Return to RSTI Home Page
Manager & Strategist
Tel: +61 3 9078 9746
Original: 1980 (put up on web 1996)
Last modified: 6 July 2015 Version 9.L
Reductionist problem solving methods, where problems are broken down into component parts for separate solution, have served the world well in many ways. However, by definition there are a class of problems that do not yield to this method. Complex social and ecological problems where everything is connected to everything else are just such problems. In fact, to some extent, environmental problems arise because of the exclusive application of reductionist problem solving methods. This is why it is essential that we also use holistic methods.
"The world we have created today, as a result of our thinking thus far, has problems that cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them." Albert Einstein. 
The original version of the method (Opportunity Multiplying) that is outlined in this paper, was developed by the participants in an ecologically sustainable development vision building exercise (White et al., 1978). Towards the end of the project, those involved became aware that they had been unconsciously using an opportunity generating and problem solving technique which appeared to be significantly different from most conventional methods. I wrote up the philosophy of the method a couple of years after the completion of the project to make it accessible to others (probably in the early 1980s?). I have added to the original material whenever I have become aware of important new principles.
The method rejects the reflex resort to:
compromise (you want black, I want white, we'll agree to grey)
reductionist simplifying (if a problem is too hard just take a smaller piece of it and see how you go).
Instead the method presupposes that there are solutions to most problems which would be good for each of the involved parties (Fisher & Ury). For example, if it is known why you want black and I want white it might turn out that green would satisfy both of us well, whereas grey would please neither of us.) The method also proposes that the way to make a problem simpler is to make it 'bigger' rather than smaller (that is take in more of the relevant systems rather than less in order to expand the range of options).
It is important to note that what is set out below is the philosophy of Opportunity Multiplying, rather than a set of specific operational rules about how to apply the method.
In our culture people tend to think that idealistic behaviour is by definition impractical and that practical people are not idealistic.
In fact just about anything that has ever been done that is worthwhile, especially where it has involved breaking new ground, has involved the practical pursuit of an ideal.
Practical idealism involves the integration of some of the characteristics and skills of three stereotypic types of people who are not practical idealists. One is the pragmatist who knows how to get things done, but does things just to advance their own position, so that often the things that get done are of little social value or may be quite negative. The second of the stereotypes is the woolly-headed idealist who can imagine an ideal future but has no idea of how to make it happen and therefore doesn't make it happen. The final stereotype is the critic who can tell you what's wrong with everything (both the status quo and any ideal alternatives) but once again can't tell you how to make anything good happen.
To avoid people falling into these stereotypic ways, new models of thinking and acting as a practical idealist are needed.
The Opportunity Multiplying philosophy is one such set of approaches that will help people to act as practical idealists.
Traditional thinking holds that when more than one objective is being pursued, not all of the objectives can be fully achieved. It is assumed that a major trade-off will be necessary.
However using a creative approach to problem solving or opportunity multiplying, especially where innovation over a period of time is possible, it is often possible to avoid trade-offs on the major issues altogether. To achieve such a result it may be necessary to accept trade-offs on less important questions.
While the aim should always be to find win-win solutions to problems conflict is sometimes inevitable. If other people or organisations believe that a win-lose approach is the only possible option or if they do not hold core values similar to the other parties to a negotiation then there may be the basis for unavoidable conflict. This cannot be run away from. If it is not possible to convince the other parties to use a win-win approach then you will have to fight to defend your core values. But even in the latter case it may be possible to fight for solutions that are win-win solutions in any case - despite the lack of interest from the other parties.
Our culture and our experience colour our perceptions of the world. For example, we often carry unconscious notions about the economic or political feasibility of future options that lead us to dismiss these options before they have been tested.
The idea of carrying out a 'direct analysis' is to try to imagine future options actually operating. If it seems that they would be practical in a physical and social sense and that they would yield worthwhile social and environmental benefits then strategies can probably be devised to make these options feasible in economic and political terms.
The Opportunity Multiplying method aims to be radical, idealistic and practical.
It is radical because it tries to get to the root causes of problems. That is, it tries to tackle causes rather than just suppressing symptoms.
It is idealistic because it tries to first identify fundamental goals (by analysing why people think a problem is a problem) and only then attempts to find a solution to the problem.
It is practical in that the method recognises that, at any one time, there are limited means and opportunities to achieve fundamental goals, so:
it is necessary to see the highest order goals as giving generalised guidance on the direction for social evolution. The solutions should at least be "heading in the right direction". The highest order goals can therefore be described as ideals or directional goals.
for the purposes of achieving some actual level of implementation, means and ends have to be matched by reformulating both the practical expression of the chosen goals and the available resources. This is both a social and a technical process.
At first glance "means" and "ends" seem to be completely separate categories. Means are seen as objects, that is the independent instruments or techniques for achieving the ends or goals. However real life is not as clear cut as this. Often there is a very tangible link or overlap between the ends (the goals and their beneficiaries) and the means (the available resources).
The usual subjects of concern are people or human communities or other living things. We empathise or identify with these subjects and have subjective thoughts and feelings about them. However, often people and other living species themselves play an instrumental role in achieving their own desired goals. They are the means to their own ends i.e. people and the other species are simultaneously the subject and the object of the problem solving process.
If a problem is to be solved effectively, so that it takes into account the total situation, it is necessary to respond both objectively and subjectively at the same time. Real world problems involve a subject/object duality.
The historical trend is for society's framework of concern to broaden over time.
We usually divide the world into an in-group (with whom we identify and toward whom we feel concern and empathy) and an out-group (for whom we have little or no concern). The commonest strategy for problem solving for the benefit of the in-group is to try to shift the burden of the problem from the in-group to the out-group. But if the span of concern tends to widen over time, then the chances are that past problem solving efforts will have significantly worsened the situation for future members of the in-group who were previously part of the out-group.
An Opportunity Multiplying approach would aim to anticipate this widening of concern with the aim of developing solutions which eliminate the problem rather than just shift its burden. Using a biological metaphor, you try to avoid exploitative (or parasitic) relations with other parts of the system and instead aim for a symbiotic (living together) relationship. In other words, there should be a mutual exchange of benefits rather than a one way take.
One of the essential characteristics of the Opportunity Multiplying method is that it requires the simultaneous satisfaction of a number of fundamental or higher order goals. This is essential if the solutions being generated are to meet the full range of basic human and ecological needs. Only by doing this can the optimum solution be found for any particular problem. By aiming to satisfy fewer high order value goals you might be able to reduce the magnitude or difficulty of the solution generation task, but you would also guarantee an inferior result.
Even the traditional method of problem solving recognises that multiple objectives have to pursued sometimes. However, it is believed that while a single objective might be maximised, where there are multiple objectives only the partial satisfaction of each one is possible. The terms "trade-off" and "compromise" come readily to mind when you think about the traditional method.
The Opportunity Multiplying method however rejects the immediate recourse to compromise. If it appears that one important goal has to be significantly "traded off" against another important goal or that several important goals can only be partially satisfied, this situation is not accepted. Instead the problem is recast:
at a higher level of generality, or
in some other new way,
and then a new cycle of analysis and synthesis is gone through so that a better solution can be generated.
Compromise and trade-off are definitely techniques of the last resort.
The increasingly strong emphasis on project teams and simultaneous or concurrent design in business are efforts to facilitate the practical achievement of multiple goals.
Too often people try to solve problems in a piecemeal fashion. This means that the solution to every particular problem is decided on different grounds to every other problem. So the solutions don't fit together and new problems are generated and resources are wasted. But while it would be ideal if we could solve all problems in one go, it just isn't possible.
So what do we do? The nearest we can get to solving everything at once is to develop a vision or an impressionistic picture of what the future might look like if we were able to give effect to our multiple goals. The vision is used as a reference point to judge each ad-hoc or individual decision which has to be made. The test in each decision is: "does the proposed solution, over the longer term, move us further towards the realisation of our vision or further away? In this way a multitude of ad hoc decisions can be given some degree of coherence with a minimum of formal coordination.
The vision should be comprehensive and integrated. It should be based on the integration of not just your own highest order goals, but should also embrace, as far as possible, other people's highest order goals. Thus the vision aims to represent a 'highest common denominator' resolution of the community's desires in which your highest order goals are also achieved.
The vision needs to be constantly up-dated to reflect changes in people's highest order goals, to incorporate the latest technical knowledge and to take advantage of the current best practice in problem solving techniques so that it remains realistic as well as idealistic.
It is no coincidence that prevention is better than cure. Most problems have many symptoms. Suppressing each one of the symptoms can be time consuming, expensive, prone to secondary complications and often ultimately futile. It is far better to treat the cause. Often by opening one's mind to a whole array of problems at once, it is possible to mentally cluster them around common causative factors. Thus, by making the initial problem exploration phase more complex, it is possible to make the problem solving stage much simpler, easier and more effective.
Not only does Opportunity Multiplying involve clustering many symptoms of problems and then solving the root cause, it also involves a process of clustering and integrating, or 'double decking', the implementation programs. This makes for much more economical implementation mechanisms or 'vehicles'. To find opportunities for double decking you ask yourself, not whether the problems have a common cause, but rather, whether the implementation programs for a number of problems have a common character. If so, a joint program might be more effective or efficient.
A particularly productive way of drawing together the multiple goals and multi-problem solution approaches is to try to transform problems into:
If an action has to be taken to solve one problem, some extra effort should be put into finding additional spin-off benefits. Also, rather than spending a lot of time after the event trying to stop or substantially modify undesirable projects, effort should be put into devising projects that meet the desired goals right from the start.
'Serendipity' - gift of finding valuable things in unexpected places by sheer luck. (Penguin English Dictionary, 3rd edition)
Much of what happens in life cannot be predicted with accuracy, often cannot be foreseen at all and cannot be made to happen on demand. So how can we plan ahead in this situation? It can be done with "goal-directed serendipity". It involves setting broad goals then:
developing lots of ideas, trying lots of things and seeing what works
scanning for ideas and opportunities that fit and seeing what turns up
making goals more ambitious in the light of new opportunities/possibilities.
This is the approach behind the use of stretch goals and continual improvement.
It is common knowledge that a problem needs to be analysed (i.e. taken apart) in order to be understood. What is frequently not recognised is that the development of a solution requires a process of synthesis (i.e. integration or bringing together).
While this might all sound rather obvious, people often are not aware that effective problem solving requires a two phase iterative, or repeated, process involving first analysis and then synthesis.
You begin with the analysis of the existing system. All the relevant sub-elements are identified, especially those which appear to require changing or might be affected by proposed changes. Then, swinging into the synthesis process, you recombine or cluster the changed and unchanged sub-elements to form a new hypothetical complete system . The new system must then be analysed to see what the chances are that the chosen goals will actually be achieved. If reasonable success is unlikely you must once again use the synthesis process to generate a more acceptable hypothetical system. The cycle of analysis and synthesis continues until you are satisfied with the final result.
When considering any problem/solution you should always use more than one (and preferably more than two) conceptual frameworks. In the same way that binocular vision gives better resolution that monocular vision, the use of more than one conceptual framework helps you to avoid distorted perceptions of the matters you are examining and to avoid thinking about a problem from only one angle or perspective.
You should develop your conceptual frameworks to highlight the full range of things you think are important. Thus, if as recommended, you have adopted an approach which uses:
a subject/objective duality
a search for multiple problem solutions, etc.,
and which considers:
all the relevant parts of the physical and social systems,
then, you should use these considerations to guide your choice of conceptual frameworks.
Multiple frameworks will help you to avoid being blinkered or from falling into a mental rut.
Large or complex problems must be reduced in "size" one way or another for human beings to be able to solve them. However, the choice of the reduction method makes a significant difference to the nature of the resulting solutions.
Rather than taking a large system and breaking it into a series of completely isolated pieces, the Opportunity Multiplying technique limits the problem solving task by selecting a clearly identifiable focus. Exploration of this study focus is not limited by defined boundaries, since in the real world everything is connected to everything else, but instead excursions away from the focus are judged by their contribution to the development of solutions which satisfy the declared value goals.
One of the important features of the Opportunity Multiplying method is that it controls this process of moving away from the study or problem focus.
As indicated above it is important not to treat parts of systems in isolation. However since the whole universe is in fact one vast interacting system any problem solving task might seem a little overwhelming. One way of making the task easier is to divide the universe into three parts:
a (tight) study focus,
a (broader) field of interest (i.e. the conscious context, background or environment of the study focus), and
the rest (i.e. the unconscious context, background or environment of the study focus)
You need to concentrate most of your efforts on the study focus but it is essential that some consideration be given to the general context. In some cases, when faced with a problem which seems insoluble you may need to take elements of what previously had been considered "context" into the study focus in order to give them more detailed consideration.
This argument applies also to elements of the context which previously had been outside the investigator's consciousness. The problem is to identify which things are not known which need to be known. (It is rather like deducing the characteristics of the missing jigsaw piece from characteristics of the known pieces.)
It is often assumed that a difficult problem can be best solved if small pieces of it are taken at a time and solved separately. This is true if the 'problem' is in fact a cluster of semi-independent sub-problems. However this is often not the case.
The Opportunity Multiplying method proposes that the way to make a problem simpler is to make it 'bigger' rather than smaller (that is take in more of the relevant systems rather than less in order to expand the range of options).
Effective action requires simplicity: clarity of purpose, clear thinking and clear cut implementation. But this simplicity is an outcome of effectiveness.
The world is a complex reality. Some problems are complex. This complexity must be faced. If solutions are not based on an understanding of the complexity of the real world, then they will be simple minded rather than simple and will, at best, just fail or at worst they will create needless complications in the real world.
If the reality being considered is complex, thinking must first be complex before it can be made simple, and before effective solutions can be devised.
The Opportunity Multiplying method, as mentioned above, was designed to handle difficult, complex problems. It therefore makes deliberate use of the most powerful combination of thinking techniques available. It uses a balanced application of both conscious logical and intuitive methods of thinking.
While both intuition and conscious logic are both used for problem analysis or solution synthesis, conscious logic has its most concentrated application in the analysis process, and it is essential to use intuition for the effective generation of solutions.
The intuitive approach must be used in Opportunity Multiplying because it is specifically geared to the handling of problems involving a large number of interacting elements. It makes use of the brain's capacity to develop complex simulation models to mirror the real world. The more complete and accurate the model's data base, and the more closely its structure mirrors the relevant interactions of the real world, the more effective the intuition will be. (See Edward de Bono's "Lateral Thinking for Management", Pelican, and Michael Sanderson's "Successful Problem Management" for the practical implications of the theory.)
Conscious logical thought can be thought of as being like a thin intense beam of light focussed on a particular problem. It achieves great clarity at the cost of requiring a reduced field of attention. Also like a torch focussed on the point of interest, conscious logical thought can be redirected at will. There is also awareness of how conclusions are reached.
By contrast, when using intuitive thought, you just "know" or "feel" that the conclusion is correct without being consciously aware of why it is right. This lack of conscious awareness of the mechanics of how you arrive at a conclusion does not matter so long as the results are subjected to subsequent logical and analytical scrutiny, and so long as the results are checked against empirical, real world evidence. Through this checking process the internal intuitive model of the world is updated and improved.
The Opportunity Multiplying method deliberately combines the power of the two main modes of thinking by consciously rotating through cycles of analysis and synthesis, and through alternate applications of intuitive and conscious logical thought.
Frequently problems seem to have paradoxical or contradictory elements which make it difficult to arrive at a satisfactory solution. In this situation the traditional problem solving method would normally recommend developing some sort of halfway compromise.
This response is not ideal however, since many so-called paradoxes are not irresolvable, because they are not "real" but instead arise from semantic confusions, habit-caused blind spots, or an inadequate understanding of the problem or the affected system. The Opportunity Multiplying method assumes that the paradox or contradiction is more apparent than real, and that you should therefore set out to discover where the confusion has arisen from.
A classic cause of misunderstanding is exposed in the "elephant and blind people" parable. The story goes that a group of blind people were examining a new living thing. To one it seemed to be like a snake, to another like a tree, etc, etc, and a strong argument developed over who was correct. In reality none were completely right and none completely wrong. Each was giving an accurate description of part of the creature, which was in fact an elephant, but was falsely assuming that they had perceived the whole of the situation. This sort of distorted perception is the source of much meaningless argument. In any argument it is important to determine whether people are at cross purposes because they are focussed on different, but nevertheless relevant, parts of a larger system.
To make the Opportunity Multiplying method work it is essential that it is applied with full intellectual rigour (and vigour too!). This is because the problems it is designed to solve are the hard ones which are not amenable to solution by other less stringent methods. If you want the results you have to put in the effort. (It is time the "too hard basket" was a temporary stopping place on the way to a solution rather than the end of a dead-end road.)
With Opportunity Multiplying you do not stop using the method because it seems too hard, you simply take a little longer, or work on improving the method itself as it applies to a particular application.
It is also critical that political pressures or “realities” are not allowed to constrain the application of the method, but instead such pressures or "realities" are entered as a datum for consideration using the Opportunity Multiplying method. They are analysed as part of the problem under consideration. There should be no hidden agendas.
To understand how complex systems work it is essential that a person tries to see the world from the perspective of each of the system elements. This principle is summed up in the adage that one should be able to put oneself in other people's shoes. Only in this way can one begin to understand the motivations, needs, preferences etc. of other parties and therefore be in a position to predict what their response would be in different situations.
The Opportunity Multiplying method requires the user to make the prudent assumption that there is at least a little truth or value in everyone's views. The problem is to identify the nature of this truth. The importance of this assumption is that it helps you to avoid:
the single goal problem solving approach,
dismissing views or ideas simply because they have been badly formulated or because they have been put forward by people whose views you may not normally approve of or respect.
As a general rule, there is something important to be gleaned whenever someone is passionate or immovable about an issue, no matter how peculiar or poorly argued their views may seem. It may take some digging and analysing to find out what this important information is.
Good solutions can only be selected if they exist. The more goals one is trying to achieve at once the greater the number of options will have to be generated to find one or some that perform well against all the main requirements.
There are a number of good reasons why you should try to generate solutions with the long term in mind. The first is that once you reject a purely self centred approach there is no reason why you should not consider, as far as you are capable, the needs of all future generations rather than just the immediate one. Furthermore many so-called solutions to problems are nothing more than devices to shift the burden into the future. solving for the long term, at least conceptually, closes off this approach. Furthermore over the long haul, for quasi-immortal entities (like families, corporations and other major human institutions, and living species) the means of achieving private and public good tend to converge and coincide.
No opportunity or problem is too big for personal action. 'Saving the world' can be a personal project - but recognise that you will need to team up with others to take on the task - you will need to act as a catalyst.
Holographic photographs have the unusual feature that they will still display a 'complete' view of the subject even if they are cut in half . Thus the 'whole' seems to reside in all the parts. This concept can be applied as an analogy to organisations.
If an opportunity or a problem needs to be pursued by many people or units over a long period of time, then the hologram approach is probably called for. That is, each person or unit not only has their special tasks to perform but they also take on responsibility for the whole project. So if a person or a unit ceases to be active or some part of the system is missing or under-performing then one or more of the other units takes action to remedy the deficiency. This approach has enormous robustness.
This concept is reflected also in the notion of unilateral cooperation described below.
Solutions or groups of solutions should match the scale and significance of the problems they are designed to tackle. If this does not occur then the whole of the problem cannot be overcome.
Success in any program should be judged by the extent to which the ideal is actually achieved. It is not enough to simply look back to past performance and see some increment of improvement. This is because many serious problems need to be solved within a finite time frame or need to be substantially achieved before a satisfactory result can be claimed.
It is actual achievement of desirable ends that counts, not just the sense of movement in a positive direction.
One of the strengths but also one of the potential weaknesses of the Opportunity Multiplying method is that it expands your field of thinking. This can greatly improve your problem solving capacities. However it can also lead to:
(a) a butterfly approach of purposelessly following
random leads in all directions, or
(b) the paralysis of analysis where you don't know at what point to stop any process, or
(c) being overloaded with simply too much to do.
To avoid this problem you have to have a program for concentrating your actions. When you are working with the analysis or synthesis process you can reduce the task by working at higher levels of generalisation rather than using the traditional process of shrinking your work boundaries. Another approach is to analyse the jobs you have to do and then try to cluster them into the smallest number of meaningful multi-purpose tasks.
It is possible to work towards a complex ideal condition if efforts are made to evolve towards the ideal state over time. This process of evolution will need to involve lots of small steps and a number of major steps. The process of 'continuous improvement' that is advocated in management theory is a good foundation for this approach.
Breaking out of negative cycles requires at least one party to cease tit for tat behaviour and begin to cooperate unilaterally, that is, to act on the basis that the interests of the other party or parties are at least a part of one's own objectives.
To achieve the most it pays to adopt an optimistic approach to projects as a whole. But to ensure that this optimism is not misplaced it is useful on specifics to assume that the worst could happen and then plan to make sure it doesn't or plan to recover from any set backs that might occur . That is, one adopts an optimistic approach at the strategic level, but a pessimistic approach at the tactical or detailed level.
1. Quoted on p.82 of "Changing course: A global business perspective on development and the environment" S. Schmidheiny, The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992.
2. The new system only becomes real when the changes have been implemented! So you have to build solutions twice, once in your head and then once again in the real world ("The 7 habits of highly effective people" Covey, S. 1989. The Business Library: Melbourne., p.99).
3. Holograms are like windows onto their subject. Through a large window the viewer can see objects on the other side from more angles and through a small window the range of perspectives is reduced. Cutting a hologram is like converting it into a smaller window. There is still a 'complete' view but it has a restricted range of perspectives.
White, D., Sutton, P., Pears, A., Mardon, C., Dick, J. & Crow, M. (1978). Seeds for change: Creatively confronting the energy crisis. Patchwork Press/CCV: Melbourne.
Return to Table of Contents