Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Differences that Matter (Part II): Mysteries and Puzzles


Problems can be categorized as mysteries or puzzles. The distinction is important because a puzzle, if framed correctly, has a clear question that demands an answer, and there is a solution, given sufficient time and data. Knowing if a problem is a mystery or a puzzle is important, as Malcolm Gladwell in What the Dog Saw, points out that solving a puzzle requires more information but having more information can confuse or even obfuscate in the case of solving a mystery. So often, when we encounter a mystery, we demand more data when what’s needed is more analyses and sound judgments.

This distinction also reminded me of a related pair of words: problem and predicament. Like the previous pair, we often confuse the two. A problem has solutions, predicaments don’t. Predicaments are situations that are difficult because we don’t have control over their key elements. At best, what we can do for predicaments is to mitigate these factors. The predicaments don’t go away, even if the responses to them are positive or successful. Yet we fail to determine if a situation is a problem or a predicament, where we blame people for not getting rid of predicaments as if they didn’t try enough.

Climate change, hopefully is a problem we can solve, but the fact that the sea level has risen considerably over the years, is a predicament we must respond to.

Are the financial struggles in sustaining an orchestra a problem? An orchestra is one of the most expensive form of entertainment which require a large number of highly trained musicians to practice, rehearse and perform together in a specialized facility. The ticket prices do not cover the expense. That’s a predicament.

We aren’t so good with predicaments, which may be why we pretend they are problems we can control and solve, and point to a scapegoat when the symptoms persist.

Photo: A tree house installation by Patrick Dougherty in North Carolina


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This entry was posted on December 24, 2015 by in books, Management and tagged , , , , , .
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