannot be used to solve another problem. The moral of this law is, of course, to think and act strategically—to prioritize.

10) Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

Fragmenting a big problem into smaller, more manageable ones is the first step in solving it. However, we need to consider how the solution to one of the small problems will affect the solution to all the others. We must not forget that small problems are always interconnected in ways that define big problems.

11) There is no blame.

If you realize there is a problem and refuse to participate in its solution, you will become an accomplice to the problem from that point forward—even if you did not cause it initially. If, in addition to refusing to participate in the solution, you choose to blame others as the ideal excuse not to get involved, the situation will certainly worsen. Further, if everyone chooses to behave in the same way, the problem will become chronic and cause systemic failure. The key to breaking this vicious cycle is to take responsibility for solving the problem, even if you did not cause it. This is the path of no blame. Yet this should never become a go-to excuse for those who cause problems to politic their way into making mistakes shamelessly while expecting others to pay for them. 

Application

All we need to add to the 11 Laws is integrity and courage. We need integrity in order to embrace the diagnosis of the problem honestly; and courage to implement the newfound solution, which always requires some degree of rethinking what we thought was correct.

Whenever we find ourselves stuck in a problem with no visible solution, it helps to ask ourselves which of the 11 Laws we are ignoring or willfully trying to break. The answer will bring a great deal of simplicity to what seemed unintelligible, helping us come up with at least one suitable solution. That is why I call the 11 Laws of Systems Thinking the universal solution to every problem.