Interesting problems: a definition

A problem is interesting when…

1. It’s important to someone

Presumably because solving it will make things better.* The problem won’t be important to everyone, so by definition it won’t be interesting to everyone either.

The problem will be valuable in proportion to the number of people it is important to, and how intensely they feel its importance.

This means that problems exist in a network, and gain their importance and value from their position within the network – this is true of both their actual and perceived importance and value.

2. A solution isn’t immediately obvious or available

Sometimes (rarely) a problem is hard to solve because it’s actually new and unique – a world first. More often it’s because interesting problems are actually systems (or networks) of smaller problems, and are closely bound up with their local context, which means that there won’t be a simple, discrete solution: a ‘system’ of problems will require a ‘system’ of solutions.

It also means that what looks like an old problem in a new context (a new place, time, group of people, culture) is likely to respond differently to previously successful solutions. A new configuration of the problem ‘system’ will require a newly configured set of solutions – and the solutions that work best will change with time.

3. It doesn’t have a perfect solution

If you understand a problem as a system, you understand that predictability and perfection are impossible once you move beyond the most basic or theoretical level. Instead we need to understand the best solutions as those which most improve the disposition of the problem system, giving the best chance of a ‘good enough’ outcome.

4. We may not even be able to find a satisfactory solution

If you can’t fail, it’s not interesting.

5. The solutions to the problem are dynamic

If interesting problems are dynamic systems within changing contexts, ‘happily ever after’ isn’t possible from a single (fixed) solution: old solutions will become less effective (or less acceptable) as the context changes. Both the solution ‘system’ and the system that generates the solution need to be dynamic too.

What do you think? What problems does this perspective help with? Where does it fall down?

*Stopping things from getting worse is a way of making them better

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