Engineering and Medical Troubleshooting Models

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

July, 2017 Revised December, 2019

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This post explains two broad troubleshooting models -- an engineering model suitable for complicated, mechanical systems and a medical model suitable for complex organic and social systems.  We go on to argue that conflict is a lot more like medicine and engineering and that, for this, we need to develop a systematic catalog of conflict pathologies and treatment options.

Full Transcript 

For this post, I want to explain two troubleshooting strategies. One is appropriate for complicated mechanical systems, and a second is appropriate for complex, adaptive, organic, social, and ecological systems. For complicated mechanical systems, our society has developed very sophisticated engineering models for designing, operating, and maintaining systems. For complex organic systems, I think that the best model that's out there is the model developed by the field of medicine to deal with the human body.

The engineering model works for systems that are consciously designed by humans: complex mechanical systems. They may be oil refineries, computers, airlines - all sorts of complicated devices, large and small. Complete plans for those systems are available; they're deterministic systems. They work the same way every time - at least, unless they're broken, and then in a sense, the system is just functioning differently. It still is deterministic. That's why you can troubleshoot things so effectively. If you've got enough money and sufficient political will, you can troubleshoot and repair just about any mechanical system - except maybe ones that you haven't quite managed to successfully invent yet.

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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Now for medicine, and for organic systems, you're dealing with systems that have evolved through processes of natural and social selection. We're talking about medicine here, but this also applies to biological ecosystems,economies and conflict systems. There are no plans, because it wasn't designed. Instead, the plans are more of observational studies about how particular aspects of the system actually work. The focus in these studies tends to be on things that are going wrong, and things that need fixing. The focus in the medical world is on treating as many injuries and diseases as possible, and also on taking advantages of opportunities to improve health. This is what athletic training is all about. There is a range of different treatments. For some kinds of ailments, doctors are quite able to produce a complete cure. For others, the best they can do is symptomatic relief. Take Claritin for hay feber in the spring. Other kinds of problems they can't treat but they can help you live with. That's what the whole movement which produced the Americans with Disabilities Act was about: helping people live with incurable chronic conditions.

The truth is, there are terminal conditions for which modern medicine does not have solutions. This applies to conflicts, as well. The focus is on limiting destructive conflict dynamics, and taking advantage of any opportunities you can identify for mutually beneficial agreement. Outcomes can range, starting with complete cure and resolution - sometimes, there are misunderstandings that can be cleared up or there really is a win-win solution. In many other cases, what you're providing is symptomatic relief, in helping people learn to live with chronic conflict, but to do so in ways that limit casualties and costs. Sadly, there are some conflicts that are in essence terminal. We do not now have the tools that enable us to deal with these constructively.  

Keep in mind that medicine tends to focus on fixing injuries and diseases, and that's sort of a negative way of framing things. You can also focus on things that go wrong in conflict which is also negative. But accompanying every problem, there are corresponding opportunities for those who can solve them. And in that sense, all of the gigantic problems associated with conflict are accompanied by equally large array of opportunities for people to help solve those problems.

Now, one of the things that we need and we are starting to develop, which we'll talk about this in this MOOS seminar series, is something of a taxonomy of the destructive conflict dynamics. These are the conflict problems that need fixing. The first step in some of the easiest problems to fix are ones that might be called traps. One of the questions I asked my undergraduate students is: how many folks can tell me what this thing  (shown in Figure 1) is?

Figure 1 

 Usually, there are no more than one or two folks in a class who know that this is a bear trap. The thing about traps is that if you see them, and know what they do, and how they can hurt you, they're generally pretty easy to walk around. So, one strategy for dealing with conflict pathologies is to think of them as traps, and try to make those traps more visible, and to also try to make more visible to people ways in which they can walk around those traps and not get caught in them. One of the things that were going to start do in this seminar is talk about different kinds of traps. We'll start with a couple examples and then address this later in the series.

One trap is what you might call the "He Who Has, Gets" trap. It's the tendency of those with wealth and power to use that wealth and power to obtain even more wealth and power. This is the sort of thing that drives US and global inequality. There are different names to describe it: Kenneth Bolding used to call it Matthew's Law, from the line in the biblical Book of Matthew: "To whomsoever hath, to him shall be given." Other folks call it the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. But a big part of making society work is defining mechanisms that are effective to keep us from falling into this trap. It certainly emerged as a gigantic issue in the US election and and a lot of other elections around the developed world.

Another conflict trap is the Tragedy of the Commons, where there's a self-interested exploitation of common property resources, whether it's a grazing commons, the global environment, or the atmosphere. This produces a collapse of that common resource with tragic consequences for everyone. Climate change is a gigantic tragedy of the commons problem. The defunding of affordable public education is another one, especially for folks from lower socioeconomic groups. This similar problem is destroying the commons in the sense of an educated population. So again, what we need to do is to focus on ways of avoiding that.

The "Into the Sea" trap is something that you could understand just from listening to the way that people talk about how they think conflicts end. It's not something folks say overtly, but an implicit assumption. They imagine things will end when the other party just completely surrenders and sort of meekly goes off into the corner, and understands that they were wrong and they've been defeated. Or, better yet, they just disappear. They're pushed into the sea and they're gone. The unconditional surrender model of conflict resolution happens very rarely. The end of World War II might be an example of this, but mostly, it's necessary to learn how to live with your enemies over the long term, and that's something people often don't think about. Learning to get folks to think that way gets you out of the traps that lead to cycles of conflict.

Another trap is escalation. This is the tendency of provocations to generate counter provocations in an intensifying cycle that can lead to extreme violence. I argue sometimes that this is the most destructive force on the planet. The truth is, escalation dynamics could have led us to global thermonuclear war, although there were certainly some mistakes in the way that we manage the system as well.

There's also positional or hard bargaining, where you're just so focused on winning and having your position prevail that you don't explore opportunities for mutually beneficial agreements. Again, this is the kind of trap that we can design ways around.  And there are a lot more of them.

We did a project with the Underwood Foundation and Tom Farrow where we started to build a systematic taxonomy of all the concepts embedded in the peacebuilding field, taken quite broadly. Implicit in the that taxonomy is a wide range of not only destructive conflict dynamics, but also things that can be done to try to address those dynamics. Ultimately, we need a system that can, through the process of specialization, find folks to do all the things that need doing in all of the instances in which they need doing.

So, a question to pose is this: What do you think are the most important and treatable conflict pathologies? The things that go wrong? The mistakes that people make, especially mistakes that they in hindsight will think of as mistakes? This in a sense is the low-hanging fruit. If we can develop systems to help people avoid these dynamics on a much wider scale, we can start to build a lot deeper and stronger public support for efforts to promote more constructive conflict.

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