How to Do Problem-Solving Right

3 minute read
Parrish is the entrepreneur and wisdom seeker behind Farnam Street and the host of The Knowledge Project Podcast, where he focuses on turning timeless insights into action. His new book is Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Results

They think that the reasons for something are immediately accessible to them, even if they have no clue.

No matter how complex or difficult, no problem results in an “I don’t know.”

They are the fragilista.

Frequently found wearing suits and spending a lot of time in meetings, they prefer to tinker with things they do not understand rather than doing nothing.

This isn’t my idea, it’s Nassim Taleb’s.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, he writes:

[The fragilista] defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent.

Fragilistas are naive rationalists.

They think that the reasons for things are, by default, accessible to them. They know the cause and effect of everything, or at least that’s what they think.

Because they mistake what they don’t know for the non-existent, they exhibit a strong — if mistaken — regard for the powers of reason.

They lack humility and respect for the first law of ecology: we can never do merely one thing.

Any action we take, and in this case inaction is a course of action, results in some unwanted consequences.

According to Taleb, the problem with the fragilista is that they “make you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects (are) potentially severe and invisible.

Fragilistas are everywhere.

They are the doctors who intervene too much in the body’s natural ability to heal, prescribing powerful medications with small benefit and possibly severe side effects.

There is the management fragilista who: (1) introduces a bureaucratic solution to what is really a people problem; (2) manages by best-seller; (3) seeks refuge in the false security of best-practices; (4) fails to come up with reasonable benchmarks for judging performance of solutions; (5) does everything and thus does nothing; etc.

There is the policy fragilista who feels that continuous interventions into the financial market are necessary for stability.

In Filters Against Folly, Garrett Hardin writes:

Whatever plan of action we adopt in our attempt to remake the world, our usual first step is to pin a laudatory label on what we are doing. We may call it development, cure, correction, improvement, help, or progress. We load untested conclusions onto ill-stated premises. But every intervention in an existing system is, for certain, only an intervention. We will make progress faster if we honestly call the changes “interventions” only, until an audit shows what we have actually done. Needless to say, such honesty will be resisted by most promoters of change.

The point isn’t to avoid risk or even intervention but rather to be humble about our knowledge, or lack of it.

To know when we should avoid small, immediate, and visible benefits that introduce the possibility for large (and possibly invisible) side effects. Less is more.

This isn’t foolproof but one possible way to counter the fragilista is to ensure rationale is explicitly (and publicly) stated up front.

When we mess with an existing (complex) system we’re intervening; we can never do merely one thing.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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