Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Puzzle of Mystery

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink! and The Tipping Point, has a very interesting article over at The New Yorker.

Drawing on a distinction, attributed to national-security expert Gregory Treverton, between a puzzle and a mystery, Gladwell offers an analysis of Enron and the Iraqi war. The distinction is essentially this: A puzzle is a problem that is solved by finding more information. When the information is in place, the puzzle is solved (or the solution is clear). A mystery is something different. It's not a matter of missing information, it's a matter of how one puts the information together.

So Enron and Iraq were (are) mysteries; there was no clear cut solution that was only out of reach because we lacked information. The information was there, it was how the information was understood that mattered.

Gladwell describes how Enron's business model and accounting procedures were out there to be seen. In fact, he refers to a 1998 Cornell business school project where six students correctly identified that Enron's practices were risky, dubious, and possibly manipulative. Other financial reports found similar things. Both found this information in public documents.

So the 'problem of Enron' was not a puzzle. It was a mystery: figuring out what was going on and what was going to happen required complicated and thorough analysis of the information already available (we didn't need more disclosure, we needed better understanding of what was disclosed). Getting the right conclusion was an exercise in good judgment, require experience and sometimes specialized knowledge.

Iraq is similar in that understanding what was going on prior to invasion as well as predicting the consequences required analyzing countless bits of information and putting them together in the appropriate ways. This in part explains the great divergence of viewpoints and visions on pre-invasion and post-invasion Iraq: People are looking at the information and seeing different things.

Gladwell doesn't offer any solutions or proposals, just an interesting analysis of how the way one looks at a problem (is it a puzzle or a mystery) is deeply relevant to one's success. In a puzzle, one needed more information. In a mystery, one needs comprehension of the information one already has. So looking at a problem as one or the other will counsel different courses of action.

A few thoughts:
  • One wonders after reading Gladwell, exactly what Enron did that was explicitly criminal? I am not apologizing (I know little about the facts of the case, so this is just speculation) for Enron, but it seems like, according to Gladwell, they followed the accounting and reporting rules pretty much as they should but got caught in their own complicated web of financial tools (that they barely understood themselves) and collapsed. They may have been deceptive but did they violate state or federal laws? It strikes me, at least following Gladwell's account, that they got into some shady areas that was just enough to hang them on, but had they not been as big or caused so much financial disruption, they would have gotten off with some fines or more minor sentences.
  • The puzzle/mystery distinction might be interesting as a way of distinguishing science and philosophy. Science is about puzzles: finding the facts and collecting information. Problem-solving is largely a matter of getting better information. Philosophy is about mysteries: taking the information and conceptualizing; putting it together in a way that makes the best sense of the information. Problem-solving here is a matter of honing one's judgment.

1 comment:

Kendall J said...

Very interesting comment. Much of business school case method is lessons in solving mysteries rather than puzzles. The information is already there and pretty darn simple, but it is assembling it in the right way that is the tough part.

Rumor was that when Enron was big name, the CFO of the company I work for asked a team to go see what their trading group was doing that was so successful. The team came back with basically a "don't go there" conclusion.

Notice also the role for philosophical orientation in mystery solving. Philosophy might really make the world go round!

Very interesting thanks,
Kendall J.