Is This Problem Deterministic or Non-Deterministic?

We solve many problems over the course of a day, week, month, year. Some problems are difficult because the problem is difficult to solve. Some of my book projects are like that—I have to do some of the work to discover what the work is. And, the discovery is relatively small. The problem is deterministic.

Some problems are difficult because we can’t predict what will happen. We discover something that changes the entire rest of the trajectory of the problem. Many change efforts, such as agile transformations, are like this. Sometimes, projects with much discovery exhibit this kind of behavior. This work is non-deterministic.

I’m going out on a limb here and declaring this: When we ask people to change their behavior for the long-term, that’s a non-deterministic problem. We can’t predict how people will behave. We can’t predict how the changes will occur. We can’t predict the order of the changes.

We’re pretty sure something will change. We might not know exactly what. That’s why non-deterministic problems are such a challenge to solve.

We can often “attack” or persevere with deterministic problems. We try one tack. If it works, we continue. If not, we try another approach. Consider road detours. We follow the signs (or, if we’re familiar with the roads, we travel an entirely different way.) One way or another, we can get to where we’re going.

We often use this approach in Engineering or IT. We know the machine/code/product will work in a specific way. We might have to discover that way, but we can get there eventually.

With people? People are not machines. People are non-deterministic in the most delightful ways. Yes, I really do mean delightful. Some people surprise me—if I explain what’s going on in a way that connects with them, they say, “Sure, let’s do this. Tell me the first step.” We might have to work together to discover the next steps, but their reaction tells me we can work together to achieve the goal.

What about people who aren’t immediately attracted to my possible solution? That means we need to discover a solution together. We might need to generate options in a variety of ways.

This question interests me—and I hope you—because so many of our personal, organizational, and cultural problems are non-deterministic.

I’ve brought you into some of my personal challenges, discussing my vertigo and how it affects me. You’ve ridden along on some of my problem-solving with a non-deterministic, persistent problem.

When organizations want to create change, such as moving to an agile approach, I worry about using a deterministic approach to solve a non-deterministic problem.

And, as a culture—regardless of your country—we have many non-deterministic problems to solve. Expecting a short, concise, deterministic answer isn’t realistic.

As you consider problems and solutions, consider the determinism of your problem. If the solution appears straightforward, maybe it’s deterministic. If the solution doesn’t appear straightforward, it’s non-deterministic. Maybe this lens will help you think about your problems better.

The question this week is: Is this problem deterministic or non-deterministic?

2 thoughts on “Is This Problem Deterministic or Non-Deterministic?

  1. Jim Grey

    The trouble is, so many leaders get hired on promises of deterministic solutions to non-deterministic problems. And then everybody under them ends up miserable.

    1. johanna Post author

      Yes. I need to write/finish the management books. We might ask for guarantees elsewhere in life, but we don’t expect them. I am still confused as to why people expect guarantees for work that requires lots of discovery.

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