The Onion (1): understanding interesting problems

This post is a sketch of a way of thinking about how problems work, and what we need to do to make our solutions (“the change we seek to make”) effective. It’s bit abstract – I’ll share a more concrete illustration in a later post.

We often talk about interesting problems as if they’re discrete units:

  • How can I keep my family healthy?
  • How can we split the atom?
  • How can we help more children learn to read?

But all interesting problems really consist of little clusters or bundles (or networked systems) of problems – we just can’t always see what the problem-network looks like until we’ve spent some time working in it.

We can work our way down the problem hierarchy, reducing complexity as we ask smaller (and usually more easily solvable) problems.

Example theoretical problem:
How can I keep my family healthy?
Example sub-problems:
What is a healthy diet? How can I make sure my family has access to it? How can I make sure that they eat it? What foods do they need to avoid, and how can I make sure they do?
What’s a healthy level of exercise? How do I make it a habit?
What about emotional health?

In lots of cases, the sub-problems have sub-problems… and so-on.

We can also work our way further out too, from micro-problems to macro – for example, “How can I help other families to live healthier lifestyles?”

The onion

So we end up with a multi-layered set of nested-problems – ‘the onion’. And effective solutions will mirror this structure of solutions-within-solutions, with each layer creating the necessary conditions for the layers within it – more on this in an upcoming post.

*see also: the wrapper

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