Intuitive Process Trap

The intuitive process trap occurs when a problem solver, who may be an individual or an organization, tries to apply the same intuitive, informal problem solving process they use on everyday problems (including problems at work) to a difficult problem. The unconscious assumption (a cognitive bias) is that the same process will solve all problems. The result is symptomatic solutions (superficial solutions) that do not address the root cause.

Why avoiding the intuitive process trap is important

After the fundamental attribution error, this is probably the most common trap of them all in environmentalism, judging by the widespread lack of use of a formal, highly refined processes tailored to the problem. For example, when was the last time you read a proposal that offered a solution to the sustainability problem, and backed up that assertion with a formal, highly refined problem solving process that fit the problem well, and an analysis driven by that process? I've never seen one.

There is a class of problems that behave so differently from those we normally encounter that when we do encounter them, we fall into the intuitive process trap. We assume our normal problem solving processes, the ones that have worked so well all our lives, will work here too. It’s an assumption made so fast and subconsciously it’s never noticed. It’s a false assumption because during our everyday lives we never change the system (with very rare exceptions).

Thus none of our habitual processes can work on the class of problems known as systemic problems. For that class we need an entirely different process.

How the trap occurs

Jay Forrester, inventor of the field of system dynamics, described the trap in the forerunner to The Limits to Growth. This was in his World Dynamics book, 1971, page 95:

Social systems are inherently insensitive to most policy changes that people select in an effort to alter behavior. In fact, a social system draws attention to the very points at which an attempt to intervene will fail. Human experience, which has been developed from contact with simple systems, leads us to look close to the symptoms of trouble for a cause. But when we look, we are misled because the social system presents us with an apparent cause that is plausible according to the lessons we have learned from simple systems, although this apparent cause is usually a coincident occurrence that, like the trouble symptom itself, is being produced by the feedback loop dynamics of a larger system.

John Sterman describes the same trap in his Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, 2001, page 27:

The mental models [and processes] people use to guide their decisions [on solving everyday problems] are dynamically deficient [so they don’t fit complex system problems]. As discussed above, people generally adopt an event-based, open-loop view of causality, ignore feedback processes, fail to appreciate time delays between action and response and in the reporting of information, do not understand stocks and flows, and are insensitive to nonlinearities that may alter the strengths of different feedback loops as a system evolves.

This explains why intuitive approaches to solving the sustainability problem do not work.

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The Alternative

The alternative to the intuitive process trap is an analytical approach. This replaces intuition with analysis and, if conscientiously applied, failure with success.

Where Intuitive Approaches Fail

Intuitive approaches to problem solving take this basic approach:

1. Define the problem

2. Become familiar with the problem.

3. Generate possible solutions, such as with brainstorming, stakeholder involvement, literature research, expert opinion, etc.

4. Converge on the best solution.

5. Implement the solution.

Analytical approaches take this approach:

1. Define the problem

2. Analyze the problem

3. Use analysis results to generate solutions

4. Converge on the best solution.

5. Implement the solution.

Difficult problems have root causes too well hidden to find with the intuitive approach because it lacks an analysis step. Thus it can't use analysis results to generate solution candidates. It is instead forced to rely on barbaric methods like brainstorming. This and the other methods are all advanced forms of guesswork, because if you have not analyzed a problem's structure, they you can only guess as to what its causes and solutions may be.