Broadening the field (and the timeframe)

In each problem that Collaborating Minds looks at, we are going to work hard to give our members a broad field in which to work.  Rather than limit the problem to the arena the problem owner states, we use the idea that a problem as stated is part of a larger continuum, and understanding the broader continuum can help create new opportunities.

To do this, we’ll work with this 9 box matrix.

nine box improved with new titlev2


The problem as stated (and likely how the problem owner typically thinks about it) deals with the system it is a part of, and at the present time. So if we are thinking about a problem in the food system in Africa, we think about the “food system” and about “today”. But we’d benefit from freeing our minds — and even directing our minds — in at least two other dimensions.


More broadly and more narrowly.

More narrowly. The system we are looking at is composed of smaller elements. For example, the food system might be broken up into:

  • Agricultural supply (fertilizer, seed, land)
  •  Agriculture (planting and harvesting)
  • Storage and delivery of crops
  • Food processing
  • Food distribution
  • Food preparation and use, and
  • Food waste disposal

There might be an interesting way of addressing the “big problem” within just one of these subsystems. And looking at these subsystems is a good way to make sure we understand what is going on with the system

More broadly. System definitions necessarily have boundaries, and what is outside the system can also be very important. What are the other systems that the food system interacts with, e.g., how does the problem reflect interactions with the economic system, the political governance system, the transportation system? Our problem is nestled in a larger set of interactions, and we might discover that the problem is better solved at a higher level than the level at which it was asked.

Across time

Looking backwards. Problems don’t just crop up accidentally and spontaneously. They are the result of the evolution of a situation. What was once not seen as a problem now is seen as one. What changed? Looking at the past (of the system, supersystem, and subsystems) sheds light on what is now different. The past is defined in whatever way seems most appropriate for the problem.

Looking forward. Even as we grapple with today’s problems, the situation is changing, and smart GRETSKY2
problem solvers are looking to address what the problem is going to be. The Canadian ice hockey superstar Wayne Gretsky was asked how he got so many goals (for those in countries less familiar with hockey, the idea is to put the object you are skating on the ice after and adroitly whacking– the puck — into the goal defended by the other team). He said, “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be.”  Similarly, in thinking today about climate change, we shouldn’t be thinking about CO2 levels of 400 parts per million (today’s level) but instead about solutions that would work at 500-600 parts per million, which is where the puck is going to be. Perhaps there are solutions that take time but get us where we want to go by the time we need to be there.

Thinking about the System is a big, broadening step for many problem solvers. Considering the system and its supersystem and subsystems over time can improve our thinking even more.

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