Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

Biases that mislead us

Your brain evolved to solve problems and make decisions in ‘real time’. To achieve this it takes shortcuts, but these can mislead us. These can most clearly be seen in operation with optical illusions, where we expect to see something, so we either see it or its non-standard appearance confuses us:

Effective problem solvers are aware of these biases and factor them into their problem-solving processes.

‘Laziness 1’- the solution we used before

When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.

Abraham Maslow

In risk-averse environments, it is always tempting to go with what you know and to just do the same thing you have done previously, possibly a bit harder or bigger, rather than stopping and trying to come up with a new solution. Environments can be risk-averse for a wide number of reasons; maintaining the status quo is a form of risk aversion as well as being due to a fear of total failure.

People are very open-minded about new things – as long as they’re exactly like the old ones.

Charles Kettering, inventor (1876-1958)

In WW I, the repeated full frontal assaults on defended trench positions (by both sides) may have been at least partially due to an element of risk aversion amongst high command, whose reluctance to try a new solution, the tank, led to horrendous losses.

‘Laziness 2’- the solution someone else has used

Paul Lutus (Winner of the Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology) has a more damning theory – that many people believe that consulting an expert is a more efficient way to solve a problem than simply working it out for themselves.

He counters this belief with the argument that after the most basic facts have been taken into account, one is better off creating personal solutions to problems rather than searching for existing solutions.

There are several reasons why this can be true.

  1. By solving the problem yourself, you will increase your index of self-reliance, which might eventually become a theme in your life.
  2. In solving the problem, you may create a more efficient solution than anyone has before you and you might thereby make an original contribution to the store of human knowledge. If you haven’t experienced this, you can’t imagine it. But if you have experienced this, you can’t describe it.
  3. While solving the problem, you will place your personal stamp on the end product, thereby creating a personal expression that cannot be erased by time.
  4. By solving the problem yourself, you will become less dependent on experts, authorities, technical super-beings, perhaps even to the extent that those people will be reduced to human proportions.

This is just a short list.

Erroneous assumptions

Often, as we think about our problem, we find a number of ‘givens’ – things that we take for granted or assumed facts about the situation that we ‘know’. Many of them are ‘obvious’ and we normally do not think to question them. Yet that is exactly why we so often get blocked when we try to solve a difficult problem.


For many years, the design of swimming costumes for women did not change because designers were constrained by the technology of the fabric: fabrics that were stretchy, strong and easy to dye could not stand up to the rigors of swimming in salty or highly-chlorinated water. Only a few fabrics were strong enough and stretchy enough and these didn’t dye well.

The completely obvious (and absolutely unquestioned) assumption being made here was that most women do a lot of swimming in their swimming costumes.

This was such a ‘no-brainer’ that no one questioned it; after all, what is a swimming costume or swim suit for, if not swimming?

After many years of searching for a better fabric, a brave soul, who was probably then called a fool, decided to question this assumption and do some research.

It was discovered that 90 per cent of women’s swim suits never got wet except when they were washed to remove the residue of sun lotion. This discovery opened up a whole new world of materials and designs that would stand up to sunbathing, but wouldn’t take much swimming.

But what ‘idiot’ would have thought anyone would buy a swimming costume, but not swim in it?

Denying the existence of problems

The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.

Theodore Rubin

There is a rather sick little management mantra: ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions; if you can’t bring me solutions, you are the problem!’. Few managers would admit to believing this, but plenty of people would say that they think that their manager believes it!

The acceptance of the need to identify and surface problems is a fundamental tenet of most recognised project management methods. It is often called ‘Bad news early’. Problems that are not faced up to tend to get worse; we all recognise that problems seldom go away on their own.