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

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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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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

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When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
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When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
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When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to emphasize the goal or objective, while others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an asset and annoyance.

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

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Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

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