You Can’t Isolate Problems

Praising and justifying himself for his drive to emasculate the state’s trades unions, Wisconsin Governor Scott Brown said emphatically, “You identify the problem, then you identify the solution.” The unions were the problem, stripping them of their powers the solution. Nice and tidy, straight from the hip thinking. But the real problem here is that thinking itself, that method of confronting problems. It sees the problems as though they were just objects cluttering the ground and needing to be picked up.

But problems aren’t that simple. They have a context, a whole nexus of causes, and often further causes lying behind those. And when we do solve a problem, we don’t just fix something. We create a whole new context and a new chain of events that will reverberate as causes of other things. So problems can’t effectively be seen, nor solutions sought, in isolation. When this is done, the “solutions” often cause more problems than they were meant to solve.

In my work, I’ve called the isolationist approach to problem solving “Newtonian” because it is (largely unconsciously) modeled on the mechanistic thinking of Issac Newton. He conceived the world as made of separate atoms, each isolated in its own space and time and unaffected by its surroundings. Atoms might acquire a few “scratches” from bumping into other atoms, but these encounters didn’t change them in any essential way. Newtonian thinking made its way into the work of nearly every thinker in psychology, politics, economics, and management for the next 300 years. Subsequent leaders in these fields have taken it in with mother’s milk. And it has led to a lot of disastrous “solutions” in both problem solving and conflict resolution.

Wisconsin’s unions, for example, are part of the fabric of the state’s social and industrial life. They play a key role in their members’ lives. The current grievances of those members are embedded in the problems caused by the recession and in the longer-term sense of threat that working and middle class living standards and their associated aspirations, their place in “the American dream”, have been eroding for some time. They’re connected to the current panic about unemployment, and thus to the causes and implications of that. These union members are real people with real lives and multiple problems, and they are Wisconsins. When Governor Brown identifies them as the “problem” (as the “other”) to be “solved”, he ignores at his peril that whole rich and complex context of personal, social, and economic factors that has brought the unions into confrontation with his policies. And those (harsh and blinkered) policies (based on the Republican Party’s maniacal obsession with debt reduction over every other consideration) will create a whole new constellation of inter-connected problems and consequences. As Newton said, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

When I work with leaders, I urge them to adopt a more “quantum” approach to problem solving and conflict resolution. Quantum physics, which has replaced Newtonian physics as the most accurate description of reality, tells us that nothing in the universe exists in isolation, that there is no such thing as separation. Everything that exists is “entangled” with everything else, entangled to such a deep extent that a quantum “bit’s” inner nature is defined by its context. Put it into a different context and you have a different thing. What’s more, problems aren’t just “out there”, objects to be manipulated. We’re always part of the problem and we will be part of the chosen solution. The quantum scientist knows that he makes the very reality that he observes, that the questions he asks determine the answers that he gets. If he asks different questions (makes different measurements), he’ll get different answers.

Governor Brown could use a good lesson in quantum leadership.