Using Values and Rationality to Solve Complex Problems

Brad C. Anderson

Values guide wise action. In general, the problems groups and organizations identify are related to the values they pursue. For example, a finance department may focus on the value of sustainability. Consequently, the problems it sees will likely be related to sustainability.

It is worth remembering, though, that organizations require the realization of multiple values to thrive.

Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action. One reason this is true is that our understanding is often limited and flawed. Each form of rationality presented in Chapter V provides clarity in some aspects of human activity but is blind in others.

Solving problems requires us to bring appropriate forms of rationality to bear.

We can improve our problem-solving ability by bringing multiple people and perspectives together in the process of collective reasoning. Through collective reasoning, people representing different value positions and relying on various forms of rationality come together to create a more vibrant picture of the situation. Let’s explore these ideas in more detail.

Using Appropriate Forms of Rationality to Solve Problems

Each type of rationality discussed in Chapter V has strengths in certain areas. For example, economic rationality has advantages when you are trying to discover how to use your resources most productively. When you are trying to understand the social dynamics in a specific social setting, however, contextual (cultural) rationality may be more appropriate. Thus, it is vital to understand which form of rationality is suitable for that situation when solving a problem.

That said, we get a more vibrant picture of our situation by bringing multiple rationalities to bear. For example, using contextual (cultural) rationality may help us determine how to best apply the results of our economic rationality to a specific organization. We saw an example of this with the Seniors Program in Appendix 1.

  • Remember, the researchers initially wanted a single, uniform intervention they could apply equally in BC and Nova Scotia premised on their investigation (i.e. technocratic rationality).
  • Differences between the regions prevented this, so people had to modify and adapt the intervention for each health authority (i.e. contextual (cultural) rationality).

In short, consider the nature of your problem and assess the rationality most appropriate to solve it. Then, broaden your thinking by applying different types of rationality to enrichen your view of the situation. Applying multiple types of rationality by yourself may be challenging to accomplish. Luckily, in organizations, you are not alone.

Collective Reasoning as a Way to Solve Problems

A person can only know so much. Additionally, most forms of education develop only one or two types of rationality. For example, science programs focus almost exclusively on technocratic rationality, while business programs focus on economic rationality, and so on. Thus, people may lack the capacity to use other forms of rationality effectively.

A solution to these limitations is collective reasoning. [1] Through collective reasoning, you bring multiple people with different perspectives together to deliberate on a problem. With enough people, the insights of one person can compensate for the blindspots of another.

A challenge that may occur when performing collective reasoning is that different people may approach your problem from different value positions. Finance personnel may focus on robustness, scientists on innovation, nurses on public interest, and so on.

Though this can lead to disagreements, remember that social systems require a multiplicity of values to thrive. The goal you should set for your team is not, for example, how to achieve public interest at the expense of sustainability, but how to achieve both public interest and sustainability, and all the other values people hold.

We see several examples of collective reasoning in the Seniors Program from Appendix 1.


Examples: Collective Reasoning in the Seniors Program

Designing a medical intervention that different healthcare regions can implement.

Recall that the fellowship initially wished to develop a standard intervention adopted by both the BC and Nova Scotia health authorities (an example of technocratic rationality). Regional differences in patient demographics and healthcare infrastructure prevented the development of a universal approach (contextual (cultural) rationality).

The fellowship wanted to create a universal approach. They struggled for quite a while, trying to find a way to overcome the contextual rationality that stymied their attempts. Ultimately, they came to believe they could achieve more success by combining these rationalities instead.

Thus, the fellowship developed guiding principles (technocratic rationality) that different regions could adapt to their local context (contextual rationality). By blending these two forms of rationality, the fellowship created an intervention backed by science that people could modify for their specific environment.

Individualizing the intervention.

In pursuit of technocratic rationality, the fellowship was interested in a fitness regime backed by science that participants performed as part of the Seniors Program.

Several factors limited their ability to prescribe a single fitness regimen, though. Some participants lacked the health to perform all activities prescribed (body rationality).

Additionally, the physical activity regimen they used was developed in California, which has year-round temperate weather. Thus, the activities prescribed included things like daily walks. Such walks may be unfeasible in BC’s interior during winter when temperatures plummet and snow chokes the streets.

In response, participating seniors worked with coaches who took the prescribed activities (technocratic rationality) and used their judgment (body rationality) and understanding of the patient’s environment (contextual (cultural) rationality) to modify the program to the individual’s needs. Thus, through combining these rationalities, the fellowship developed an intervention backed by science adaptable to individual needs.

Determining how to deliver the Seniors Program.

Through studying scientific literature (technocratic rationality), the fellowship learned how to delay the onset of frailty. The research did not, however, discuss how to get seniors to participate in this intervention.

To solve this problem, the BC members of the fellowship decided to ask seniors what would lead them to participate in the Seniors Program (that is, the fellowship sought contextual (cultural) rationality possessed by older adults).

Seniors told them if their family physicians recommended the program, they would participate. Thus, the fellowship worked with physicians to develop and implement the Seniors Program.

Technocratic rationality told the fellowship how to delay frailty. Contextual (cultural) rationality told them how to get seniors to participate in the program.


Wisdom is action-oriented. Taking action in an organization requires the support of others. The next section discusses how to build that support.


Key Takeaways

  • Use appropriate and multiple forms of rationality to solve problems.
  • Collective reasoning creates innovative solutions to problems.

  1. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.


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Using Values and Rationality to Solve Complex Problems Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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