Solving unsolvable issues

One of the important features of the new way of life that emerged with the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic was that people became engaged in solving unsolvable issues. Or rather, in solving issues that previously seemed unsolvable.

This is especially noticeable in the world of business. Can an airline make money based on its competencies without carrying passengers? It turns out that it can, for example, by opening restaurants that offer in-flight meals. Can restaurants make money based on their competencies without cooking for customers? It turns out that they can, for example, by opening online educational programs on culinary arts.

Owners and managers of airlines and restaurants (and many other companies and organizations) would hardly have bothered with such issues before (and if they did, they would have considered them unsolvable). But now it turns out that a solution can be found. Though, many businesses will not survive, not because they are faced with truly unsolvable issues, but because they simply do not have enough time to find a solution. And it usually takes a lot of time to solve complicated issues (and as now became clear, namely complicated, but not unsolvable). In Hollywood movies the main character often fixes the problem of defusing a new explosive device three seconds before the explosion, but in ordinary life, very often there is simply not enough time (and sometimes persistence) to solve such issues.

Many people in business, politics, medicine, education and other important areas of human activity do not know how to solve very complicated issues (also because they are often perceived a priori as unsolvable), and this is a big problem for modern civilization.

This problem starts with the education system, which is not focused on learning to solve complicated issues almost in any country in the world.

How much time is usually given to solve a task in mathematics (physics, chemistry, or biology)? 10 minutes in class or at most half an hour at home. Can a problem that can be solved in half an hour be considered difficult? Unlikely. In addition, the solution of school tasks usually consists in the correct application of the studied approaches and algorithms, which in itself characterizes the task as "uncomplicated."

Many years ago I was a math teacher at school, and I had repeatedly heard the question: "Why do I need your sines and logarithms in life?" The correct answer is that most likely they will not be useful, but the ability to solve complex issues may be very useful, and sines and logarithms simply "create entourage" (or you can replace them with integrals and matrices - this is not essential for the formation of the ability to solve complicated problems). But instead of developing the crucial ability to solve complex issues, school provides knowledge (and this knowledge is not particularly necessary for most people indeed).

Maybe the situation is different in high school than in secondary? There are already tasks that seem to have to be solved for weeks or months. But if you look closely, it turns out that "solve" means "search for information" or "conduct experiments" or "write code" or do something else, but not long thinking. But a complex task is characterized precisely by the fact that it needs a lot of hard thinking.

What happens next? A person finishes school and university, gets a job, makes a professional career and becomes, well, for example, a top manager in a serious company. And so he, say, comes to a meeting of the Board of Directors of his company to present an action plan for the next year. Perhaps he will talk about opening new stores or branches (or whatever that they are supposed to open), perhaps about optimizing costs by reducing the number of previously opened stores or branches, etc. But will he dare to say: I will spend six months thinking about finding a solution to the most complex issue, which will help provide us a breakthrough in our business? I don't think he would dare. And if he does, he will most likely hear in response: "What are you going to do? Just think? That is, you do not know the solution and admit it. And how long are you going to think?"

Of course, there are managers who really think long and hard about solving the most complex issues and as a result find these solutions, but the process of "thinking" at the same time looks like almost an "underground activity".

In general, of course, this applies not only to business. In my opinion, it would be nice to hear from politicians: “I want to make our country prosperous, I don’t know how yet, but I will think long and hard about it” or from doctors: “I want to cure your disease, I don’t know how yet, because it is not described in the textbooks, but I will think long and hard about it." But you won't hear something like that, because there is a stereotype "if you don't know how to do it, don't take it." Though the ability to think long and hard (and productively) is a very valuable and, alas, quite rare quality. But with proper training, it is quite successfully acquired.

I'll go back to where I started. Extreme circumstances (epidemics, natural and technological disasters, financial crises, etc.) force us to re-evaluate both the nature of the issues at hand (which turn from unsolvable to very difficult) and the value of intellectual work in finding solutions to them. But in any case, solving them takes time, which is not always enough. Two conclusions can be drawn from this. The first is that any company or organization with serious ambitious goals should constantly work on finding solutions to almost unsolvable complex issues, and not only when extraordinary external events occur. Then the company will be better prepared for such events, and it will also develop more dynamically in normal, non-crisis times. And the second conclusion is that the process of finding solutions to very complex issues should involve as many people as possible, thus increasing the probability that someone would grope a way to finding a solution. One of the ways to do this is intellectual crowdsourcing, which consists in attracting as an additional "thinking apparatus" a community of people of different professions and nationalities, motivated to participate personally in the search for such solutions to complex issues for the company whose goals and vision inspire them. But as a former school teacher, former top executive and finally as the founder of crowdsourcing agency, I understand that it is critically important to organize this process in such a way that the search for solutions would consist not only in using the baggage of previous knowledge, but in long and persistent, creative and productive thinking, aimed at finding fundamentally new effective solutions.

Mikhail Treyvish,
founder of the Universal crowdsourcing agency OmniGrade