The Value of Defining Context
The most important stage of problem-solving in organizations is often one of the earliest: getting everyone on the same page by defining the concepts, processes, and desired outcomes that are central to understanding the problem and formulating a solution. (“Everyone” can be the individuals on a project team, or the individuals that contribute actions to a process, or both.) Too often, we assume that the others around us see and experience the world the same way we do. In many cases, our assessments are not too far apart, which is how most people can get away with making this assumption on a regular basis.
I first realized this divergence in the work context a few years ago, when a colleague and I were advising a project at a local social services office. We asked our students to document the process that was being used to process claims. There were nearly ten people who were part of this claims-processing activity, and our students interviewed all of them, discovering that each person had a remarkably different idea about the process that they were all engaged in! No wonder the claims processing time was nearly two months long.
We helped them all — literally — get onto the same page, and once they all had the same mental map of the process, time-in-system for each claim dropped to 10 days. (This led us to the quantum-esque conclusion that there is no process until it is observed.)
Today, I read about how mathematician Keith Devlin revolutionized the process of intelligence gathering after 9/11 using this same approach… by going back to one of the first principles he learned in his academic training:
So what had I done? Nothing really — from my perspective. My task was to find a way of analyzing how context influences data analysis and reasoning in highly complex domains involving military, political, and social contexts. I took the oh-so-obvious (to me) first step. I need to write down as precise a mathematical definition as possible of what a context is. It took me a couple of days…I can’t say I was totally satisfied with it…but it was the best I could do, and it did at least give me a firm base on which to start to develop some rudimentary mathematical ideas.
The fairly large group of really smart academics, defense contractors, and senior DoD personnel spent the entire hour of my allotted time discussing that one definition. The discussion brought out that all the different experts had a different conception of what a context is — a recipe for disaster.
What I had given them was, first, I asked the question “What is a context?” Since each person in the room besides me had a good working concept of context — different ones, as I just noted — they never thought to write down a formal definition. It was not part of what they did. And second, by presenting them with a formal definition, I gave them a common reference point from which they could compare and contrast their own notions. There we had the beginnings of disaster avoidance.
Getting people to very precisely understand the definitions, concepts, processes, and desired outcomes that are central to a problem might take some time and effort, but it is always extremely valuable.
When you face a situation like this in mathematics, you spend a lot of time going back to the basics. You ask questions like, “What do these words mean in this context?” and, “What obvious attempts have already been ruled out, and why?” More deeply, you’d ask, “Why are these particular open questions important?” and, “Where do they see this line of inquiry leading?”
(You can read the full article about Devlin, and more important lessons from mathematical thinking, Here.)