What Is an Analytical Approach?

Introduction

Be careful. This article doesn't teach you what to think. It teaches you how to think.

More than anything else, an analytical approach is the use of an appropriate process to break a problem down into the smaller pieces necessary to solve it. Each piece becomes a smaller and easier problem to solve.

What are the pieces of your puzzle?

Problem solving is puzzle solving. Each smaller problem is a smaller piece of the puzzle to find and solve.

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together involves understanding the relevant parts of the system. Once all the key pieces are found and understood, the puzzle as a whole "snaps" together, sometimes in a final flash of insight.

The key word in the above definition is "appropriate." If your problem solving process doesn't fit the problem at hand, you can execute the process to the highest quality possible and still not solve the problem. This is the reason most people fail to solve difficult problems. They're using an inappropriate approach without realizing it. The process doesn't fit the problem.

You can look high and low, and under every bush in plain sight, but unless you're using an appropriate analytical approach you will never find enough pieces of the puzzle to solve a difficult problem. Even the most brilliant and heroic effort will lead to naught if you're using a problem solving process that doesn't fit the problem.

Lack of a process that fit the problem is why the alchemists failed to turn lead into gold. It's also why so many people and organizations, as well as entire social movements, are failing to turn opportunities into successes.

What are the pieces of your puzzle?

How are you going to find them?

The rest of this article is a deep look at a tried-and-true way of answering that question.

A few thoughts from Morgan Jones, master of analysis

The Thinkers Toolkit coverAn analytical approach is also known as "structuring one's analysis." Here's what Morgan Jones, former CIA analyst, has to say in his widely acclaimed The Thinker's Toolkit, 1995. The book contains 14 powerful analytical techniques for solving difficult problems:

Exactly what does structuring one's analysis mean? The word analysis means separating a problem into its constituent elements. Doing so reduces complex issues to their simplest terms. (page xi)

If we are to solve problems, from those confined to a single individual to those affecting whole nations, we must learn how to identify and break out of restrictive mindsets and give full, serious consideration to alternative solutions. We must learn how to deal with the compulsions of the human mind that, by defeating objective analysis, close the mind to alternatives. Failure to consider alternatives fully is the most common cause of flawed or incomplete analysis. (page xiii)

As a result [of taking an instinctive, intuitive approach] we unwittingly, repeatedly, habitually commit a variety of analytic sins. For example: (page 11)

We commonly begin our analysis of a problem by formulating our conclusions; we thus start at what should be the end of the analytic process.

Our analysis usually focuses on the solution we intuitively favor; we therefore give inadequate attention to alternative solutions.

Not surprisingly, the solution we intuitively favor is, more often than not, the first one that seems satisfactory. Economists call this phenomenon satisficing (a merging of satisfy and suffice). Herbert Simon coined the neologism in 1955, referring to the observation that managers most of the time settle for a satisfactory solution that suffices for the time being rather than pursue the optimum solution that a 'rational model' would likely yield.

We tend to confuse 'discussing/thinking hard' about a problem with 'analyzing' it, when in fact the two activities are not at all the same. Discussing and thinking hard can be like pedaling an exercise bike: they expend lots of energy and sweat but go nowhere.

Like the traveler who is so distracted by the surroundings that he loses his way, we focus on the substance (evidence, arguments, and conclusions) and not on the process of our analysis. We aren't interested in the process and don't really understand it.

Most people are functionally illiterate when it comes to structuring their problems. When asked how they structured their analysis of a particular problem, most haven't the vaguest notion what the questioner is talking about. The word structuring is simply not a part of their analytic vocabulary.

Morgan Jones then reaches these two key conclusions:

In the instinctive approach the mind generally remains closed to alternatives, favoring instead the first satisfactory decision or solution. Consequently, the outcome is frequently flawed or at least less effective than would be the case with the structured approach.

In the structured approach the mind remains open, enabling one to examine each element of the decision or problem separately, systematically, and sufficiently, ensuring that all alternatives are considered. The outcome is almost always more comprehensive and more effective than with the instinctive approach.

Now we can define a few terms: Analytical means the use of analysis to solve problems. Analysis is breaking a problem down into smaller problems so they can be solved individually. Good analysis uses a process to direct the analysis. A process is a repeatable series of steps to achieve a goal, such as a recipe or Robert's Rules of Order for parliamentary procedure. For a process to work, it must fit the problem and be used correctly.

That's why an analytical approach is the use of an appropriate process to break a problem down into the elements necessary to solve it. Each element becomes a smaller and easier problem to solve.

Let's apply these insights to the problem we seek to solve.

Our fundamental premise

The fundamental premise of Thwink.org is that only an analytical approach can solve difficult social problems.

The world's problem solvers are failing to solve problems like global environmental sustainability and the corporate dominance problem because they are pushing on low instead of high leverage points. Activists are presently running blind. They're like a blind bull stumbling around in a china shop. They can't see the difference between what resolves root causes and what does not due to reliance on an instinctual problem solving process rather than an analytical one. If activists would switch to an analytical approach that fits the problem, as science did back in the 17th century when it adopted the Scientific Method, they would be able to correctly analyze difficult problems and find the high leverage points necessary to solve them.

Only then will the impossible become the possible.

Why is an analytical approach any better than what we are doing now?

Because what public interest activists are using now is an intuitive approach. Intuitive approaches work on easy problems. They sometimes work on medium difficulty problem. But they fail on difficult problems because an intuitive approach is simply incapable of the deep, methodical approach required to solve difficult complex system social problems.

The problems the environmental movement faces today, like climate change and abnormally high rates of species extinction, are immensely difficult. If we do not take an analytical approach all we have left to fall back on is an instinctual intuitive approach. History has shown over and over that this doesn't work , even with heroic effort, on classic social problems like these:

Environmental sustainability

Overpopulation

Recurring wars

Recurring large recessions

Excessive income inequality

Institutional large-scale poverty

Endemic political corruption

Corporate dominance

Every one of these problems is centuries or millennia old. There must be a reason all attempts at solution have failed, because every event has a cause. We hypothesize the main reason is reliance in a process that doesn't fit the problem.

Reliance on an informal intuitive problem solving process is the main reason the environmental movement is failing to make the progress so urgently needed. Because of this fatal failure, and it cannot be called anything else, the movement is rapidly losing its credibility with the public, governments, and donors. But we cannot blame the opposition. Nor can we blame the problem for being so intractable. We can only blame ourselves for doing something terribly wrong.

Thwink.org believes that environmentalism's fundamental error is failure to use a process that fits the problem. The process must center on root cause analysis. This is the central theme this website will be driving home time and time again, because an analytical approach is the only known method that works on difficult problems.

I don't believe an analytical approach is the only reliable way that can work. Can you prove this?

Thanks. Here's a short proof:

An analytical approach is the use of an appropriate process to break a problem down into the elements necessary to solve it. Each subelement becomes a smaller and easier problem to solve. It follows that a non-analytical approach is just the opposite: the use of an inappropriate process, which is unable to break a problem down into the elements necessary to solve it. Because this is not done, the problem remains too big and complex to solve. Therefore an analytical approach is the only reliable way that will work on solving the global environmental sustainability problem, because that problem is too big and complex too solve any other way.

Here's another short proof:

This is a difficult problem. Unlike simple problems, difficult problems require an analysis to solve them, because finding the correct solution requires a rigorous analysis. A correct analysis requires reliable knowledge. And the only known way to produce reliable knowledge, knowledge that you know is true, is the Scientific Method. Therefore, because the Scientific Method is an analytical approach, an analytical approach is the only known way to solve difficult problems.

Here's a longer proof:

A more formal proof it's the only reliable way forward:

Any proposition with "the only reliable way" in it is a huge claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Here it is:

An analytical approach is the use of an appropriate process to break a problem down into the elements necessary to solve it. Each element becomes a smaller and easier problem to solve. It follows that a non-analytical approach is just the opposite: the use of an inappropriate process, which is unable to break a problem down into the elements necessary to solve it. Because this is not done, the problem remains too big and complex to solve. That is one reason an analytical approach is the only reliable way that will work on solving the global environmental sustainability problem, because that problem is too big and complex too solve any other way.

Let's take a longer approach to proving an analytical approach is not only a better way, it is the only way.

We will try to prove two things:

1. The analytical approach is the only known approach that works consistently on difficult problems.

2. The global environmental sustainability problem is a difficult problem.

If both propositions are true, then it follows that an analytical approach is the best way to solve the global environmental sustainability problem. Let's prove proposition (1), then (2), and finally conclude the argument.

Proposition 1 - The analytical approach is the only known approach that works consistently on difficult problems.

First we need to prove that the analytical approach is the only known approach that works consistently on difficult problems.

The analytical approach is the formal use of reason to solve problems. The first rules to formal reasoning were invented by Aristotle (384 to 322 BC). Reasoning correctly involves representing the constituent elements of a argument with premises, intermediate conclusions, and final conclusions.

Multiplication example

Here's a simple example showing the difference between an intuitive and an analytical approach. Suppose you need to multiply two three digit numbers. Only a few geniuses can do it in their head, seemingly intuitively. The rest of us cannot no matter how hard we try. We are forced to take an analytical approach, which is structuring one's analysis.

A multiplication problem is structured by writing the two numbers down as shown. Solving the problem then becomes as easy as falling off a log because it requires only multiplying or adding two one digit numbers at a time.

We use hundreds of similar analytical approaches every day, like planning a driving route, composing a meal, and planning how to best approach an important conversation or project. These are done so often and so fast they seen intuitive. But in fact they are analytical.

An analytical approach takes a problem, breaks it down into its constituent elements so as to understand the problem, and then adds elements that represent a solution. These elements form the formal argument that this is the problem and this is the solution.

The reason an analytical approach is required for difficult problems is that all this becomes too complicated to do intuitively. Each element must be represented formally, such as with exact phrases in writing or with equations in a simulation model, so that the problem solver(s) can go over and over an evolving analysis to be certain it is correct. Complex problems have dozens or hundreds of elements, and hundreds or thousands of relationships between those elements. However the mind has only seven (plus or minus two) short term memory banks. This causes the mind to overload quickly on any but the simplest of problems, or problems it has encountered before and memorized the solution.

Before the invention of the Scientific Method in the 17th century, science was based on tradition and guesswor6k. Afterward it was based on an analytical approach. This momentous change caused science to shift into a whole new mode of thinking, one so productive it quickly led to the Industrial Revolution and all that science and technology have brought us today. Science knows of no other method that will work to produce reliable knowledge. This should be proof enough that an analytical approach is required to solve difficult problems.

To summarize, difficult problems require analysis because finding the correct solution rationally instead of by guessing requires a rigorous structured approach. A correct analysis requires reliable understanding, i.e. reliable knowledge. And the only known way to produce reliable knowledge, knowledge that you know is true, is the Scientific Method. Therefore, because the Scientific Method is an analytical approach, an analytical approach is the only known way to solve difficult problems.

Modern civilization is an analytical world. We live or die by our analytical ability. If you can't correctly structure the problem you're working on, you will probably fail to solve the problem.

Proposition 2 - The global environmental sustainability problem is a difficult problem.

Next we need to prove that the global environmental sustainability problem is a difficult problem. To illustration how valuable an analytical approach can be, let's use one.

Difficult environmental problems have characteristics making them inherently difficult to solve. By contrast, easy environmental problems have the following fundamental factors that make them fairly easy to solve:

The Six Factors of Easy Problems

A. Number of types of causes - Easy to solve problems are caused primarily by a single type of behavior, such as the way acid rain is caused mostly by the burning of sulfur-containing coal, or the way a river may be mostly polluted by a single group of chemicals, such as agricultural runoff or factory waste.

B. Proof of cause and effect - For easy problems there is solid proof of cause and effect, such as the way accumulation of heavy metals in animals higher up in the food chain causes health problems, reproductive problems, or death.

C. Displacement in time and space - Easy problems have a short displacement in time and space. This makes cause and effect more obvious. Displacement is the "distance" from cause to effect. For time this may be anywhere from minutes to years to centuries. For space the displacement may be local, regional, or global.

D. Size of problem source - In easy problems the problem source typically involves a relatively small segment of society.

E. Solution expense - The solution is relatively cheap.

F. Solution complexity - The solution is relatively simple.

Difficult problems are just the opposite. They usually have multiple types of behavior that cause them, tenuous proof of cause and effect, a long delay in time and space, the source involves a large segment of society, and the solution is relatively expensive and complicated. Each of these alone make a problem hard to solve. When combined they can make it close to impossible to even conceive of a solution that can be proven to have a high probability of working.

The combination of the factors also causes the emergent problem of solution change resistance. This phenomenon occurs when people know what they should do, but they just don't want to do it. This is clearly present. An outstanding example occurred in 1999 when the US Senate voted 95 to zero against the Kyoto Protocol treaty on climate change. The treaty has not been brought back to the floor since.

Puzzle piece

The pieces of the puzzle of this problem were small in number and easy to find:

1. The problem was caused by a single type of behavior.

2. There was solid proof of cause and effect.

3. The problem source involved a small segment of the system.

4. There was a relatively easy cheap solution.

So despite use of a traditional problem solving approach, the environmental movement solved the sustainability problem. The same cannot be said, however, for the other portions of the problem like climate change, fresh water shortages, deforestation, chemical pollution, natural resource depletion, and many more.

An example of an easy problem was the ozone layer depletion problem. While it looked like a tremendously difficult problem at the time, it was not. It fit the pattern of easy environmental problems. It was caused mostly due to a single type of behavior: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) released into the atmosphere from air conditioners and refrigeration equipment. It had solid proof of cause and effect, after scientific studies were completed. The problem source involved a relatively small segment of society: the CFC manufacturing and use industry. And finally, it had a relatively easy and cheap solution: switch to a substitute.

There was a medium delay in time and a large delay in space, but because the other four factors were present, the ozone layer depletion problem fit the pattern of a simple problem, despite its apparent size and complexity. As a result, by the 1990s the ozone depletion problem was largely solved.

But it was the only difficult global problem that was. The rest, such as climate change, groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, deforestation, and abnormally high species extinction rates, remain unsolved. The reason is they do not fit the pattern of an easy problem, and so are beyond the capabilities of the conventional problem solving approach.

The global environmental sustainability problem falls into the difficult end of the spectrum for all of these factors:

The Six Factors for Difficult Problems

A. Number of types of causes - Difficult problem have many types of causes. Almost every industrialized action we take to produce our food, go to work, generate the energy we consume, build our homes and offices and factories, and so on is a cause.

B. Proof of cause and effect - In difficult problems proof tends to be weak or takes a long time to mature. Although proof we must change course to be sustainable is seen as solid by scientists, it is still seen as weak by society, because of arguments like new technology will solve the problem (technological optimism), as well as the way the very idea of unsustainability is inconceivable to many people (the cultural blindspot problem).

C. Displacement in time and space - Difficult problems usually have long displacement in time and space. For example, climate change has a time displacement of centuries and a space displacement of global.

D. Size of problem source - Difficult problems are systemic so their intermediate causes arise from many places in the system. In the sustainability problem, the problem source is nearly every person, corporation, and government on the planet.

E. Solution expense - Difficult problems usually have expensive solutions. Solving the environmental sustainability problem will be terribly expensive. There's much more than climate change to solve. There's the other nine unsolved problems in the SCOPE study (see below): freshwater scarcity, deforestation and desertification, freshwater pollution, lost of biodiversity, air pollution (excluding climate change), soil deterioration, chemical pollution, and natural resource depletion. They must all be solved simultaneously. Most need to be solve reactively, which is much more expensive.

F. Solution complexity - Difficult problems usually have complex solutions. How do you get seven billion people to fundamentally change their entire life style to solve the entire sustainability problem in only a generation or two? Whatever the solution, it will be inherently complex.

This proves proposition (2), that the global environmental sustainability problem is a difficult problem. In fact, it probably ranks as the most difficult one ever encountered by Homo sapiens in his short 200,000 years of existence.

Argument conclusion

Let's recap our argument. We are trying to prove two things: (1) That the analytical approach is the only known approach that works consistently on difficult problems, and (2) That the global environmental sustainability problem is a difficult problem. If both propositions are true, then it follows that an analytical approach is the best way to solve the global environmental sustainability problem.

Now we can complete the argument. The above has proven (1) and (2) to be true. Therefore it follows that an analytical approach is the best way for the environmental movement to solve the global environmental sustainability problem. Because this is so radically different from the present approach, it qualifies as a new paradigm.

The particular analytical approach we recommend is Analytical Activism.

The SCOPE Study - This defines the complete sustainability problem

This is a fine example of an analytical approach.

Global Environmental Outlook 2000 coverResults of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) study may be found in Global Environmental Outlook 2000. The committee performed a study to find the world’s top environmental problems. The results were summarized in a list of “major emerging issues” on page 339. Some issues on the list are social, such as “poor governance.” Others are contributors (proximate causes) to other issues, such as “population growth and movement.” Extraneous issues like these were removed so as to leave only bona fide environmental problems. The top eleven are listed below.

 

The SCOPE Study
Environmental Problem
Urgency
Solution Success
1. Climate change  
51%
Low
2. Freshwater scarcity
29%
Low
3. Deforestation and desertification
28%
Low
4. Freshwater pollution  
28%
Medium
5. Loss of biodiversity   
23%
Low
6. Air pollution (excluding climate change)
20%
Medium
7. Soil deterioration
18%
Low
8. Ecosystem functioning
17%
Low
9. Chemical pollution
16%
Medium
10. Stratospheric ozone depletion
15%
High
11. Natural resource depletion
11%
Low

The percents are the percentage of SCOPE study respondents who mentioned the issue. More than 200 environmental experts in over 50 countries contributed to the study. 51% of all respondents mentioned climate change as a major emerging issue. Note the problems are ranked by urgency, not difficulty.

This list defines the complete global environmental sustainability problem in terms of symptoms. However, it contains discouraging news: Only the tenth problem on the list, the ozone hole problem, is on a fairly certain path to solution. The other problems are growing worse with no solution in sight.

RELATED INFORMATION
What Are Activists Doing Now Instead of an Analytical Approach?

Public interest activist around the planet are nearly all practicing Classic Activism. It's a time honored traditional approach. It works fine on easy problems. It sometimes works or takes a long time on medium difficulty problems. It fails completely on difficult problems because Classic Activism has no concept of root cause resolution or the need to treat change resistance as a distinct and separate problem to solve. Hence Classic Activism has no need of a real analysis. It relies on intuition instead.

This will come as a huge shock to classic activists, because they sincerely believe they are analytical. They analyze problems all the time.

But they do not analyze what matters. They only analyze the "proper practices" necessary to solve the symptoms of the problem, like renewable energy and the Three Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle. This so called analysis only deals with the superficial layer of the problem, as explained in the glossary entry on causal chain and illustrated below.

Causal Chain Diagram

Classic activist solutions deal only with the superficial layer of the problem, so they are superficial solutions. These are also called symptomatic solutions.

Our Most Popular Pages

These average 9 minutes. They give a quick introduction to the Dueling Loops model and how it explains the tremendous change resistance to solving the sustainability problem.

The most eye-opening article on the site since it was written in December 2005. More people have contacted us about this easy to read paper and the related Dueling Loops videos than anything else on the site.

Why are large for-profit corporations so dominant? What are the side effects? What's the root cause of corporate dominance? What's a solution that would work?

The answers are all here.

Do you every wonder why the sustainability problem is so impossibly hard to solve? It's because of the phenomenon of change resistance. The system itself, and not just individual social agents, is strongly resisting change. Why this is so, its root causes, and several potential solutions are presented.

The most astonishing short read (7 pages) on the site, if you've never heard about it. The memo was written in 1971.