The Intersection of Cumulative and Cyclical Knowledge: Navigating Ill-Structured Problems

Aviral Vaid

Hatched by Aviral Vaid

Oct 13, 2023

3 min read


The Intersection of Cumulative and Cyclical Knowledge: Navigating Ill-Structured Problems


Knowledge is not a monolithic entity that applies universally to all fields. While some areas of study, such as physics and mathematics, follow a cumulative progression, others, like finance, philosophy, and relationships, are inherently cyclical. This article explores the dynamic nature of knowledge and its impact on problem-solving, particularly in the realm of product discovery. By understanding the interplay between cumulative and cyclical knowledge, product teams can adopt a more holistic approach to finding innovative solutions.

Cumulative Knowledge vs. Cyclical Knowledge:

In the world of finance, the accumulation of knowledge over time enables us to make informed decisions based on historical data and patterns. However, in fields like medicine, the cyclical nature of knowledge becomes evident as new research challenges previously held beliefs and introduces alternative perspectives. This stark contrast highlights the importance of recognizing the limitations of cumulative knowledge when dealing with ill-structured problems.

The Power of Ill-Structured Problems:

Ill-structured problems are characterized by their multifaceted nature and lack of definitive solutions. Unlike well-structured problems, which can be solved using predefined formulas or algorithms, ill-structured problems require a deep understanding of human behavior and context. In the realm of product discovery, ill-structured problems often arise when trying to identify the desired outcome or goal of a particular product or feature.

The Opportunity Solution Tree:

To effectively navigate ill-structured problems, product teams can employ techniques like the Opportunity Solution Tree. This approach, popularized by Ericsson, emphasizes the importance of building better mental representations and challenging fixed solutions. By asking thought-provoking questions, such as "How else might you achieve the desired outcome?", teams can break free from the constraints of a single solution and explore alternative avenues.

Jonassen's Framework for Problem-Solving:

Jonassen's framework for problem-solving offers valuable insights into tackling ill-structured problems. According to Jonassen, the solver must first define the goal and constraints of the problem before diving into potential solutions. By understanding the desired outcome clearly, product teams can align their efforts towards finding the best possible solution within the given context.

Actionable Advice:

  • 1. Embrace a Growth Mindset: Recognize that ill-structured problems require continuous learning and adaptation. Adopting a growth mindset allows you to approach problems with curiosity and openness, enabling you to explore multiple solutions and perspectives.
  • 2. Foster Collaboration and Diverse Perspectives: Ill-structured problems benefit from diverse viewpoints. Encourage collaboration within your product team and seek input from individuals with different backgrounds and expertise. This diversity can spark innovative ideas and challenge preconceived notions.
  • 3. Iterate and Test: Since ill-structured problems lack definitive solutions, it is essential to iterate and test potential solutions. Embrace an iterative approach, gathering feedback from users and stakeholders to refine and improve your product. Emphasize the importance of experimentation and learning from failures.


In the ever-evolving landscape of product discovery, the intersection of cumulative and cyclical knowledge plays a significant role in navigating ill-structured problems. By understanding the limitations of cumulative knowledge and embracing the cyclical nature of certain fields, product teams can approach problem-solving with a more holistic and adaptive mindset. Through the application of frameworks like the Opportunity Solution Tree and Jonassen's problem-solving approach, teams can unlock innovative solutions that address the complex and multifaceted nature of ill-structured problems.

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