Whether I was preparing material to teach University students, providing training for teams, assessing a significant issue for a client, or just making sense of the world around me, I have continually encountered the same circumstances: even if The Problem is comprehensively understood, the implemented solution is not sufficient to transform the situation, or action is only taken to address one aspect of The Problem, resulting in insufficient change to significantly improve the situation.
For years, I couldn’t reach a satisfactory conclusion about why so many problems are not comprehensively understood, and why so many implemented solutions are, at best, half measures.
Like so many things over the previous year, the answer has become clearer after studying Strategic Communication.
As a Security Studies and Complex Problem Solving lecturer and analyst, I was expected to get to the heart of any matter and to identify the root causes and effects of any situation. I was encouraged to strip as many layers away as was necessary to identify a definite relationship between cause and effect, and to explain all of the steps and stages between what we experience at the end of a process and how it started.
Ironically, after doing a lot of work to provide a clear, cohesive, and expansive assessment, the final stage of my work has always involved reducing the size and scope of my analysis and recommendations to fit available time and resource limits. Being able to create a clear and concise summary of a complex issue is a very important and satisfying skill, which I have been praised for throughout my career. However, even after delivering the concise and lucid assessment that I was asked to provide, I have frequently been perplexed when people still don’t appear to understand The Problem and don’t take a sufficient level of action to markedly improve the situation.
I know that the vast majority of people aren’t stupid and that a majority of people aren’t lazy. From a Strategic Culture perspective, I know that why a person is selected, how they are trained, and under what circumstances they are promoted has a very significant impact on how they will assess information and implement decisions. I have watched people become overwhelmed by complexity, multi-tasking, and unclear priorities, and have trained them to overcome all three things. Nonetheless, I have still found myself baffled by the decisions and actions that people regularly take to solve problems.
After all of this, studying Strategic Communication exposed me to the importance of understanding and appreciating an audience’s position, which has changed my perspective on assessing problems. Consequently, I have undergone a paradigm shift in how I assess and present solutions to problems.
I used to believe my job was to critically assess an issue and then to provide an objective report to an audience. The Problem was there to be investigated in a critical and objective manner, and I assumed that the audience would respond to my assessment from a critical and objective perspective. All of us in the complex problem solving space have, to some extent, internalised the Enlightenment ideals of reasoned analysis and rational thought, but reason only explains half of what is going on when people assess a problem.
From a Strategic Communications’ perspective, a problem is not something that people only experience objectively, or only analyse critically: it is something that causes them discomfort, which they want to overcome.
People interpret situations in a unique way, based on their own experience and perspective, which means that, more often than not, how they understand a problem is personal rather than objective. Consequently, The Problem is not the same as A Person’s Problem. While A Person’s Problem is immediate, visceral, and local, The Problem is normally ongoing, abstract, and distant. A Person’s Problem represents a specific aspect of The Problem, but The Problem is larger, more complex, and more diverse than any individual is likely to personally experience.
For example, The Problem is climate change, but A Person’s Problem could be experienced as rising sea level on a small island, or multi-year drought on a family farm in the Australian bush. While one person might be struggling to afford their electricity bill during summer in Adelaide, someone else wants to know which solar energy and battery system they should purchase for their home, so they don’t feel bad about running their air-conditioner all summer.
As another example, Australia has a housing affordability crisis, which is experienced differently by individual Australians: some people can’t get enough part-time hours to pay their rent, some people can’t move from contract work to the security of full-time employment to get a mortgage, some people want a safe investment, and some people want to speculate on the closest thing they can identify to a sure-thing in the Australian economy. The Problem can broadly be described as housing affordability, but A Person’s Problem could be under-employment, uncertain employment, lack of investment opportunities, or the lack of a diverse national economy.
It is all too easy to assume that everyone experiences and understands The Problem in the same way. Either the analyst believes that everyone wants to understand The Problem in a comprehensive, system-wide manner, or each person thinks their unique experience is typical of The Problem, rather than an example of A Person’s Problem.
In both cases people are prone to succumbing to the Fallacy of Composition: which is the mistake of attributing to a group (or a whole) some characteristic that is true only of its individual members (or its parts), and then making inferences based on that mistake.
An individual doesn’t experience every variation of the housing affordability crisis or climate change, which means that they are not likely to resonate with, or appreciate, more than a few aspects of a comprehensive explanation of The Problem. An individual is most likely to absorb aspects that directly relate to their experience and to support the solution that solves their personal problem.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive assessment of The Problem relies on an analyst’s commitment to reason and rational thought, which their audience may not share. How often does a politician or CEO have something personal to gain from what should be a public decision?
Consequently, we cannot effectively address The Problem without incorporating as many examples of A Person’s Problem, so that the audience can see how their own experiences fit into the big, complex picture. Unless the context between The Problem and A Person’s Problem is effectively layered and integrated, most people will continue to act on the bit that matters to them rather than to do what matters. Humans have to get better at solving problems, and a good place to start is learning to appreciate how solving A Person’s Problem may, or may not, solve The Problem.