Problem setting as an art (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

When leading professionals write or speak about their own crisis of confidence, they tend to focus on the mismatch of traditional patterns of practice and knowledge to features of the practice situation – complexity, uncertainty, instability , uniqueness, and value conflict – of whose importance they are becoming increasingly aware.

Surely this is a laudable exercise in self-criticism. Nevertheless, there is something puzzling about the translation of wavering confidence in professional expertise into these particular accounts of the troubles of the professions. If it is true, for example, that social reality has shifted out from under the nineteenth-century division of labor, creating new zones of complexity and uncertainty, it is also true that practitioners in such fields as management and industrial technology do sometimes find ways to make sense of complexity and reduce uncertainty to manageable risk.

If it is true that there is an irreducible element of art in professional practice, it is also true that gifted engineers, teachers, scientists, architects, and managers sometimes display artistry in their day-to-day practice. If the art is not invariant, known, and teachable, it appears nonetheless, at least for some individuals, to be learnable.

If it is true that professional practice has at least as much to do with finding the problem as with solving the problem found, it is also true that problem setting is a recognized professional activity. Some physicians reveal skills in finding the problems of particular patients in ways that go beyond the conventional boundaries of medical diagnosis. Some engineers, policy analysts, and operations researchers have become skilled at reducing “messes” to manageable plans. For some administrators, the need to “find the right problem” has become a conscious principle of action.

And if it is true, finally, that there are conflicting views of professional practice, it is also true that some practitioners do manage to make a thoughtful choice, or even a partial synthesis, from the babble of voices in their professions.

Why, then, should leading professionals and educators find these phenomena so disturbing? Surely they are not unaware of the artful ways in which some practitioners deal competently with the indeterminacies and value conflicts of practice. It seems, rather, that they are disturbed because they have no satisfactory way of describing or accounting for the artful competence which practitioners sometimes reveal in what they do. They find it unsettling to be unable to make sense of these processes in terms of the model of professional knowledge which they have largely taken for granted. Complexity, instability, and uncertainty are not removed or resolved by applying specialized knowledge to well-defined tasks. If anything, the effective use of specialized knowledge depends on a prior restructuring of situations that are complex and uncertain. An artful practice of the unique case appears anomalous when professional competence is modelled in terms of application of established techniques to recurrent events. Problem setting has no place in a body of professional knowledge concerned exclusively with problem solving. The task of choosing among competing paradigms of practice is not amenable to professional expertise.

(Schön, 1995, p. 18f)

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Maddening complexity (Trout & Rivkin, 1998)

12 October 2010

Our general education and most management training teach us to deal with every variable, seek out every option, and analyze every angle. This leads to maddening complexity. And the most clever among us produce the most complex proposals and recommendations.

Jack Trout (1998, s. 6)