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To the roots of problem solving

Albert Einstein reportedly said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. Before you can solve a problem, you need to know what exactly you’re trying to solve. Unfortunately, too many of us rush to conclusions before clearly understanding the problem.

A four-step process can help us better define a problem.

  • First, don’t just rely on the data. Take facts, especially observable ones, into account.
  • Second, consider how you’re framing the problem statement. It should present the problem in a way that allows for multiple solutions, and make sure it’s focused on observable facts, not opinions, judgments, or interpretations.
  • Third, think backwards from the problem to analyze the potential factors that lead to it.
  • Lastly, ask “why” repeatedly before you settle on a conclusion to make sure you investigate root causes.

As Mencken said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” These steps don’t actually guarantee a solution, but they will provide you with a more clearly defined problem. And although that’s less immediately gratifying, it’s a necessary step to finding something that really works.

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