Problem-solving basics: Are you sure you are solving the right problem? 

Have you ever seen someone passionately solving a problem that doesn’t really need to be solved in the first place?

Problems. We all have them. Some of them we are given, some others we take ourselves. There are also frequently problems which we invent ourselves. Finally, another category is problems we didn’t quite understand. The latter is an important one. Basically, what happens? We jump to searching for solutions, or even to actually investing our efforts in trying to solve a problem, while it could be that the problem has another facet. It could be that we can actually solve another problem — easier or more pleasant to solve — and the initial one just vanishes by itself.

Ok, before it gets too complicated, let me give you an example.

The silly one, already used by me previously — ironing shirts. If one hates doing that, which is pretty understandable, then this becomes a problem. But what exactly is the problem in the first place? 

  • Is it that shirts need to be ironed?
  • Or is it that shirts should not get crumpled in the first place?

See, those two are totally different problems and they lead to totally different solutions. You can either invest in a good quality iron, get yourself an “ironing lady”, send your shirts to dry-cleaners, you name it. But what you can also do is — to eliminate the need to iron by buying non-iron shirts. It is a different solution because it’s the solution to a different problem. But at the end of the day it is a solution to both.

There is this famous “elevator example” described by Russell Ackoff in “Systems, Organizations and Interdisciplinary Research”. One appartment block manager started receiving complaints from people living in the building that the elevator was too slow. The possible solutions were to add more elevators, change the existing elevator for a faster one or install a computerized system, which would “route” elevators to render faster service. All those possible solutions were way too costly, so the manager went to the basics and looked in more details at the problem. The solution found was miraculously easy, cheap and efficient. They installed mirrors in the lobby… Surprised? Well, the problem was not so much that elevators were too slow, it was also (and perhaps primarily) that people were otherwise too bored to wait.

To conclude, as a mediator (and now as a personal buddy) I use reframing a lot. Reframing a problem is not so much about finding the “real” problem, it is more about finding another angle to it. It could be that you can solve something else — perhaps easier, cheaper or more pleasant to solve — and by that everything just figures itself out.

So I would like to leave you with this: problems tend to be multifaceted and however challenging it might be to clarify them or investigate what’s all in them, once done — you can save yourself quite some resources, time and efforts.

P.S. In case you missed my article on Time-management where I talk about the main questions you need to ask yourself in order to manage your time in the most efficient way, as well as share the best tools which can be used — check it out here.

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One thought on “Problem-solving basics: Are you sure you are solving the right problem? ”

  1. Love this post. The mind sees a lot of things as problems… If you can’t change things, accept. So it is not a problem anymore. Don’t waste more time on thinking, go ahead, stay POSITIVE and FOCUSED on what you can change and what makes you happy. Everything has its own time, also ‘solutions’. The mind is a great tool but not the only ‘tool’…

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