Problem-Solving and Inverse Insight

Problem-Solving and Inverse Insight by Dr. Greg Waddell

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What do you do when you run up against a problem that refuses to be resolved? Maybe we can get by with a little help from our philosophers.

One of my favorite philosophers is Bernard Lonergan. In volume three of his monumental Collected Works, Lonergan explores the concept of Insight, which he defines as the “act of understanding.” But what caught my attention this week was not insight itself, but rather Lonergan’s idea of “Inverse Insight.”

Lonergan says that normal insight–what he calls “direct insight”–sees a problem or unanswered question and through mental effort discovers a satisfying solution. Many problems in life are like this. Your house gets broken into, so you install the latest alarm system–problem solved. The dog keeps running away, so you put up a fence–problem solved.

But sometimes, the question or problem absolutely resists resolution. When this happens, is it that we’re just not smart enough to figure it out? Or is something else going on?

If I understand Lonergan right, I think he would say that–given the current conditions–some problems simply do not have a solution. It’s a bit like, “You can’t get there from here.” Inverse insight is the experience of finally coming to this conclusion. It’s insight into the fact that the question cannot be answered.

How can the concept of inverse insight help us in the workplace? Perhaps an example might help.

I once asked my students in a Principles of Management class to share a problem they were currently facing so that we could use it as a case study for problem analysis and resolution. One student was the administrator of the cafeteria for a public elementary school. Her problem was that she was having trouble providing a reliable menu to her cooks. She constantly had to rework the daily menu, because she would find that her inventory was lacking the item or items that she had planned for the day.

We did a causal relationship diagram to break down the problem and allow us to see the multiple forces that were contributing to the outcome that she was not able to publish a reliable menu. Here is a list of some of the forces that contributed to this problem:

  1. The county did not have an integrated computer network that would allow the cafeteria administrators to see what was on the shelves at the central warehouse.
  2. The school–much less the cafeteria administrator–had no influence over the delivery trucks to ensure that items were delivered on time according to plan.
  3. The administrator had no control over the children’s appetites and preferences and could not determine in advance how much of one item or another would be devoured in a given school day.
  4. The administrator had no control over the process of distribution to the various schools. Of particular relevance was the fact that she had no control over how the county decided which schools received their orders and which had to find something else in the case of a shortage.

After a lengthy discussion, everyone just stopped talking and stared at the monstrosity of a diagram that we had created on the white board. We had reached an impasse.

After further probing, one of the students experienced the beginning of an inverse insight. He said, “There is no solution.”

When you get to that point where you recognize that the problem resists resolution–at least in a linear and logical manner–then it may be time to look at the question itself.

Given the conditions under which this cafeteria administrator worked, there simply was no solution to the problem. The question: “How can I provide a menu that my kitchen workers can count on?” could not be answered.

The issue could not be resolved from her vantage point. It was a much larger issue that would require a commitment on the part of top management to streamline the entire process. And even then, because of union opposition and federal regulations, prospects for finding a solution were dim.

What do you do when you face an Inverse Insight–insight into the unresolvability of a problem? One suggestion might be to reformulate the question.

As I recall, we never got this far in that class, but, instead of asking how she could provide a firm, unchanging, menu to her cooks, maybe she should be asking, “How can I empower my subordinates to make on-the-spot changes and adaptations based on what is available in any given day at any given time?”

By changing the scope of the question to fit her range of influence, she would be in a better position to find a satisfying answer. I don’t know what the answer would be, but I have a feeling that such a question would have led to a more productive outcome for this administrator.

What do you think? Does Lonergan’s concept of Inverse Insight help? What are some inverse insights that you have experienced?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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