Solving Problems — Puzzle vs. Mystery

Est. Reading Time: 2 minutes

Information workers are used to solving problems. Approaches can vary to determine a viable solution and can be bound by many constraints. Resources, budget, and timing are among typical real world constraints. I read a column from the author and New Yorker columnist, Malcolm Gladwell, that talks about problem solving. Essentially, they can be thought of either one of two possible types: a puzzle or a mystery.

The article was published by the New Yorker in 2007 and is titled “Open Secrets” and covers multiple topics. The article is part of a collection included in the book “What the Dog Saw” and talks about the Enron financial debacle, hunting for Saddam Hussein, analyzing Nazi propaganda and techniques for cancer diagnosis. What caught my attention the most was the distinction between a puzzle and a mystery.

As Gladwell states it, the difference between a puzzle and a mystery are shown below along with my comments.

Puzzles are “transmitter-dependent”; they turn on what we are told.

For each puzzle, the information source controls what (and how) we are told. Completing the puzzle is possible if we are given accurate and sufficient information. The information source may withhold data that can hinder solving the problem.

Mysteries are “receiver dependent”; they turn on the skills of the listener…..

The skills you (and others) bring to solving the problem then determine if you can devise a solution. All the information is provided but you must be able to logically, sensibly interpret it. There is a related issue with the amount of data provided here. Gladwell argues that we can become saturated with data; too much data is a bad thing and could allow us to get lost in what is important vs. trivial and inhibit progressing to a solution.

If you can assess what problem type you have, it may drive your approach to a solution accordingly. Part of the assessment then will include things like:

  1. Do you have enough information?
  2. How do you know?
  3. Is your data source credible?
  4. Do I have the correct skill(s) for this problem?
  5. What resource(s) are available to assist me?

I hope this blog has lead you to some insights on problem solving.

Is this a puzzle or a mystery to you?