“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.” – Russell L. Ackoff
A common temptation when facing a difficult problem is to deal with the symptoms. Is the engine making a funny noise? Then turn up the radio! Certainly we can all remember a time when someone took this approach. This common dysfunction in problem solving reminds us of a philosophical point in the movie The Matrix Reloaded:
“We can never see past the choices we don’t understand” – The Oracle (The Matrix Reloaded)
Who knows how profound this really is, but we do hold a similar sentiment: you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. Most attempts to do so effectively involve taking a step back and solving a completely different problem – but one you do understand.
In the example of how to solve the noisy engine, the problem was redefined, from “Why is the engine making a funny noise?” to “How can I avoid hearing that funny noise the engine is making?” If the answer is to try something that has worked before, then the problem has been restated from “What is causing these symptoms?” to “Will trying ABC fix these symptoms?” The success rate in new situations will likely be poor though, and this approach may leave you stuck in a conceptual rut.
“problems often get redefined before a truly creative and persistent effort has been made to solve the original problem”
In the E&P industry, problems often get redefined before a truly creative and persistent effort has been made to solve the original problem. For example, “What operating strategy will make this well economic?” If we quickly arrive at a decision to abandon the well, chances are that the original problem was implicitly defined as: “How do we get rid of this well?”
Rather than redefining the problem to save the effort of solving a challenging problem, a better approach is to study the information you already have from multiple perspectives. Bringing a new pair of eyes into the discussion can do this. That is why it’s so common to get a second opinion when the issue at hand is a critical one. For capital planning, having software that shares data and insights between team members will directly improve the quality of those plans. For reserves management, the benefit of sharing data and insights will be realized in terms of greater confidence with reserve estimates and the decisions made based on those estimates.
“for every problem there is a perspective that makes the problem much easier to understand”
In addition to the insights that team members can offer, data analysis tools can also allow you to look at the data from different angles. Rob’s early career was as a facilities engineer. Every oil & gas facility has many pipes interconnecting various pieces of equipment, and one of the design challenges in facilities engineering is to ensure that you don’t have two pipes trying to occupy the same space. Back in the 80’s, newly emerging computer drafting tools made this so much easier. By rotating the perspectives you could check that there was indeed a gap between one pipe and the next. The takeaway from using these tools is that for every problem there is a perspective that makes the problem much easier to understand, and thus to solve. All the hype about “out of the box” thinking is acknowledging that the key to understanding and then solving problems is to look at them from a different perspective.
“Hand in hand with the number crunching go effective presentation tools to understand the implications of each potential alternative.”
A good planning system can reveal some of those new perspectives. These may include the sensitivity of a business plan to price changes or operating cost changes. They may also include business tradeoffs between aggressive development and reducing debt. Hand in hand with the number crunching go effective presentation tools to understand the implications of each potential alternative. Flipping between two competing portfolios to watch the time series data shift is a powerful way to “see” the tradeoffs. Just like every facet of a crystal is a lens into its interior, every perspective on a problem helps to reveal its crux.
A planning system also needs to be flexible in dealing with business constraints and competing objectives. Choices made on one project will likely affect the opportunities for other projects. Either positively by delivering common infrastructure, or negatively by competing for scarce resources.
“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other.” –Russell L. Ackoff
For most problems you need to understand your way out of them. Failing to do so may leave you solving the wrong problem. For further reading on the topic, see Understanding Your Problem Is Half the Solution by Henrico Dolfing. Happy problem solving!