Spending some time studying communities and institutions, one of the first things you realise is the greater need for more problem solving skills. Seemingly good initiatives that set out to address problems of society often turn out to be far too unfocussed or fringe attempts. Usually, it’s the peril of inbuilt trappings in our inability to transcend existing cognitive filters, or a lack of emotional intelligence to mutually co-operate with others or caving into social baggage that trip us up. Worst still, they sometimes escalate commitment towards sub-optimal, indeed in their most egregious, false paths that harden into dogma. Before you know it, an industry or movement is borne whose entire raison d’être relies on these sub-optimal or false paths. A bit like Abraham Maslow’s saying: ‘…it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.’ Of course, there are politics involved in all of this; people have underlying positions or philosophies that they’re committed to, for good or bad. Whilst these are challenges one encounters with problem solving, the prudent thing to do, as a starting point at least, is to equip oneself with the necessary skills and training for effective problem solving.
After all, the problems of communities and institutions generally don’t have easy fixes, as with many things in life. As a Muslim I’d argue that embracing problem solving is an integral feature of being Muslim. All prophets were after all, problem solvers in one way or another. What God repeated revealed in the stories of the Prophets (qasas al-anbiya) are in essence a myriad of operationalisations and insights about ‘what’ and ‘how’ to solve inevitable human problems. Hence, it’s not surprising that among nobility and scholars of Islam, too, there is a unifying tendency for a problem solving attitude and cognitive focus. Thus, one realises an all pervading meta-narrative Sunnah: to take ownership of one’s own problems; not to blame others; and to do what one can that is most efficaciously solving – appropriate to one’s space, context, situation, abilities and sphere of influence.
So where do we start? The first thing is to define a problem properly. A well-written problem statement concisely and specifically clarifies a situation by identifying a problem and its severity, impacts and when it happens etc. In other words, it is easily grasped by others and serves as a point of communication about what you’re trying to achieve. As a Muslim, a few relevant guiding principles become relevant here.
Firstly, as individual human beings we’re not responsible for everything that merely comes to our attention. The scope of our responsibility is entirely determined by our own competencies and the role(s) we play (duties and rights – huquq), say, within an organisation, in our families, communities, civic life etc. ‘Every soul,’ God did remind us, ‘is not burdened by more than what they can bear.’ In the Prophet’s life, too, you can see how he solved problems differently depending on whether he was asked to arbitrate as a judge in a dispute, or in his role as a husband or a friend, or in his role as a leader etc. The second thing to note is the need to focus on things that concerns one, and generally not trying to fix some other problem ‘out there’ as it were. The point I’m making is essentially ‘to keep things real.’
Analysing a problem to better characterise it becomes the next step. Most problems to do with human behaviours or institutions have multiple root causes. Causes can be disconnected or connected to each other (stacking horizontally on top of each other or vertically) and together make up the holistic experience of the problem. Putting in the detailed work upfront to identify and understand underlying causes and their relative contribution to a problem is crucial. Whilst being able to quantify contributory factors through robust evidence (quantitative or qualitative) is ideal, in the event that we can’t, inductive reasoning is still a very useful tool.
A good place to start analysis is to layout what you know and what you don’t know. You can then build on this by gathering information to fill in gaps and laying out ‘what goes wrong’ in a fuller, structured way. One rule of thumb here, as C. S Lewis famously said, ‘… only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on” can you characterise the fuller dimensions of a problem. There are many techniques for this, the macro-pattern of which can be applied to any problem, whether in the home, at work, in the community or in institutes. For example, asking the question ‘why’ repeated (known as ‘5 whys’) can help trace back to the actual source of the problem. Moreover, clustering factors appropriately, say, into ‘push’ and ‘pull’ or into ‘structural,’ internal’ and ‘external’ categories etc, can also help draw out common themes.
Robust analysis should lead to greater focus into the specifics of a problem and prioritisation. Not least because we’ll always be restricted by the range of options available to us, and constraints of resources, buy-in by stakeholders, expertise, time etc. A problem may have multiple root causes, some of which may be easily fixable, others may not be, or they may need different treatments – short and long term etc.
Prioritisation also applies to the next step, which is to identify options for fixing the cause(s). Here, seeking advice from others who may have some experience or expertise is good practice. Evaluating options is in essence arguing and scoring the pros and cons of each option. Another way is to look at the impacts of each option and the effort needed to operationalise them. Though, evaluation and optimisation are continuous even after actions have been put in place.
In problem solving there are many falsities that distract people. In this sense I’d argue that faith necessitates not just problem solving, but lean problem solving. People typically lose focus or pursue options that seek to ‘boil the ocean’ as it were. Often, these peculiarities seem to be reflexes of sorts to a seemingly ‘runaway world,’ confusions of modernity or persecution complex, not the specifics of a problem. The reality though is that they’re distracting as we cannot effectuate change. It can also be a lack of understanding of the co-operative and competitive context, when the two get mixed up because we try to address both Muslim issues as well as perceived and real external threats to Muslim identity, but do it in an unbalanced, un-nuanced manner. In this scenario, the ‘us and them’ exclusivism ingrains further, whilst internally it takes the veneer of ‘speaking up for truth.’ Another popular failure is the poor use of language. Inaccurate, overly-emotive, pessimistic or cynical language can be enough to demotivate people or become yet another barrier to creating the right positive ‘can do’ attitude and mind-set necessary to embrace problem solving properly.
Admittedly, whilst these skills are lacking in far too many Muslim activists, institutes and initiatives, one thing is for sure, faith demands lean problem solving