Reactive and proactive problem solving (idealized design), (Ackoff, 1978)

Many of our problems derive from a dissatisfaction with some aspect of our current state. For example, we do not like the way our car is working, how sales are going, the cost of materials, and so on. As noted above, many of our problem formulation are directed at getting rid of what we do not want. We tend to be moved more by our dislikes than our likes, more by our hates than our loves. The effort to get rid of what we do not want is reactive, retrospectively oriented problem solving. The effort to obtain what we want is proactive, prospectively oriented problem solving. In reactive problem solving we walk into the future facing the past – we move away from, rather than toward, something. This often results in unforseen consequences that are more distasteful than the deficiencies removed.

In proactive problem solving we specify where we want to go, and we try to get there. Although such an approach does not eliminate the possibility of overlooking relevant consequences of our solutions, it reduces the probability of doing so. The more ultimate the desired outcome we specify, the more likely we are to consider the intermediate and long-run consequences of our immediate actions. The more immediate the source of dissatisfaction we try to get rid of, the less likely we are to take account of relevant consequences. Therefore, the chances of overlooking relevant consequences are minimized when we formulate a problem in terms of approaching one or more ideals.

When we focus on the deficiencies of our current state, we tend to view each deficiency independently. Thus viewed, many deficiencies appear difficult to remove. Because focusing on an ideal reveals the relationships between different things that can be done in the future, it tends to make us deal simultaneously with sets of interacting threats and opportunities, to treat them as a whole, as a system of problems. The effort to deal with sets of interacting problems as a whole is what planning, in contrast to problem solving, should be about.

Planning implies not only dealing holistically with a number of interacting problems, but also doing so with a prospective orientation. Unfortunately, much of what is called planning is preoccupied with correcting a number of independently perceived deficiencies.

Proactive problem solving is always imbedded in a planning process. No problem is treated in isolation, but each problem is formulated as one of a set of interrelated problems that is treated as a whole. Proactive planning consists of designing a desirable future and finding ways of moving toward it as effectively as possible.

The design of a desirable future is best carried out when it is imbedded in an idealized redesign of whatever is being planned for – a nation, an agency, a business, a group, or an individual. Such a redesign is an explicit statement of what the designers would have now if they could have whatever they wanted. Such design should be subjected to only two constraints. First, the design should be technologically feasible. This does not preclude technological innovation; it is intended to prevent the process from becoming an exercise in science fiction. It would be permissible, for example, to include office-to-office color facsimile transmission or the use of helicopters for urban transportation because these are technologically feasible. However, one should not assume telepathic communications between home and office.

An other types of externally imposed constraint – for example, economic, political, and legal-should be disregarded.

The second constraint is that the thing or state designed should be  so designed that if it were brought into existence, it could survive. The design should be operationally viable.

In addition, of course, any design is unavoidably constrained by its designers’ lack of information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, not to mention imagination. Thus an idealized state of affairs should be one in which its designers would be capable of both learning from their experience in it and adapting to changes in themselves and their  environment. It follows that an ideal system or state should be flexible , and capable of being changed easily so that it can be improved continually.

An idealized design is not utopian precisely because it is capable of being improved. It is the best its designers can conceptualize now, but its design, unlike that of a utopia, is based on a recognition of the fact that no idealized design can remain ideal for long. Thus the product of an idealized design is not an ideal state or system, but an ideal-seeking state or system.

An idealized design is not utopian for another reason. Its designers’ need not pretend to have the final answers to all questions that can be I asked about the ideal. Where they do not have an answer, they should design into the state a capability of finding it. Such a design is never completed and is never absolute, final, or fixed. It is subject to continual revision in light of newly acquired information, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and imagination. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 26f)

The idealized design process unleashes creativity because it relaxes internally imposed constraints. It sanctions imaginative irreverence for things as they are and encourages exploration of areas previously precluded by self-imposed and culturally imposed taboos. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 28)

An individual’s concept of what is feasible is one of the principal self-imposed constraints on problem solving and planning. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 29)

A plan, which is a system of solutions to a system of problems, can be feasible even if none of its parts are feasible when considered separately. Solutions that are infeasible can interact separately to yield a feasible system of solutions. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 30)

When explicit agreement is reached on ultimate values, differences over shorter-range objectives and means are more easily resolved. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 31)

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