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A Few Thoughts about “Problem Solving”

August 10, 2023

Among other techniques, I have encouraged teams to begin an analysis with the immediate cause of a problem, and work backwards along a causal chain. This form of analysis documents two components of causality: 1) causes (things) acting inevitably in accordance with their nature. and 2) decisions and choices (root causes) made that could have been different.

If I imagine dealing with a mechanical product failure, one could learn about (1) the strength, durability, duty cycle, etc of a particular material or component; or (2) the many alternatives, including different materials, that could have been chosen in the product design.

However, a thorough understanding of a problem should begin with a clear understanding of the purpose that cannot be achieved due to an obstacle. Sometimes we can become so fixated on the next immediate objective that we forget about the ultimate goal. Can we go “over, under, around” or must be work through the problem in order to succeed?

Years ago, someone asked me for help with a spreadsheet issue. Their computer was complaining about running out of space and they wanted to know how their computer could expand. I asked them how many of these huge spreadsheets they had, and the answer was one! They only had -one- spreadsheet!

The rest of the story…
When the computer was new, they started their first calculation in row 1, column 1 – and kept going. It never occurred to them to open a second or third file for subsequent projects! When we talked about how multiple projects can be organized into multiple spreadsheet files, they immediately realized their “problem” was not the size of their computer – but their inexperience with the new software.

If you are experienced with office software suites and had a little laugh over this story – don’t forget that sometimes we all have these moments where enlightenment from a “Brilliant Flash of the Obvious” (a BFO) makes an apparent problem vanish and we get a clearer picture of how to proceed.

Check your assumptions!

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