Puzzles vs. Mysteries

A model I keep coming back to. Most businesses treat complex problems as puzzles, i.e. requiring more information. So they commission research, ask for more data, try some deeper cuts of analysis as though the answer is out there, waiting to be uncovered.

However, the problem is rarely missing information, but synthesising and interpreting the information they already have. For mysteries, the addition of more information is mostly a waste, and often even harmful – only adding to the existing pile and increasing the noise.

Puzzle-solving is frustrated by a lack of information. Given Washington’s need to find out how many warheads Moscow’s missiles carried, the United States spent billions of dollars on satellites and other data-collection systems. But puzzles are relatively stable. If a critical piece is missing one day, it usually remains valuable the next.

By contrast, mysteries often grow out of too much information. Until the 9/11 hijackers actually boarded their airplanes, their plan was a mystery, the clues to which were buried in too much “noise”—too many threat scenarios. So warnings from FBI agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix went unexplored. The hijackers were able to hide in plain sight. After the attacks, they became a puzzle: it was easy to pick up their trail.

Strategy problems in particular are mysteries, but often treated as puzzles. I think this makes a wondeful analogy for it: the difference between measuring facts and quantities like market share and financial performance, and making sense of, and creating, the future.

Most discussions about energy, as well, treat it as a puzzle: so many million barrels of proven reserves in country X, production to “peak” in country Y at a particular date and so on. From a geological point of view, the puzzle perspective makes sense: any individual drill hole or field has so much oil.

Yet energy futures are a mystery, not a puzzle. How much oil a given well can produce is not the same as how much oil is there: whether it makes sense to use secondary or tertiary recovery methods after primary methods no longer suffice depends on price. And beyond a single well, the factors multiply. How fast will the global economy grow? What new energy discoveries will be made? Which alternative sources will come on line at what price?

Go and look at the last piece of strategy work you had done. Is it full of numbers and measures of performance, or does it spend its time on defining, synthesising and making sense of the forces at play, their interactions, the implications. Does it treat strategy as a mystery to be investigated, or a puzzle to be solved?

Source: Risks and Riddles | People & Places | Smithsonian

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