Three years after William Beveridge’s report, George Polya, a Professor in Mathematics at Stanford University in California, published ‘How To Solve It’ [1].

His immediate concern was to help students tackle mathematical problems. In the work he outlined a number of ways in which the problems could be addressed.

He adopted a ‘heuristic’ approach.

As we touched on earlier, this book adopts a heuristic approach.

It looks at a problem (high levels of mental illness in the legal profession) and wonders about causes, contributing factors, legal psychodynamics, and ways of addressing the problem.

There is no single simple solution and sometimes the best we can do is to ‘muddle through’ and to make educated guesses at what might be happening and what can be done about it.

Heuristics are about finding out and discovering, proposing provisional solutions that might be ‘good enough’.

Polya offered a large number of ways in which students could think about problems including working backwards, drawing a diagram of the problem, and using analogy and example.

He also encouraged students to ‘look at the unknown’. 

The idea of ‘reverse therapy’ involves working backwards, from a known (albeit incomplete) solution (psychotherapy), to better clarify psychological problems to reduce the risk of burnout.

We have looked at a number of theoreticians and practitioners who have simplified complex human problems into pictures and diagrams.

We’ve used the experience of lawyers to illustrate the difficulties in day-to-day legal life.

Above all, we have tried to look at the unknown, and think about the mystery of the human mind and how we relate to each other.

In 2015, exactly 70 years after Polya, Jonathan Bendor, a Professor of Political Economics and Organisations, also based at Stanford University, published a paper summarising developments in the area of public policy decision making. His arguments centre on Charles Lindblom’s 1959 essay ‘The Science of Muddling Through’ [2].

Bendor proposes a heuristic approach to decision-making which is informed by a number of Lindblom’s ideas.

He proposed a toolkit of heuristics that can be deployed separately and combined in various ways to help with analysis of and to propose solutions for complex wicked problems.

The six methods are:


(1) Decomposition

This involves carving off part of a larger problem and sharing out aspects to experts in the relevant fields.

We have looked at many aspects of mental health and wellbeing.

I have attempted to carve off parts so they can be thought about in isolation. 


(2) Local search

Looking at solutions to problems that are radically different to the status quo are bound to be fraught with peril. Bendor recommends searching in the neighbourhood of the status quo. Designs for more effective solutions are easier to adopt than those which are radical and unfamiliar. We have looked at how issues around mental health are being addressed in other jurisdictions, principally in the United States and Australia.


(3) Seriality

Solutions for wicked problems are rarely complete and absolute.

The idea of seriality involves small changes being made quickly, iteratively.

We don’t look to get from A to Z in one go, rather to go from A to G, and then look around and think again and work out how to get from G to R, then think again.

As lawyers we can be perfectionists and be uncomfortable with anything less than a complete ideal solution to our clients’ problems or aspects of practice management.


(4) Multiple minds

Having many people working independently on the same problem increases the likelihood of success.

I have taken a multidisciplinary approach in looking at the issues.

If lawyers wish to enhance wellbeing in the profession we will have to work more collaboratively. The different branches of the profession have much in common and a great deal of research has been done in recent years by different branches of the profession, in isolation from one another. For professional reasons this is inevitable and necessary.

However, a more co-ordinated approach among the profession should also be effective.


(5) Imitation

This involves looking at what other organisations are already doing in trying to tackle a problem and simply imitating them.


(6) Recombination

Elements from different domains can then be combined and adjusted to create something new.


We saw earlier Kurt Lewin’s simplified breakdown of the process of change. This overlaps with Bendor’s methods.

‘Decomposition’ involves unfreezing, ‘recombination’ is equivalent to freezing and the intervening heuristics (local search, seriality, multiple minds, and imitation) are about shuffling and movement.

Lindblom made a particularly valuable observation when thinking about addressing difficult problems: “That complex problems cannot be completely analysed and that we therefore require strategies for skilful incompleteness still seem close to obvious to me” [3].

He also modestly pointed out that he only had a weak a grasp of the concepts that he discussed.

We also may have a weak grasp of some of the concepts discussed in this book, but this need not inhibit us from ‘muddling through’.





[1] Polya, G. (1945) How To Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] Bendor, J. (2015) Incrementalism: Dead yet Flourishing. Public Administration Review, 75, 194-205.

[3] Lindblom, C. E., (1979) Still Muddling, Not Yet Through. Public Administration Review, 39, 517-526.



(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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