When I first started out in the early 1970’s as a practicing policy analyst, it was said that 90% of a policy analysis was answering the question, “What’s the problem?” Having defined the problem meant you presumably knew what a solution would look like if you saw it—and that was a big step forward in finishing the analysis.
Today, 90% of a policy analysis—indeed of major policy practice and work—are its initial conditions, not problem definition. Why? Because the initial conditions, both for the issue and making a decision with respect to the issue, are often uncertain, complex, incomplete and conflicted—and all in real time when the decision is to be made. The first question then in an analysis is to ask (and re-ask): “What am I missing?,” since without an answer we don’t know enough about what’s to be done in the steps ahead, including addressing anything like “What’s the problem here?”
What kind of work is involved in answering, What am I missing?”
What you are missing right in front of you is, as in Hiroshige’s print below, like being drawn the fact that print’s waves of lambent water and night-light are produced by the underlying grain of the woodblock (the technique is sometimes called, kimetsubushi):
To see the behind-woodblock in the front-print—to see what is in front of us, even though at first missed—we must be diverted or redirected to it through those front-side waves of water and light. It would be as if the female figure acted as a repoussoir, drawing your attention to the waves on her right and above. The more experienced (trained) we are in looking at—actually describing and evaluating—such prints, the more we will see the presence or absence of kimetsubushi from the get-go.
Those of us, however, who are inexperienced and untrained must instead be distracted to take a second look at the waves if we are to notice the woodblock grain-in-the-print.
For the inexperienced, the key way to be sidetracked or distracted is by surprise—in this case, the surprise of finding the grain-wave pattern on your own. Surprise is the bellwether of inexperience; it alerts us to the fact we’ve been missing things. Surprise thereby becomes the focal point from which to anchor and observe what has hitherto been unnoticed, unfocused or undifferentiated. If our surprise reminds us that we has missed something important right in front of us, then the analyst who is rarely surprised—“Nothing really shocks me anymore…”—may be asking every question but the one that matters. Indeed, a sustained lack of surprise is the most worrisome indicator when operating in a world full of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty.
That said, the point of thinking an issue through is not just to hesitate before taking a decision, or to have second thoughts so as not to back yourself into a corner, or even to give yourself the opportunity of being distracted by other matters that turn out to have been more important anyway. Rather, having to think things through is a key way to having such a concentrated attention and focus that you see something as if for the first time: because that is just what you are doing—seeing a different object.
Start instead, if you prefer, from the opposite direction: Why is it I don’t see what is right in front of me?
One reason I don’t see is because I don’t want to, or so I’m always told. “One day when I dined with Scheik El-Fayoum,” writes Napoleon in his Memoirs, “they were talking of the Koran: ‘It contains all human knowledge,” said the Scheik. ‘Does it tell us how to cast cannon and make gunpowder?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ replied they; ‘but then you must know how to read it!’”
Another reason I don’t see what’s right in front of me is that there is more than enough to miss when the issue is complex, given the cognitive biases I bring anyway to seeing things. Then there is the fact that what matters most is often taken as given and unquestioned, i.e., unnoticed consciously by me, let alone by us together (as in groupthink). Most of us don’t notice what’s missing, e.g., Shakespeare appears not to mention a painter once and Julius Caesar oddly has no great speeches of Cicero.
I suppose the best spin to put on these and such considerations is that a profession’s blind-spots and its strengths are often one and the same: Irrigation engineers are not crop scientists, and learning is so intensive that each cannot be expected to know as much as the other.
Note, however, that the most plausible reason for not seeing what is unseen—well, it’s not there at all—turns out to be least plausible when living in a complex world of many components, functions and interconnections. In that world, new connections can and are to be discovered or uncovered all the time.
To see how, return to Hiroshige’s print. I can also insist that the lambent waves resonate with Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night, and that resonance is as much there—right in front of me–as is the grain in the woodblock. Indeed, you and I and others can continue seeing new connections arising out of and from the print, along the same lines critic, Susan Sontag, argued that “There is no final photograph.”
So too when it comes to asking and answering, What am I missing?, in complex policy and management. I submit that’s a good mess to be in, even though others around you find themselves at a “dead-end” or “in a stalemate.”