There is no such Thing as a Pure Hard Problem

From time to time I use the differentiation between hard and soft problems or difficulties vs. messes and the TROPICS test from McCalman and Paton to differentiating these two. Why? The answer is simple. My first studies were engineering disciplines. Engineering disciplines are working with hard problems, that is problems where you have a clear understanding of what constitutes the problem and where you know when you solved the problem. However, at latest when you finish your studies you realize that life is far more complex. You might realize that two opposing and mutually exclusive solutions to the same problem might be correct, which makes you think about how well defined the problem is – a “soft problem”.

This is easy to see. But there was a piece missing. I worked in teams that did a great job in solving a tricky hard problem just to see that nobody acted on our results. It took me a while until my MBA teacher Nigel hit the nail when we told me “There is no such thing as a pure hard problem”. Every relevant hard problem is embedded in a real life context. And you have to understand the full context. If you solve the underlying hard problem you might simply solve the wrong problem. And looking back, I was part of several of those activities.

As I am now working in a project portfolio management function this is an important lesson. If you solve the wrong problem you are very inefficient, regardless on how well the project proceeds. Thanks Nigel. 

[Update 26/5/2017] The TROPICS Test was introduced to me to differentiate Hard from Soft problems. In the years following I found out that “soft problems” are often called “wicked problems”. Horst Rittel must have coined that term and he was creating a planning/design method known as Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) for handling wicked problems. IBIS made a lot of sense to me which is why I have created “Visual Thinking with IBIS” as a tool supporting the IBIS Notation.

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