All life is problem-solving. – Karl Popper
To create value for someone, to make progress with anything usually means solving problems. You want to achieve a goal, but unfortunately, there are obstacles in your way that you need to resolve to get there. At any one point in time, you probably have a full to-do list of problems that never empties. New items appear with every progress you make. When you’ve got limited resources to do something, it’s more important to do the right things instead of doing things well. So too with problem-solving. It’s more important to solve the right problem than to solve it well because the effort put in solving the wrong problem is wasted. Unfortunately, we’re terrible at choosing the right problems to solve.
There are two reasons for this.
First, we’re trained since school to have answers and solutions fast. You don’t get rewarded for asking the right questions, but for providing the right answers. Tests are often just quizzes with the goal of putting down as many solutions as you can in a limited time frame. This training makes thinking about solutions our default mode.
Consider this: A woman wants to go from A to B but there’s a large river with a strong current in her way.
What is the problem here?
Most people start to answer things like…
- She can’t swim over the river because of the strong current.
- There’s no bridge to cross.
What all these answers have in common is that a solution is already baked in. The problem isn’t that she can’t swim or that there’s no bridge but that there’s a river blocking her way to where she wants to go. This is non-trivial, because by choosing a problem that keeps the solution space as open as possible, you’re more likely to find the best possible solution to the problem.
The second reason for our difficulties with finding the right problem is our lack of perspective. Most days are spent on short-term considerations, daily tasks, and spontaneous fires to put out. Robert Greene calls this ‘Tactical Hell’. When you’re that much in the trenches, you don’t see the forest through the trees, and it’s impossible to see the whole situation clearly. What you’re missing is a bird’s eye view.
The solution to these issues is simple. We need to separate problem definition from problem-solving and give it the space it deserves. It’s the single biggest amplifier of success.
How do you do this effectively?
Define the problem
First and foremost, don’t take someone else’s definition of the problem! You have to do this work yourself. If someone else gives you a problem and defined it poorly, you’ll still be held accountable for the inevitable sub-optimal or ineffective solution. In most organizations, there is no conscious problem definition process. Hence, any failure to find a satisfying solution will be blamed on the one coming up with it, not the one defining the problem to solve.
Because we tend to jump to solutions, it’s important to separate the problem definition from the solution process. Set a fixed time frame where you’re only allowed to explore and define the problem without thinking about any solutions to solve it yet. Once you’re clear about the problem and aligned with your team on what problem to solve, you can switch to finding solutions. If you don’t do it this way, there is a risk of putting effort into the wrong thing and higher friction in the solution process because people have a different understanding of what they’re trying to solve.
When you define the problem, make sure that it’s connected to your goals and priorities. An evaluation of the problem is only possible in context. A raging river is only an issue if you want to get to the other side. This might sound obvious, but because of our natural tendency to jump to problem-solving mode, we often forget this in practice and solve things that aren’t crucial to reaching our goals.
Every problem can be defined with a problem statement, which includes
- where you are currently,
- where you want to get to,
- and a description of the obstacle standing in your way.
Within each problem statement, there are underlying assumptions. Things you automatically assume to be true, often without conscious recognition. Make those assumptions explicit. Question them and don’t be afraid to ask ‘dumb’ and ‘obvious’ questions. Get a clear picture of what you know and what you don’t. Testing and validating those assumptions and open questions with research and experiments will ultimately bring you to much better solutions than committing to the first solution that comes to mind.
But not all problems are created equal. Since we always have more problems than we can solve, prioritizing them is essential. Next, we’ll look at the different types of problems and the practices I found helpful to address them.
What type of problem is it?
Problems come in all different types and sizes. The most frequently named factor is the size of the problem. When we talk about big problems we usually mean that they’re highly complex or their effects are very consequential.
Consequential problems are the ones that, if solved, will make everything else easier or irrelevant. They are usually root problems as opposed to symptomatic problems. A root problem is a causal link behind symptomatic problems. Solving the root problem will automatically solve all the others. Solving consequential root problems brings us forward while solving symptomatic tends to keep us in place.
The easiest way to identify root problems is by asking questions. The easiest one is ‘Why’. If you encounter any problem and ask the question: ‘Why is that problem there?’, you’ll find an underlying cause. Continue to ask it multiple times until it doesn’t go deeper. Now you’ve found the root.
The second factor is problem complexity. The more complex a problem is, the harder it will be to solve. Typical things that increase complexity are more moving parts and variables. It’s easier to identify and solve a problem in your personal finances than in the world economy. The second has multiple magnitudes more complexity. Often, but not always, complex problems offer greater rewards because fewer people manage to solve them.
There is a natural hierarchy of problems. Every big problem can be sliced into smaller sub-problems with less complexity and consequentiality. This makes them more manageable, easier to solve, and better fit to timeframe and resources. Divide and conquer.
Time and urgency
A word on urgency. Often people think problems become more important because their impact is timely. In my experience, people tend to overestimate the urgency of problems because of attention bias. It seems important because it’s top of mind for them. Look at the above factors and estimate how they change by waiting another hour, day, or week. Does the problem become more consequential or complex? Is it relevant to you short- and long-term goals?
The type of problem can change over time. Both complexity and consequentiality can change when you uncover additional information after further investigation. In addition, circumstances change and with different circumstances, the problem changes too. It can either…
- get worse,
- get better,
- stay the same,
- or vanish completely.
Be sure to update the problem type regularly so you’re not making prioritization mistakes.
This process seems like a lot of effort. And it can be, but in the cases where it is, it can pay a hundredfold. When it takes time to define the problem properly it’s usually complex and/or symptomatic, but especially in those cases, the risk of solving the wrong problem is highest. The art is balancing speed with thoroughness. With some problems, the laid-out process can take one minute. Maybe you’ve encountered it before, or it’s just not very complicated. In such cases, speed is the name of the game and spending more time on definition doesn’t provide much value. Knowing if speed or thoroughness is required is a skill you’ll develop with time.
The beauty of it is that this process works both on the micro and macro level. Macro means projects and long-term goals, while micro can be individual work sessions where you take two minutes to think about the problem you’re trying to solve before starting. You’ll be surprised how often you’re not clear about it. Taking the time for problem definition here might prevent you from getting stuck, getting frustrated, and wasting time too.