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2 Dec 2010

Problem-solving Technique: Attack Definitions

Writing down the problem was a problem-solving technique I discussed in a previous post. Attacking definitions is another that complements this one. For instance, consider the problem: Making a better window.

Definitions = Castle

We now attack what we mean by “making,” “better,” and “window.” For example, by making do we mean create, produce, deliver or service? By better do we mean cost, maintenance or longevity? By window, do we mean a current offering or a new one? Through this attacking, we begin to attack our definition of the problem, stimulating our thinking and opening windows to potential solutions.

We can visualize what’s happening with a castle. Its walls define what comprises it while at the same time what it doesn’t. However, if we need to repair a building inside the castle, the materials might not rest within the castle walls but outside them which the walls don’t allow us to see. Definitions work the same way: they define what a word comprises and doesn’t comprise. While they help to focus our attention by erecting walls to keep out confusion and vagueness, they also hinder our ability to see solutions resting beyond their walls.

Thus, the solution to our window problem might not be a window with enhanced qualities. It might be one easier to install and service, or one quicker to produce or less costly.

We can also apply an intuitive approach by asking, “Does the window need to be objectively better or just perceptually better?” If so, the solution might be as superficial as having a better advertising campaign to point out its advantages. All of these might solve the problem depending upon how we define the words. In short, it might be as simple as defining the problem better.

3 Responses

  1. Really, you are describing components of problem solving, right? My problem solving approach has the acronym, OSCAR, with the steps being:

    O: Developing and understanding the OBJECTIVE, what is being requested.
    S: Generating a list of the likely SPEED-BUMPS, what are things, skills, or topics that probably are important but not understood by us at this time.
    C: Making the CONSIDERATIONS necessary to recall / revise the visions associated with previously understood items important to the solutions; and making them for the speed-bumps to assess importance or be able to include. The considerations to this point are those addressed in my blog (http://johncbennettjr.com ), to which this step also brainstorms possible solution plans.
    A: Developing the ANSWERS – including selecting the most promising of the brainstormed plans, flushing out a more refined plan, prototyping the solution, testing and assessing the prototype for ability to meet the objective.
    R: If the objective is not met, return to one of the previous steps. If the objective is met, develop and document the REFLECTIONS on the efforts made – including the procedures used, the lessons learned, the outcomes with levels of uncertainty, recommendations for future considerations, …

    Note that as us typical OSCAR appears to be a linear set of steps – do O, then do S, …. But of course, the probability of stepping through in order is very small. It must be accepted that “looping back” will happen frequently!!! Hence the importance of the reflection step. Also note that OSCAR deals with two additional features I believe important to ANY problem solving: self-assessment routinely (how are things going and what changes – looping back – should be made) and embracing ambiguity (expecting and accepting that learning will need to take place – as Einstein has been quoted: “You cannot solve the issues of today with the same level of understanding that generated them.”

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, John, that is a very good, systematic approach. I can see the need for “looping back” regularly. The self-assessment I see important in identifying priorities. In the end though, a state of constant improvement, whether things are going well or not, is the desired perspective. Too often, we wait for problems or crises to occur before we attempt to improve. Unfortunately, by the time that occurs, usually the best time to solve the problem has passed. You don’t wait to see termites to address a problem with your home. In regard to Einstein, that really relates to you earlier comments about learning how to learn, doesn’t it? It seems very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a state of constant improvement without constant learning?

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