Nature of the Problem

H.R. McMaster, February 2017 until April 2018 National Security Advisor under President Donald Trump, describes how critical it was at the beginning of his tenure to get clarity on scope. Listen to minutes 3:00 to 4:15 about “the nature of the problem”, and about “framing out the problem”:

McMaster earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in History, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He turned his dissertation on the strategy of the U.S. in the Vietnam War into his book entitled Dereliction of Duty.

Germans think systematically

Germans think systematically. They formulate their understanding of a decision to be made in a very broad and interconnected context. Therefore Germans do not always consider it helpful to take complexity and, as Americans say, “break it down” into its component parts. They aim to do the opposite, to see particulars in their interrelationships. They look for patterns, strive to understand complexity as a whole, as a system.

Systematic Thinkers

Systematic thinking is the foundation of all research. Germany has produced many great thinkers in the natural and social sciences. They are best known for their systematic approach.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was the daughter of German nobility, but decided at an early age to join the Benedictine nuns. She went on to become one of the best educated and wisest of her era, advising secular and religious leaders throughout Europe. Hildegard’s fields of expertise ranged from theology to medicine, music, ethics and cosmology. Her discoveries and insights in the area of plant-based medicines are referred to today.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment Age. His Kritik der reinen Vernunft is considered to be the starting point of modern philosophy, creating a new, systematic approach to inquiry. Kant addressed not only the theory of knowledge, but also ethics and aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, law and history, as well as astronomy and the geosciences.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered to this day to be the greatest of all German writers. His work encompassed, however, also the natural sciences including botany, optics and the philosophy of color – Farbenlehre.

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian General and military theorist. His Vom Kriege (On War) a systematic approach to strategy, tactics and the philosophy of war, became the foundation of military thinking in all Western nations. Clausewitz’ writings went beyond how wars are won to address the overall nature and meaning of war in the modern world.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is renowned as a philosopher, political economist and social critic. Together with Friedrich Engels, Marx analyzed during the height of the industrial revolution the mutual influences and interactions between a society‘s consciousness and its economic system. Although Marxism has proven to fail in practice, it led to what many would consider significant social progress in public education, health care, social legislation. Marx’ writings contributed to the creation of labor unions.

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist, legal scholar, and political economist. He is considered a founding father of modern sociology. Weber’s theories influenced greatly the so-called specialty areas of sociology: economics, religion, political power structures.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) is considered to be the most influential Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. His work opened up Catholic theology to a new and deeper understanding of faith. Rahner’s thinking influenced greatly the Second Vatical Council. Inspired by his studies under Martin Heidegger, Rahner synthesized Catholic theology with the philosophies of the modern era.


single-minded: having only one purpose, goal, or interest; focused on one thing; having one driving purpose or resolve. First known use 1836.

Synonyms: bent (on or upon), bound, decisive, do-or-die, firm, hell-bent (on or upon), intent, purposeful, resolute, resolved, set. Antonyms: faltering, hesitant, indecisive, irresolute, undetermined, unresolved, vacillating, wavering, weak-kneed.

In American thinking to be single-minded is always positive. It means to be wholly focused. 

Always positive?

Imagination and Focus

„You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.“ Mark Twain

„Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.“ Alexander Graham Bell 

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.“ Steve Jobs

„I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals and I try to ignore the rest.“ Venus Williams

„My approach to every game was to try to erase the games that were before and try to focus on the game at hand.“ Cal Ripken, Jr.

The importance of focus

In his TedEd talk Richard St. John quotes successfull people in order to stress the importance of focus:

James Cameron, producer of Titatnic and Avatar, two of the highest-grossing films of all time: „You’ve got to be super focused like a laser to get anthying worthwhile done. When I did Avatar I was focused for four years.“

Larry Page, co-founder of Google: „You should focus on one important goal and you need to be single-minded about it.“

Jaymie Matthews, astrophysicist and mission scientist, „Focus is the key word for our success. We pulled this off on a tight budget and short time line because we did one thing exceptionally well.“

Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza: „A fanatical focus on doing one thing well.“

Bill Gates: „If you want to be a great software company, you have to be only a software company. You can’t dabble in other things.“


philosophical: of, relating to, or based on philosophy; having a calm attitude toward a difficult or unpleasant situation; characterized by the attitude of a philosopher; calm or unflinching in the face of trouble, defeat, or loss.

„They got into a philosophical debate about what it means for something to be natural.“ And „He’s trying to be philosophical about their decision since he knows he can’t change it.“ First known use 14th century.

Synonyms: abstract, logical, metaphysical, profound, rational, thoughtful. Also: calm, composed, deep, learned, resigned, stoic, serene, temperate. (MerriamWebster)

Being philosophical in the American context if often considered to be detached, abstract, impractical, unpragmatic, even arrogant.


WBS stands for work breakdown structure. Wikipedia defines it as: „A hierarchical and incremental decomposition of the project into phases, deliverables and work packages. It is a tree structure, which shows a subdivision of effort required to achieve an objective; for example a program, project, and contract.

In a project, the WBS is developed by starting with the end objective and successively subdividing it into manageable components in terms of size, duration, and responsibility (e.g., systems, subsystems, components, tasks, subtasks, and work packages) which include all steps necessary to achieve the objective.“

Wikipedia goes on to claim that WBS was developed by the United States Department of Defense and was introduced by the U.S. Navy in 1957 to support the development of the Polaris missile program.

Breaking down complexity into its component parts in order to focus on what is truly critical is hardly a development of any human organization of the 20th Century. Surely it is has been fundamental to human thinking for quite some time.

Entangling Alliances

As a nation-state, in their international relations, Americans warn against becoming involved in complexity. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) – an English-American political theorist-activist, author, and revolutionary – instilled non-interventionist ideas into the politics of the American colonies.

His work Common Sense (1776) argued in favor of avoiding alliances with foreign powers and influenced the Second Continental Congress to avoid forming an alliance with France.

George Washington’s farewell address restated Paine’s maxim: “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation.

Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.“

Thomas Jefferson extended Paine’s ideas in his inaugural address on March 4, 1801: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would become the Monroe Doctrine: “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.“

Best Ideas are Simplest

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.” Albert Einstein

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs

“The greatest ideas are the simplest.” William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“A little simplification would be the first step toward rational living.” Eleanor Roosevelt