Problem solving and systems thinking LO20141

Leo Minnigh (
Wed, 9 Dec 1998 14:04:02 +0100 (MET)

Replying to LO20119 --

Dear At, dear LO'ers,

> I now have an interesting challenge for you. I have been able to
> recognise up to now fice elementary sustainers of creativity, namely
> dialogue,
> problem-solving
> game-playing
> exemplar-studying
> art-expressing
> You have contrasted ST with problem-solving. How about creating examples
> which contrast ST with each of the other elementary sustainers of
> creativity? I had a go at it the past weekend and came up with examples to
> see if it is possible, but these examples would probably be not as elegant
> as yours or that of others.

Let me first give my comments on these 5 pilars (sustainers).

For a dialogue one needs another person. Although I have regularly
dialogues with myself (a dialogue within the mind), I wonder if everybody
realises the fact that such dialogue could be put into practice (it is
part of the personal mastering). I suspect that the superficial reader may
think that this sustainer is something which is only applicable in a

If so, I like very much the Six Thinking Hats of De Bono. He calls it
Parallel Thinking. I am a strong advocate of this way of thinking and
discussing: everyone (but again, this counts also if you are alone!)
should think and talk towards the same direction for a fixed amount of
time, say 3 minutes. Thus TOGETHER 3 minutes of positive thinking (e.g.
looking for advantages) and than 3 minutes of negative thinking (e.g.
playing devils advocate), etc. This is much more a constructive and
effective way of thinking and discussing, than argumentation and defending
statements (opposite thinking).

I am sure that At is an advocate of the first way of dialogue, but that
should be made clear.

Parallel thinking and dialoguing is a way to explore, it spreads out the
thoughts. It expands the boundaries of the subject. Defending by
argumentation is a contraction of thoughts towards a nucleus. The position
of this nucleus is inside the subject of dialogue but lies not necessarily
in the centre.

It is what the French call: 'dialogue de sourds' (dialogue between the

Problem Solving
See my mail (LO20039). PS is often mentioned in one line with creative
thinking. And there is a close relationship between the two.
However, persons who are not familiar with PS could have a wrong
perception. They usually even have not thought about the different sorts
of problems. I once made a list of over 20 different types of problems.
But very often in daily life, what is seen as a problem, appears to be a
cause of a problem ("Is this is a puzzle, or is it one of the pieces of a

Again, De Bono gives a nice example:

One likes to paint the ceiling of his room. Unfortunately there is no

So, for a lot of people the lack of a ladder is the problem, (instead of
the painting of the ceiling; there are many other ways - without a ladder
- to get paint on the ceiling).

Game playing
Game playing is a very good excercise for relaxation and distracting the
mind from the dayly life. It could be used as one of the techniques for
distracting the mind from ordinary lines of thought. One even could create
- with some concentration - a complete artificial world with its own
systems and problems.

Game playing in solitude or with company. Both may work, although I prefer
the first (playing alone). For years I played chess, also in competition,
and even after a hard days work, a heavy chess game was for me some sort
of a holiday trip. The force to concentrate with minimal muscular activity
seems to be fruitful for (creative) thoughts.

Exemplar studying
This is one of my favorites. It includes the study of the order of steps
in the chain of a process, the formulation of critical conditions (the
nine dots problem), characterising the elements involved, etc.
I will give two examples of this sustainer:

1. A horse rider is in the middle of an endless pampa plain in Argentina.
He discovers that a great fire front is coming with large speed towards
him. The speed of the progressing fire is so high that even with a horse
it is worthless to run away. How does the man with his horse escapes from
this precarious situation?

2. There are two separate rooms, one with 3 electric light switches; the
other with 3 lamps. There is no direct view from the switches to the
lamps. Only with one visit to the room with the lamps, the person is able
to detect which switch is for witch lamp (no special devices are

By thorough analysis of the characteristics of the elements involved, one
might find the solutions.

The fire can only progress if there is something to burn. So if there is
nothing to burn, there will be no fire. By burning the pampa grass in
front of him (and this fire will progress away from him), he creates an
area with no grass. This area will safe him and his horse.

The second problem is maybe more difficult. For a distinction between 3
items, one needs 2 criteria. What are the characteristics of lamps? They
give light, but there is another feature which should be used. Think about

I like to cite two passages from a very interesting book: "Fragile objects
- soft matter, hard science and the thrill of discovery" (1996) by the
French Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes.

"I was also privilaged to have had the chance to spend some time as a
summer intern in a marine laboratory. Every student should dabble in
biology, even if he has no intention of ultimately becoming a biologist.
To begin with, this science has virtue of offering a panoramic view of the
living world and of its stunning diversity; a firsthand observation of
nature's richness of imagination. On a typical day, we would go hunt for a
small scorpion in the mountains, catch it without damaging it (which
requires a certain dexterity), and immerse it in paraffin before placing
it in a stereo microscope (a magnifying glass would be adequate) to
dissect it, using two pins as scalpels. Next, we had to describe
everything we had seen with a series of drawings. This type of hands-on
activity involves important and varied skilles, like visual acumen,
capacity for observation, coordination, and appreciation for careful

"In Japan, a child takes seven years before he knows how to correctly draw
characters. Far from being a handicap, this painstaking learning process
develops in him an essential quality: the taste for a job well done. In
our primary schools, this aptitude is increasingly neglected, if not
downright discouraged. Take the example of a youngster in kindergarten who
works hard to create a pretty drawing, while his classmate sloppily rushes
through his. So as not to traumatize anybody, the teacher will declare
both pictures equally good and will refrain from encouraging the scribbler
to apply himself more. The latter will then quickly learn that one can get
away in life with sloppy work."

I think these quotes say enough: skill, observation, coordination and
appraciation for careful work.

As is creative thinking, as are all these sustainers:


In my experience, this is so important and so often misunderstood.
But what has this to do with art-expressing?
Art-expressing is a process and the result of this process with peculiar
characteristics. The process consists of: observation and sensation (with
all the senses); the 'translation', rearranging, ordering, interpreting,
adding and distracting of elements, etc. in the mind; the results of this
brain-work into muscular activities (singing, acting, writing, painting,
etc.) It is a controlled flow of the outside world via the skin, eyes,
ears and mouth towards the internal sides of the brain and mind, and a
changed flow back towards the outside world.

So far the sustainers.
I like to add some extra comments to them: think of the sustainers in a
multi-human environment like a team ar organization, but think too of the
individual implications.
And knowing At's thinking, we might expect that these sustainers in some
way are valid for the non-human world as well.

What is the relationship of these creativity-sustainers and system
thinking? I will treat them subsequently.
Dialogue (CT) ---- unilogue (ST)
I have thought to find a good alternative for the word dialogue. Dialogue
is composed of dia (=through, often in the sense of splitting) and logos
(=reason). To avoid the misinterpretation (see above) of dialogue as
'contralogue' - reasoning against eachother- , I thought of the word
'unilogue' to stress the importance to talk and think together in an
explorational way. We all probably know the weekly journal "Donald Duck"
(a journal which should be in every scientific and company library!, as
the Journal of Irreproducable Results) where the little nephews (the
'duckies') talk together and adding extra words to each other's words to
complete the sentence. They speak with one voice.
Where the dialogue is generally inside-oriented, the unilogue is

Problem Solving (CT) - Problem analysis (ST)
See my original mail on this subject (LO20039). It is a way to find not
the anomalies and differences, but to explore the simmilarities and
general principles.
Here too, problem solving is inside-oriented, problem analysis is

Game playing (CT) -> game thinking (ST)
This is - as said - a way to escape the heavily used thinking paths. This
counts also for system thinking. Although, one may add an extra dimension
to the game wich one plays. I mean this litarary.
(Pool)-biljard may be played (in the abstract world of the mind) in 3
dimensions, as 'tick-tack-toe'or noughts and crosses. It is a way to get
better inside into the basic rules of a game.
So although game playing might be easy applicable in systems thinking, the
thinking of the elementary principles (and the recognition of them) of the
game is a part of systems thinking.
This is contrary to the first 2 sustainers, a sustainer which is not
inside-oriented. However some game players do focus only inside the game

Exemplar studying (CT) -> studying the complementary (ST)
This sustainer too seems inside-oriented. Although this is very important
for sytems thinking as well, I like to give its complementary for ST as
extra dimension. This is to force the outside-oriented thinking.
One could compare this with studying a photograph (exemplar studying) and
its negative film (thinking of the complementary). Another example is
something which golfers used to say when their ball has a difficult lie
behind trees. The would say: "don't look to all those tree branches, there
is 80% air between them" (and the golfer seems gained the courage to hit
the ball right through the trees, experiencing that the ball was able to
find the other 20%!).
It is ment to underbuild one of the strong points of At, to take
'wholeness' into account.

Art-expressing (CT + ST)
I don't have an additional term for ST. Probably it is because this
sustainar is already outside-oriented.

And this difference of inside-outside is probably the main theme between
creative thinking and systems thinking.

> What did happen in my examples is what you
> have noted about your example:
> >This excercise forces one immediately to lift the mind
> >towards higher abstract levels. The answers I have received
> >when testing this example (but any example may work) are
> >also delightful in their creativity.
> Is it the system thinking which caused the delight, or the elementary
> sustainer used in the comparison?

At, I noticed the creative potential of the answers I received from my
examples. I am however not sure about the answer on your last question. It
is because most of the responders did not know what ST is. The example
(see LO20039: find the simmilarities between a high building, a rose and a
lamp post in the street) was exactly to give them the feeling and idea of
what ST is. And I think that a lot of people need some training in ST.
However I am convinced that if one is able to bring ST into practice, the
results will have great creative potential. And I am also sure that such
person realises his own creativity and will see that ST is a strong method
for generating creative thoughts. The very example showed that to them.

So concluding, what is the relation between CT and ST? Are they the two
antagonists (strongly connected, equally strong, on the same level), or is
one a special case of the other (like the branch of a tree)? I think it
is the latter, but what is the tree, and what is the branch? In my mind
CT is the tree and ST the branch, although I am not sure of this. If this
is so, ST is a sustainer of CT and should be added to the list of At.

I think that this is a fundamental question and hope that others will give
their insights.

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <>

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