Damned if you do and damned if you don’t – a morbid way of looking at a seemingly intractable problem. I’ve seen some of my clients suffer through seemingly “hopeless” Enterprise Agreements and the vicious circles that strangle the life out of maintenance planning. It doesn’t have to be this way, but why does it seem so difficult to address these stubborn issues?
I just love the film “The Princess Bride;” it’s full of interesting characters and perspectives on life. Take the lead character, the Dread Pirate Roberts. When confronting Vizzini, the self-proclaimed supreme wit, Roberts adds the fictitious toxin “iocane” to a goblet of wine and provokes his nemesis to the ultimate challenge. “All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right.” Da-Da-Da-Dum! Da-Da-Da-Dum!
Decisions, decisions. I vividly recall my early days at BHP Steel and its strong focus on rational decision-making, problem-solving and analytical tools. A key book on every manager’s shelf was “The Rational Manager” by Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe, from which proceeded a variety of two and three letter acronyms, including KT DA, PPA and EPS. BHP Steel saw some tangible value from the rational toolset as it dug its way out of the effects of a depressed steel industry. When I moved to BHP Minerals, interestingly, site personnel didn’t seem to know much about KT, PDCA, RCA or in fact, any decision-making or problem-solving toolkit until the Global Maintenance Network hung out a shingle. I guess there was plenty of money to be made back then, whether the decisions made were good or bad.
Why has it become so difficult of late to make a correct decision? Well for one, the notion of “correct” has been challenged by society’s attempt to emasculate truth (for more on this see https://jvpienew.wpenginepowered.com/truth-and-dare/). But let’s allow our Princess Bride characters to elucidate this further.
As my career progressed, like Vizzini, I had a strong reliance on the powers of logic and reason. Vizzini was brilliant (or so he believed). As we see from his ensuing conversation with Roberts, he’d obviously become drunk on the wine of his own success.
“Vizzini: I can’t compete with you physically. And you’re no match for my brains.
Roberts: You’re that smart?
Vizzini: Let me put it this way: have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?
Thankfully, unlike Vizzini, I did realise, before it was too late, that rational problem-solving and decision-making tools relied on one, sometimes fatal assumption – that people always think and act rationally!
Have you ever heard of the concept of “confirmation bias?” Wikipedia defines it as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.” While it may be possible for everyone to agree that 1 + 1 = 2, there are many, many ideas and options existing today that are extremely polarising. Our systems of education and the media, while charged with presenting the facts impartially and encouraging people to form their own judgements, have become for us “thought police.” They have attempted to shape a generation of people who believe there is no such thing as absolute truth. Well, how then will we ever be able to reach a consensus decision using logic and reason? It can’t be done. Unless…
Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) offered some sage advice in an attempt to resolve this vexing issue. Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor and author. He was one of the first two inventors of the mechanical calculator and strongly influenced the development of modern economics and social science. He was a strong defender of the scientific method.
Not simply a student of science, Pascal also displayed profound insight into the way people thought and hence acted, postulating that “all men are almost led to believe not of proof, but by attraction.” He reckoned that objective facts would be rejected if someone had a desire to believe differently. I guess that in a sense, Pascal was foretelling the impact that the post-modern mindset would have on society, especially considering the duplicity that so commonly lies within the heart of man.
Einstein warns that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Intractable problems are those that defy logic and reason. Roberts decided long before the fateful day with Vizzini that he would need to face one of these someday. In preparation, he realised that he would need to do something very illogical and highly unreasonable. He gradually developed an immunity to iocane by taking a small dose daily. When the opportunity arose, he was able to use this immunity to his advantage and change the rules of engagement. His seemingly irrational actions allowed him to win the battle of wits, by not having to think at all!
Before we can begin to make correct decisions as an organisation, we must first learn to do so as individuals. We must be prepared to recognise our own internal bias and prejudice and begin to look at problems in a new light; perhaps even walk a mile in the other party’s shoes. Roberts was willing to risk his life in order to be sure to save it. What are you willing to do to break an intractable problem at work or in your life? Where will you go for inspiration? One thing is for certain; you cannot remain in the same plane as the problem. You must transcend it.