Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 45;   November 9, 2016: Solving the Problem of Solving Problems

Solving the Problem of Solving Problems

by

Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions, or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
Platypus swimming

Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) swimming in Broken River, Queensland, Australia, 2004. A mammal that lays eggs, the platypus might seem to some to be an inelegant design. Yet, it has existed in its current form for a period of time comparable to the line of modern humans. While elegance might be an important attribute of any problem solution, workability is more important for most problems. Photo (cc) Peter Scheunis

Usually, when solving problems, generating candidate solutions isn't difficult. What is difficult is finding hidden ideas, or sorting through ideas to isolate the most promising ones. Here's a little catalog of ideas for sorting ideas.

Examine boring ideas
Look for ideas that seem workable but boring. Their dreary nature can lead to a bias against them. Few people want to work on them, and securing resources for them might be difficult because they're so unexciting. But workability is what counts. Set your own bias aside, and seek ways to persuade others to do the same.
Examine unoriginal ideas
Lack of originality is another source of bias against ideas. Look for an idea that someone has already tried. If it proved unworkable, ask why. If those reasons are still in place, can you remove them or skirt them somehow?
Examine inelegant ideas
Because inelegance can be more repulsive than workability can be attractive, we often reject inelegant but workable ideas. To recruit supporters, or to secure resources, emphasize that success is a form of beauty.
Examine politically encumbered ideas
Some Some perfectly workable ideas
are rejected, or regarded as
unworkable, when they
carry political baggage
perfectly workable ideas are rejected, or regarded as unworkable, when they carry political baggage. Perhaps they offend someone powerful, or they don't conform to the preferences of another powerful person. In these cases, the problem to be solved is political in nature. Focus not on the original problem, but instead on the politics.
Examine expensive ideas
Yet another source of bias against ideas is their apparent cost, or their apparent need for skills and knowledge that are in short supply. In these cases, work on resolving the resource issues. What can you do to reduce costs? How can you be clever about finding people who can do the job?
Examine crazy ideas
Ideas with reputations for being obviously crazy sometimes inherit their reputations from the people who originated them, rather than by earning their reputations by being truly crazy. Look carefully at the idea itself, setting aside what you know about its originator. Is the idea itself truly crazy?
Examine past successes
When you finally solved a problem, what was the critical element that led to a solution? By examining your history, you might find a pattern among those critical elements. Patterns can arise from weakness in problem solving skills, or unfamiliarity with the problem domain, or the culture in which you work. If you can identify the pattern, you can use it to guide a search for solutions to the current problem.

Finally, deal with your own biases by intentionally searching for ideas you regard as crazy. This stance helps to relax the constraints that conceal solutions. When you find an intriguingly crazy solution, ask, "What makes it crazy?" Can you adjust it so that its craziness is no longer obvious? Is there anything about it that could be useful? Go to top Top  Next issue: The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words  Next Issue

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Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

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Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
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Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
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Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
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Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
Henri Laurence Gantt, inventor of the Gantt ChartThe Tyranny of Singular Nouns
When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept, such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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