Puzzles vs. Mysteries

My in-laws just gave me the latest Malcolm Gladwell book — What the Dog Saw — and I’ve been grazing in it the last few days.  The book is a collection of his New Yorker pieces;  he also includes a few key updates and notes that bring the articles up-to-date.

I just finished his piece on the Enron scandal — the original New Yorker article is here — and he makes a distinction between puzzles and mysteries that I hadn’t seen before.  As regular readers know, complexity is one of my favorite topics (and key posts on the topic are collected here).  IMO, many of our issues with complex initiatives stem from a belief that all problems are puzzles and that just a little more information is all we need.

Gladwell attributes this insight to Gregory Treverton and explains it thusly:

Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. 

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