Perspectives in Complex Problems
Thus, in order to improve our understanding about a complex problem, we must consider numerous perspectives. If we view a problem as simple, it may indeed be simple, or we may not be considering it holistically enough. Because there is not a single true reality or correct perspective of any systems age mess, the systems principle of complementarity (Bohr, 1928) must be applied. The principle simply states:
Two different perspectives or models about a system will reveal truths regarding the system
that are neither entirely independent nor entirely compatible.
If we think of a perspective as the state of one’s ideas or the known facts, then we can represent the worldview of the observer as a function of the number (i) of perspectives (Pi) utilized to represent the problem under study. Equation 2.1 (Adams & Meyers, 2011) is a mathematical representation of contextual understanding for a limited number of perspectives (n). It is worth noting that this equation is intended to be illustrative, rather than prescriptive. Recalling the earlier discussion of a mess and its properties, our understanding is certainly not a linear summation of constituent perspectives, but rather a complicated relationship that indicates, at least in the abstract, that more perspectives lead to an improved understanding of a complex problem.
Perfect understanding requires complete knowledge of the infinite number of perspectives, a fact that problem solvers struggle to control when bounding messy, ill-structured, or wicked problems. Equation 2.2 (Adams & Meyers, 2011) is a mathematical representation of perfect understanding.
A depiction of these concepts is shown in Fig. 2.2. This figure shows that as both time (t) and the number of perspectives increases, our understanding increases dramatically. Perfect understanding is depicted as a plane that we attempt to attain but cannot reach no matter how much time passes or how many perspectives we consider.
Because, by definition, our scope of perspectives is limited, we can never have perfect understanding of a complex problem, and thus, we must strive to increase the value of our contextual understanding. The question naturally arises, then, as to how many perspectives are sufficient. There are two answers: (1) the academic perspective and (2) the practical perspective. The academic answer, as quantified by Eq. 2.2, is that there are never enough perspectives for a problem. While this is true, we must strive for perspective saturation (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). That is, we should continue to gather perspectives until we no longer obtain new or insightful information. The practical answer, however, says the act of gathering perspectives is typically undertaken until we run out of resources (e.g., time and money), which is often well in advance of having collected a sufficient number of perspectives. Practical constraints limit the number of perspectives that we are able to consider and many of us erroneously only consider a singular perspective, our own, when
Fig. 2.2 Depiction of increased understanding as a function of time (t) and perspectives (i)
addressing a problem; however, it is clear that it is useful to obtain numerous perspectives as appropriate and available.
It is exceedingly important, then, that we choose the perspectives that we incorporate carefully. We must seek those that have the ability to add to our understanding rather than those viewpoints that confirm our own (a phenomenon known as confirmation bias that we will revisit in Chap. 15). Further, the more disparate our perspectives, the more potentially enlightening the information we obtain. In this way, we can treat this effort in the same manner we would treat a hypothesis test. We wish to collect information that has the potential to disconfirm our hypothesis. If the hypothesis that we have formulated stands up to scientific scrutiny, in this case multiple perspectives, then we have greater confidence in its validity. If not, then perhaps our initial assumptions were incorrect. At the very least, conflicting perspectives may demand additional investigation.
Our ideas about the inclusion of multiple perspectives are echoed by two outstanding systems thinkers, Ian Mitroff and Harold Linstone. Mitroff is a long-time advocate for systemic thinking (Mitroff, Alpaslan, & Green, 2004; Mitroff & Kilmann, 1977) and was the first to formally characterize the Type III error (Mitroff, 1998; Mitroff & Betz, 1972; Mitroff & Featheringham, 1974; Mitroff & Silvers, 2010), as discussed in Chap. 1. Linstone has been a strong proponent of the use of multiple perspectives in problem investigation (Linstone, 1985, 1989; Linstone et al., 1981). In their book The Unbounded Mind (Mitroff & Linstone, 1993), they make this important point:
“everything interacts with everything,” that all branches of inquiry depend fundamentally on one another, and that the widest possible array of disciplines, professions, and branches of knowledge—capturing distinctly different paradigms of thought—must be consciously brought to bear on the problem. (p. 91)