The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Problems – What is this?

When we say we have a problem or we need to solve a problem, we tend to think of a situation that is negative or unpleasant and, at the back of our minds, we would simply like the problem to ‘go away’. The reason for this tends to be that we were not expecting the circumstances to arise in the first place. It will also require some energy to deal with and we are often taken ‘off course’ – this can be frustrating and cause us to have negative feelings towards this thing we refer to as problems.

This negative feeling is probably due to the fact that we are not equipped to deal with unknowns and uncertainty.

If we could have a method or the knowledge that, if we approach ‘problems’ in a systematic way, then we might not go through the uncomfortable stage of wrestling with the confusion and uncertainty. A method would immediately give us the confidence that we will be able to sort the problem out and become productive very quickly and not spend time in a state of confused negative energy.

Original from CartoonStock - adopted by Rui Martins

Original from CartoonStock – adopted by Rui Martins

Essentially, we need to realise that problems are not all bad – it is simply the attitude we have towards them. Professionals who routinely solve problems for a living, especially problems within their field of expertise, will generally look forward to solving ‘the problem’. They intuitively know how to go about solving the problem and probably have developed an explicit, or at least tacit way, to solve problems of the nature they are frequently faced with.

This is all good so far. However, when things change – and change is becoming the norm – professionals can quickly fall into a routine or frame of mind and they will not notice that some initial conditions have changed. This is where the problem becomes serious. It is serious because professionals will be solving the wrong problem.

They have not understood what the problem is that they are solving. Most problems will have many variables that act on the problem and all variables need to be addressed for the problem to be solved. Making sense of these variables is not easy and, depending on the complexity of the problem, it can be quite difficult to get a good understanding of the variables and dynamics between them.

Shifting target - image recreated by Rui Martins. Original unknown.

Shifting target – image recreated by Rui Martins. Original unknown.

The level of complexity increases exponentially and very often one is not able to quantify the variables as an exact science. Many problems need to be solved sooner rather than later and one cannot research the problem to death to make sure we know what it is that we are dealing with. We need a fairly good method that enables us to quickly gain a deep understanding of the issues we are dealing with and what the root causes are – so that we can solve ‘the problem.

I do not like processes that require long upfront research periods. My objection is simple, things change too fast and often the terms of reference do not get adjusted. By the time we understand the problem, it has morphed into something else and we end up solving half of the problem or the wrong problem.

In the next few months, I will be proposing an approach to problem solving that will enable us to have a good degree of confidence that we can make sense of any simple or complex problem. Before this though, I will be exploring a variety of issues and revisiting some topics I have blogged about previously within a problem solving perspective.