If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. – Lao Tzu
My research area worries me. It’s a discipline called Soft OR and a paper I’m reading talks about how many people think it’s not real OR. OR stands for Operations Research, by the way, a field that tries to do things better.
It probably doesn’t help that I’m watching a series called “Scorpion” about a team of geniuses who deal with real-world problems. One of the characters says that there are only four subjects worth studying: maths and science, and science and maths.
I have some sympathy with this view. Maths and science are reassuring in their certainty – in their ambition to be right or wrong, true or false, good or bad. They are the disciplines that make it possible for us to understand and control the world around us.
The good thing about maths and science is that it’s easy to agree what’s the right answer, the correct approach. 2 + 2 has only one answer. Dropping a ball does not make it go up. Only one line can pass through two points unless you’re talking about non-Euclidean geometry where an infinite number of lines can pass through two points if they travel on a sphere. If you squint and ignore quantum mechanics it’s like the world makes sense.
Until you come to people. People are a special case – the one set of creatures that are teleogical – that have purpose. They have likes and dislikes, thoughts and opinions. And that makes it hard, perhaps impossible, to really know what they want or what’s the best thing to do or what’s true or false.
Trying to approach problems that involve people with maths and science is a hard thing to do. You can solve all kinds of things with maths and science but people and how they interact is not one of them. Many approaches have been tried and they do not work well.
That’s because maths and science are part of what is called a “positivist” mindset. They deal in objective truth. But people acting out their lives interacting with other people live in a different world – one that needs a “subjective” mindset to appreciate – one that takes feelings and tastes into account. More importantly, perhaps, people take a constructivist approach to life – they actively create a picture and narrative of what they see around they and why it is the way it is – and they use that mental construction to guide their decision making.
In short, what people think matters.
And what they think is a product of all the thinking and learning that has gone before – the methods and processes and tools they were exposed to over all their years of study and training. How they think is a process – a sort of tube that they go down – whenever they’re approaching a problem. We all reach for tools that we know when we’re trying to figure things out.
But this also means that we’re reluctant to move away from tools that work for us. And that’s reasonable – why waste your time trying a new way when the old one works just fine – or at least works sort of if you work it hard and you can live with that.
That barrier – that reluctance to move from one way to another – is a strength at the curse. It may make you very good at what you do, but it may mean that when what you do before obsolete or irrelevant you too head for obsolescence or irrelevance. Someone said it’s worse to be ignored than to be rejected.
The thing about methods is that they don’t matter as much as what they enable you to do. If you or your clients like the end result they will tolerate any method you use. If you don’t deliver it doesn’t matter how good your method was.