Ponder’s 20 Questions for complex problem solving and strategy development (and practical techniques to help answer them) draw on a broad set of skills and techniques from different sectors and disciplines spanning the hard-soft spectrum and the analytical-creative spectrum. These include the fields of engineering, complexity science, behavioural economics, logical reasoning, learning and adaptive design and many others.
Underpinning all of it however, are three important points. The first, is a recognition that things are interconnected and dynamic. There are nested, multiple and mutual (feedback) cause-and-effect relationships everywhere, and these change. We can think of the world as a ‘system’ (with many sub-systems). A system has many interconnected parts that produce a certain ‘behaviour’ when they all come to life, a bit like a car’s parts are all interconnected in a certain way so that when they ‘come to life’ they produce a certain behaviour (a moving vehicle that can transport things). The parts of a system and how they are interconnected is the system ‘structure’. What the system does when it comes to life is its ‘behaviour’. When we are designing something, we design the parts and their interconnections so that they produce an outcome (or behaviour) that we want. Social and policy systems can be thought of in the same way, though there are many more different types of parts, not just mechanical and tangible parts like those of a car). There are humans and their feelings, incentives, goals and information flows for example. But the principle remains the same. All the right parts need to be there and interconnected in a certain way, to give the outcome (system behaviour) that we want. If we don’t design the ‘system’, then a system will exist anyway, and whatever system is in place, will determine what the resulting outcome or behaviour is. So that’s Ponder’s first underpinning principle. We take a systems approach – designing the system structure to give the behaviour we want.
The second point is the recognition that systems change over time. They are dynamic. They are largely unpredictable, for several reasons – we don’t know how all systems behave, we don’t know in advance the random and chance events that will occur to affect the system, and, the world is very non-linear and sometimes chaotic. So any strategy to influence the system cannot be simply designed and then implemented. That’s pretty much guaranteed not to work for complex areas of policy. Strategies need to be designed iteratively, so they can adapt to things that change and to what we learn along the way about what works and what doesn’t. It’s not as hard as it sounds. We just need to recognise it and work with it.
The third point, is that we believe that in order to understand and influence complex things, we require a capacity for higher-level thinking. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley cites critical thinking (or higher-order thinking) as what being ‘smart’ entails. Its not simply the the ability to memorise facts, but more importantly, the ability to do something useful with facts, learning to solve problems, to reason, being able to think for oneself. She concluded that in the countries who scored amongst the highest in standardised tests for real-world problem solving (Norway, Poland, South Korea), “there was a consensus …that all children had to learn higher-order thinking in order to thrive in the world”. Embedded in Ponder’s 20 Questions are prompts to help us think creatively, critically, strategically, and analytically. They draw on different thinking techniques such as systems thinking, design thinking, futures thinking and behavioural insights. They are not the type of skills that are widely taught in many of our educational systems, but we hope one day they will be.