Four Steps To Avoid Rushing to Solutions When Problem-Solving
Albert Einstein reportedly said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. But Einstein wasn’t trying to run a company in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are working longer hours and making new decisions each day on issues from childcare to employee safety. Between our cognitive biases and our finite capacity for decision making, when our mental gas tank runs low on fuel, we tend to conserve energy by either avoiding decisions or rushing to solutions before we have a chance to fully understand the problem we’re grappling with.
It’s understandable that we leap to solutions. Crossing items of one’s to-do list and fixing problems provides a dopamine surge that is comforting, especially when the world around us feels more volatile and threatening. Nevertheless, an ineffective Band-Aid solution can make things worse, and can be just as damaging in the long run as the problem it’s trying to solve. In my work as a leadership consultant, I’ve devised a simple, five-step process that can help you get past the urge to rush to solutions.
1. Problem Analysis
A Problem Analysis investigates a situation/problem in order to allow the researcher to understand more fully the problem, in order to recommend practical solutions for solving it.
In addition, a Problem Analysis determines the degree of the problem and if the problem is a genuinely related to the specific site under investigated. For example, a workplace can request that a study be conducted to estimate the cost and time involved in installing a new lighting system because a number of employees have filed insurance claims because of eye problems.
Before investigating the cost of lighting, a problem analysis would determine the degree that the lighting is affecting employees or if the lighting is not actually the problem. It may be that, after reviewing records, the eye problems are isolated to workers in one particular shop. In this case, the problem analysis study would recommend solutions related to this particular area.
However, it could also be determined, after further investigation focused on interviewing the workers in the shops, that the lighting was not the cause of the problem. Instead, the interviews determined that the workers were staying up all night studying for classes that they were taking. Thus, the problem analysis would report that the lighting was not the cause of the problem, saving the company time and money. (This may be the case when you investigate your problem. However, if it is, you will need to choose another problem in order to complete the research portion of this class.)
2. Frame Your Problem Properly
Problem statements are deceptively difficult to get right for several reasons. For one, it’s easy to mistake the symptoms for the underlying problem. For example, you might assume that to help a child in Flint, Michigan who has behavioural issues in school and struggle with reading comprehension, you need to focus on those problems. But those are only symptoms. The real problem is lead in the municipal water system.
A well-framed problem statement opens up avenues of discussion and options. A bad problem statement closes down alternatives and quickly sends you into a cul-de-sac of facile thinking.
Consider these two problem statements:
- Our hospital needs more ventilators.
- Our hospital needs more ventilator availability.
Notice that the first statement isn’t really a problem at all. It’s a solution. The only possible response to needing more ventilators is … to buy more ventilators. What’s the solution to the second problem statement? It’s unclear — which is a good thing, because it pushes us to think more deeply. Avoiding the implicit judgment (we need more machines) raises questions that help us develop better solutions: How many machines are currently being repaired? Are we doing enough preventative maintenance to keep all of them operable? Do we know where all of the ventilators are, or do nurses keep some of them in “hidden stashes” (a real problem at most hospitals). What’s the turnaround time to move a ventilator from one patient to the next? Do other local hospitals have excess capacity, and is it possible to share with them?
If you see that your problem statement has only one solution, rethink it. Begin with observable facts, not opinions, judgments, or interpretations.
The ancient Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus regularly conducted an exercise known as a premeditatio malorum, which translates to a “premeditation of evils.”
The goal of this exercise was to envision the negative things that could happen in life. For example, the Stoics would imagine what it would be like to lose their job and become homeless or to suffer an injury and become paralyzed or to have their reputation ruined and lose their status in society.
The Stoics believed that by imagining the worst case scenario ahead of time, they could overcome their fears of negative experiences and make better plans to prevent them. While most people were focused on how they could achieve success, the Stoics also considered how they would manage failure. What would things look like if everything went wrong tomorrow? And what does this tell us about how we should prepare today?
This way of thinking, in which you consider the opposite of what you want, is known as inversion. When I first learned of it, I didn’t realize how powerful it could be. As I have studied it more, I have begun to realize that inversion is a rare and crucial skill that nearly all great thinkers use to their advantage.
How Great Thinkers Shatter the Status Quo with Inversion
The German mathematician Carl Jacobi made a number of important contributions to different scientific fields during his career. In particular, he was known for his ability to solve hard problems by following a strategy of man muss immer umkehren or, loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”
Jacobi believed that one of the best ways to clarify your thinking was to restate math problems in inverse form. He would write down the opposite of the problem he was trying to solve and found that the solution often came to him more easily.
Inversion is a powerful thinking tool because it puts a spotlight on errors and roadblocks that are not obvious at first glance. What if the opposite was true? What if I focused on a different side of this situation? Instead of asking how to do something, ask how to not do it.
Great thinkers, icons, and innovators think forward and backward. Occasionally, they drive their brain in reverse.
Great thinkers, icons, and innovators think forward and backward. They consider the opposite side of things. Occasionally, they drive their brain in reverse. This way of thinking can reveal compelling opportunities for innovation.
Art provides a good example.
One of the biggest musical shifts in the last several decades came from Nirvana, a band that legitimized a whole new genre of music — alternative rock — and whose Nevermind album is memorialized in the Library of Congress as one of the most “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” sound recordings of the 20th century.
Success is Overvalued. Avoiding Failure Matters More.
This type of inverse logic can be extended to many areas of life. For example, ambitious young people are often focused on how to achieve success. But billionaire investor Charlie Munger encourages them to consider the inverse of success instead.
“What do you want to avoid?” he asks. “Such an easy answer: sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable it doesn’t matter what your virtues are. You’re going to crater immediately. Doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.”
The Benefits of Thinking Forward and Backward
Inversion can be particularly useful in the workplace.
Leaders can ask themselves, “What would someone do each day if they were a terrible manager?” Good leaders would likely avoid those things.
Similarly, if innovation is a core piece of your business model you can ask, “How could we make this company less innovative?” Eliminating those barriers and obstacles might help creative ideas arise more quickly.
The research section opens with a brief introduction to the internal investigation of detailed areas of research. The introduction must reference all areas of detailed research, in the exact order that they are discussed in the detailed section. One area of the investigation must be employee interviews. Other areas may include items such as reviewing company records, investigating supply rooms, or conducting site investigations.
Asking “why” repeatedly before you settle on an answer is a powerful way to avoid jumping to conclusions or implementing weak solutions. Whether you ask five times, or three, or as many as 11, eventually you’ll get to the root cause, as each question pushes you to a deeper understanding of the real problem. Finding the root cause ensures that you have a durable solution, not a Band-Aid that treats the symptoms. For example, asking, “Why aren’t our employees wearing the mandated PPE all the time?” might reveal that you don’t have enough PPE in stock, because of a holdup in purchasing. The obvious — and ineffective — solution would be to send a stern memo to the purchasing department instructing them to expedite shipments.
For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong. These four steps don’t actually guarantee a solution. But they will provide you with a more clearly defined problem. And although that’s less immediately gratifying, it’s a necessary step to finding something that really works.