My boss has been heard to say that when they started the company in 1997, he assumed that within a few years we would have figured everything all out and would just be applying the Asset Management manual. Instead, we learn something new on every project… Twenty five years on, that’s certainly true for me.
My old colleague John Lavan described what we have to do as tackling problems, not solving puzzles.
A puzzle is (in his terms) something where you already know what you have to do to solve it. It’s a rule-based game, like school-level mathematics. Apply this methodology and it will come out right.
Whereas we are faced with problems, where we don’t necessarily know what to do, or if there is a good solution.
As soon as we work out a useful approach on something, we’re faced with having to evolve it further. That is, even if we’re lucky enough to have a good way to start.
Fellow Talking Infrastructure Board member Lou takes this further. There are puzzles, which don’t resemble Asset Management, but perhaps some engineers still wish for; problems, which seems to be our AM world; and predicaments, where there maybe isn’t a solution at all.
I’d like to think building an asset inventory is a puzzle that we already know how to solve. Plenty of individuals don’t yet know, of course, but that feels like just an issue of communication.
On the other hand, what’s an effective strategy for Asset Management in a particular organization? We know the principles (alignment to corporate targets, the Six Box Model of elements), but that’s merely the opening tool kit. Making Asset Management business as usual is a problem, still, for just about everyone. Too many variables and different nuances.
Old age is a predicament. And as for climate change? Maybe, given human psychology, it’s a predicament, not simply a problem.
Any effective strategy for Asset Management is bedeviled by qualitative considerations. Most organisations with an interest in AM are delivering diverse services through their asset portfolio. Limited public funding, and the desire to provide more services than can be sustained, generates questions that are often unanswerable and unpalatable. That’s a predicament.
We also encounter what I would call mysteries as Asset Management practitioners.
Puzzles are challenges that have clear and defined solutions, with all the pieces, even if they are not arranged in ways where the solutions are obvious. Examples of puzzles include Sudoku, asset utilization, budget preparation… Puzzles often require logical and analytical thinking and can be solved through a systematic approach.
Problems are challenges that require a solution, but are not as clearly defined as puzzles. They are often more complex and may require more creativity to solve. Examples of problems include a malfunctioning computer, inoperative lift pump, or a disagreement with someone. Problems often require analysis, research, and brainstorming – a mix of approaches – to arrive at a solution. They may require trial and error, hypothesis testing, experimentation.
Predicaments are challenges that we manage to an outcome, hopefully towards the best outcome over a time horizon. They are often characterized by conflicting goals, unsolvable constraints, our values, or priorities. Examples of predicaments include dealing with a chronic illness or caring for a loved one with a disability. Predicaments require acceptance, adaptation, and resilience to manage effectively. Outcomes to predicaments are often the result of trade-offs or compromises. Reductionist thinking only makes them worse.
Mysteries are challenges that are difficult to understand or explain. They often require intuition, insight, or inspiration to solve. Mysteries, unlike puzzles, will have gaps, missing information or parts, and any answer will likely include known unknowns.
Examples of mysteries include the nature of consciousness or the origin of the universe, but also more apparently mundane questions (how to deal with engineers, or HR?) They may require a deep understanding of the subject matter and collaboration or interdisciplinary approaches to solve. When you find yourself in mystery territory, intelligent cooperation is one of the best tools to deploy.
Step one is really trying to decide what we are facing. We can’t deploy the wrong tools, and perfect isn’t the aim – only to move closer to our target, in many real situations.