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Nine paradoxes of problem solving Alex Lowy H erbert Simon received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1978 for his work on the paradoxical nature of decision making. Coining the term ‘‘bounded rationality,’’ he observed that uncertainty is an inextricable part of the process, and that the only way to make decisions and be ‘‘rational’’ is to invent parts of the picture that don’t exist because they lie somewhere in the future or beyond our ability to calculate.[1] This hardly seems rational at all and yet, in practice, our ability to make decisions and solve problems depends upon our willingness to embrace this fundamental paradox, to abandon facts in order to be successfully factual. We all engage in paradoxical thinking when we solve tough problems, and the extent to which we do this only increases with the seriousness and complexity of the situations we face. This is not psycho-babble, decision avoidance or wild conjecture. Paradoxical thinking is built into the nature of human duality, made possible by all the various aspects of consciousness – mind-body, now-then, me-other, good-bad, right brain-left brain and myriad others. Learning to recognize the most frequent types of problem-solving paradoxes and their influence will save some frustration, and perhaps help you and other members of the management team do a better job of navigating your firm’s opportunities and challenges. The following nine paradoxes are encountered with surprising frequency in corporate decision making. Paradox #1 – using problems as shields–clinging to problems that protect us from facing even bigger problems Given enough time, most problems get solved, but there are some that stubbornly stick around, often reappearing in different guises. Surprisingly often persistent problems are used as shields to defend us from having to deal with things we fear. In these cases, we make symptoms, rather than causes, the target of our efforts, finding short-term relief at best, Paradoxical problem solving primer The power of paradox . A paradox is that most curious predicament where something is inextricably bound to its apparent opposite – it is both true and false at the same time. It either is or it appears to be contradictory. The power of paradox lies in its compelling nature and intuitive elegance (for example, strength lies in softness or the need to give up a goal to achieve it.) Identify a paradox in the decision making process and you are often describing something essential and fundamental. The connection to problem solving . Problems are not all of the same logical kind. One very meaningful difference is between those that are relatively straightforward and linear and those that are more complex. A common aspect of complex problems is that they often contain some form of paradox. By addressing the inherent paradox, complex problems are more understandable and solvable.
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