There’s in interesting essay in the most recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine on the importance of understanding whether you are working on a puzzle or a mystery written by Gregory Treverton, who is the Director of RAND’s Center for Global Risk and Security.
There’s a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler’s mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can’t find the right answer, you know it exists. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.
But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.
Puzzles may be more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries. Treating them as puzzles is like trying to solve the unsolvable—an impossible challenge. But approaching them as mysteries may make us more comfortable with the uncertainties of our age. [Risks and Riddles.]
Treverton’s essay focuses on the distinction in the context terrorism and law enforcement, but it is worth pondering more broadly. Most of our training and experience in organizations is focused on puzzle-solving skills. MBA programs focus on equipping their graduates with toolkits for solving a host of problems; once those problems have been appropriately identified and bounded. They offer far less guidance on the far more difficult task of framing issues in ways that can be addressed.
Absent good practices in framing issues, the temptation is always to force issues into puzzle structures that can be solved. Treverton offers an important reminder of the risks of forcing mysteries into puzzles.
Another helpful language system to employ here is Horst Rittel’s notion of “wicked problems.” Jeff Conklin, at the CogNexus Institute has some excellent materials to help get started down this path. Take a look at “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity” (PDF file) and “Issues as Elements of Information Systems” (PDF file) which is Rittel’s original paper on the topic. Conklin has also written an excellent book on the topic: Dialogue Mapping : Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems. Finally, there is an open source software tool, Compendium, available to support some of the techniques for framing and working on wicked problems that Conklin advocates.