Puzzles vs. mysteries in Smithsonian

Earlier this year, I linked to Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article about Enron. I was most interested in his distinction between puzzles and mysteries. "Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty," Gladwell wrote. It's a subtle difference, but one that I think is important to recognize. Indeed, my Institute for the Future colleague Bob Johansen argues in his forthcoming book Get There Early that in our increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, the biggest challenges we face are not problems that can be solved but dilemmas that must be managed; they have no solutions. In the new issue of Smithsonian, Gregory Treverton delves into the similar mystery vs. puzzle difference in the context of recent events. Puzzles, like the Soviet Union, "can be solved because they have answers," he writes. On the other hand, a mystery, like Al Qaeda, has "no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown." From Smithsonian:

A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

Puzzles may be more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries. Treating them as puzzles is like trying to solve the unsolvable–an impossible challenge. But approaching them as mysteries may make us more comfortable with the uncertainties of our age...

Puzzle-solving is frustrated by a lack of information. Given Washington's need to find out how many warheads Moscow's missiles carried, the United States spent billions of dollars on satellites and other data-collection systems. But puzzles are relatively stable. If a critical piece is missing one day, it usually remains valuable the next.

By contrast, mysteries often grow out of too much information. Until the 9/11 hijackers actually boarded their airplanes, their plan was a mystery, the clues to which were buried in too much "noise"–too many threat scenarios. So warnings from FBI agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix went unexplored. The hijackers were able to hide in plain sight. After the attacks, they became a puzzle: it was easy to pick up their trail.

Solving puzzles is useful for detection. But framing mysteries is necessary for prevention.


Previously on BB:
• Gladwell on mysteries vs. puzzles Link
• Bad predictions about the future Link