Ackoff Again: 4 Different Ways of Solving a Problem

The dead seagull represents a new problem introduced by a solution to another pr

In this 3rd and last blog on Ackoff and his ideas, I explore 4 kinds of problem solving. This blog is based on the article 'Treatment for Problems by Russel Ackoff'. The dead seagull symbolizes how a solution, insecticides killing pests, introduces a new problem: the death of their predataors.

Dr. Russel L. Ackoff describes problems as:

Problems are choice situations in which what is done makes a significant difference to those who make the choice.

Further more:

Problems consist of either opportunities (which potentially increase or create value) or threats (which potentially reduce or destroy value).

Problems can be treated in four different ways:

  1. Absolution.
  2. Resolution.
  3. Solution.
  4. Dissolution.

These 4 form a hierarchy, meaning that each is less effective, in general, than the one that follows it.

1. Absolution

Absolution means to ignore a problem and hope it will solve itself or go away of its own accord.

2. Resolution

Resolution, your 2nd problem solving option, means to employ behavior previously used in similar situations, adapted if necessary, so as to obtain an outcome that is good enough.

This approach to problems relies heavily on experience, trial and error, qualitative judgment, and so-called common sense. It is the approach to problems most commonly used by those who govern and those who manage public processes. Moreover, this approach has little lasting power because it deals with symptoms and short-term effects, but does not eliminate the cause of a problem.

3. Solution

Solution is the 3rd way to treat a problem. It means to discover or create behavior that yields the best, or approximately the best, possible outcome, one that "optimizes" the situation.

Problem solving usually involves research, often using experimentation, quantitative analysis, and uncommon sense.

Unfortunately, few problems, once solved, stay that way. Solutions deteriorate by causes like:

  • Changes in the environment.
  • Changing societal goals.
  • New information.

Moreover, solutions generally do not exist in isolation from other problems. Solutions obtained to problems isolated from the other problems with which they interact generally produce one or more new problems. These are often more serious and difficult to solve than the original problem.

Conclusion on Absolution, Resolution and Solution

Solving problems by absolution, resolution and solution generally do not change the structure or functions of the entity that uses them.

This implies that sooner or later they need to be fixed again.

4. Dissolution

Dissolution, the 4th way to treat a problem, means to redesign either the society that has the problem or its environment in such a way as to eliminate the problem or the conditions that caused it, thus enabling the society involved to do better in the future than the best it can do today.

The methodology used to do this is called System Thinking. System Thinking is not an easy way of thinking, but the rewards are well worth your trouble!

Paul Watzlawick and Solving Problems

Interestingly enough, and coincidence or not, Paul Watzlawick also defines 4 ways of solving problems:

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Give along with.
  3. Do exactly the opposite.
  4. Do something totally different (re-interpretation of the situation).

Watzlawick's choices of problem solving are developed completely separate from Ackoff's, and are quite alike. Perhaps this is a law of nature.

How do you solve problems? Are you aware of all your options? How is your long-term problem solving success?


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