Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

What is a problem?

The word ‘problem’ derives from Latin, meaning ‘to throw something in front of’. ‘Opportunity’ derives from Greek, meaning ‘towards port’. Therefore, we can define a problem as something that prevents us moving towards our ultimate goal or vision. Solve the problem and we can move forward, although we may still face difficulties (literally, ‘not easy’).

‘Problem solving’ is concerned with what is going on now, or in the very near future. We need to operate on the basis of what we are picking up from the environment, or from some preset or previously-learned sequences; in other words, from memory. We also need to be capable of combining the two. This gives us greater power and flexibility.

Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting a different result.

This quotation has been attributed to Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
but there is no evidence that he ever actually said it!

You can select an action, or sequence of actions, to perform, depending on the information you pick up and what you have been tasked (or have decided) to achieve. However, if there is something in the way, you cannot complete your task. Like a fly banging itself against a window, you need a problem-solving system to sort out what needs to be done differently.

The fly lacks such a system, hence its inability to adapt its behaviour. This is because flies have their own success strategy. ‘Flying towards the light’ has been built in as a strategy, because it is simple to implement and generally effective (windows have not been around that long, after all).

Fortunately, we humans do have a problem-solving system, located between our ears. The issue is how to apply it effectively. With it, we can change sequences, change outcomes and even create whole new processes.

What sorts of things prevent us moving forward?

  • Not knowing where we are now and what is going on now
  • Not knowing what or where the goal or destination is
  • Not knowing how to get there, or being unable to take the necessary steps

Why do these things tend to prevent us moving forward? Because we need certain information in order to make decisions that allow us to

  • Know what the current situation is and what is going on around us
  • Know what we want to achieve in the short, medium and longer terms
  • Know what it is that is preventing us from getting there
  • Know what we therefore need to do in order to start the journey.

So ‘problem solving’ is very reliant, not just on creativity and lateral thinking, but on information gathering and analysis.



Part I: ‘Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.’

Part II: ‘Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.’

Powell’s advice is this: don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100 percent sure, because by then it is almost always too late. His instinct is right: today, excessive delays in the name of information-gathering leads to analysis paralysis. Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.

Problem or opportunity?

The word ‘problem’ tends to have negative associations in peoples’ minds, and some organisations attempt to ‘legislate’ against these negative connotations, so it is worth tackling this issue right up front.

Bearing in mind that problem means ‘to throw something in front of’, while opportunity means ‘towards port’, it’s clear that in any situation there are things that help take us towards our destination and things that stand in the way. This important distinction does not disappear simply because someone changes the label. However, if there were not things ‘standing in the way’, then life would be pretty dull. No Sudoku, no cryptic crosswords and no choices for a start. No product development, no customer service jobs and few roles for lawyers either!

This topic has a particular focus on the types of complex problem that are a common feature of the business environment. In fact, it is probably a fair bet that if you are reading this, it is because you are currently facing a problem that is tricky enough for you to have decided to stop and do some research, rather than just rolling up your sleeves and plunging in.

Consequently, we aren’t going to mention the ‘problem or opportunity’ question again.