an ideological dimension to finding problems

i had a conversation with a friend at work, during which i had a happy accident: i ended up verbalising an issue i feel powerfully about. and now, i’m capitalising on the serendipity with this post 😀

we were talking about problems. specifically, about being daunted by seeing problems with something established or considered authoritative. i’ve encountered many people who sense something is ‘off’ or that the authority/norm is unconvincing, but they seem to think they lack the right to challenge it or that since they can’t immediately think of a way to fix the problem, that they shouldn’t explore the problem further. and given all the bad press about finding problems with things, hardly anyone really aspires to be a problem framer, right?

this is my passionate defense in support of people who do spot and articulate problems. they are not merely cynics or uncooperative, disruptive elements. they perform a valuable service. here’s why i think so…

problem framing is an act of hope. a person who sees something that doesn’t measure up or who looks for flaws is not just being skeptical or negative. they are actually expressing a form of hope: a hope that things can be better, that they can actually be perfect or ideal some day. problem framing is a very necessary preliminary to problem solving. the problem framers are therefore contributing towards fixing things.

i’d even go a step further.

problem framing is an expression of engagement. in a world gone to the dogs, where we all sadly agree that people just don’t value life, or care any more about important things, your problem finder is being the opposite of apathetic: the problem finder is voluntarily investing the effort and mental dedication to test something and see where it’s not measuring up.

problem framing is an act of clarification, of seeing into a tangle and trying to pick out the various threads in it. problem framing, like any other form of analysis, can be creatively done and at varying levels of insight and clarity. it’s a skill: practice does make you better at it, as do imagination, non-compartmentalised thinking and expert knowledge. when we diss the problem framers, we’re stifling a life skill because it temporarily interrupts our hysterically insistent world view that things are fine. that stems from our laziness or disinclination to invest in the effort of working towards peace and happiness when our equilibrium is jarred in any way by acknowledging a problem. is that noble, nurturing, productive, wise or mature? yet this our default societal stance.

this could be because we’re a fast-paced world that likes instant gratification. having someone challenge the status quo means slowing down, possibly even stopping, and returning to starting points. understandably, that’s off-putting for a lot of us. but i think it’s important that we remind ourselves that the process and the means matter as much as the ends, sometimes, possibly even more than ends! we’re all products of an education and employment culture where knowing the answers is prized. being able to take tangible actions and take them quickly without slowing the group’s momentum is also naturally important when you’re constantly rushing.

enough of us have faced the fall-outs of this uninterrupted headlong rush to know that it sucks; that it’s not what makes us happy, satisfied or fulfilled. we want to slow down, but it’s difficult, and we’re not sure how exactly that works, so we just let the stream of humanity sweep us along with it like we’re in a bombay local. it’s especially scary for “good” students and employees to consider swimming against the stream: our identity and self-worth is built at least partially on the social recognition we’ve been awarded for knowing the answers, for focussing on what we can claim confidently than pondering over what we’re unsure of.

but here’s the thing. i don’t think we necessarily have to follow that association of ideas. i don’t think being the one to step out of the rush has to be equated with going against the group. problem solving, especially in the context of real-world complex problems that are worth solving, can be a socially responsible and collaborative process. one person frames an initial understanding, and then another comes along and builds on that. maybe a hundred iterations later, the problem framework is insightful and articulated enough that the next person who comes along has a glimmer of the solution. the skill set for problem framing isn’t different from the skill set needed for problem solving. and really, look back at our history… isn’t this more how we’ve evolved than by pretending at every point in time that we’ve got all the answers and there’s nothing more we need to strive towards?

i therefore think it makes sense to relax and tell ourselves:

  • there’s no rush. we’re never going to know everything. sometimes, what we know has to be revisited because things change.
  • it’s okay to be confused. you have to be thoroughly confused and saturated with the problem before you can start having insights into the solution.
  • it may take more than one person to find a part of the solution.
  • sometimes, there is no one correct answer. we just have to try out various ideas and subject them to rigorous scrutiny.
  • being able to evaluate the truth of a notion will take us closer to knowing “the truth”, the answer or the big picture more than hurriedly clutching at ideas with insular insistence.
  • unconsidered approval, even of the majority, means damn all. considered approval, even of a minority, is more meaningful.

eesh. i read that list and it seems so self-evident… and then the memory of how many times i’ve had to remind myself of those things surfaces!