Before jumping straight into solving a problem, we should step back and invest time and effort to improve our understanding of it.

Einstein said that if he’d one hour to save the world – he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and just 5 minutes finding a solution.

Here are 5 Tips to help you see problems from many different perspectives and grasp the most important step in problem solving: clearly defining the problem in the first place!

1. The problem is…

The problem is to know what the problem is.

The definition of the problem will be the focal point of all your problem-solving efforts. As such, it makes sense to devote as much attention and dedication to problem definition as possible. What usually happens is that as soon as we have a problem to work on we’re so eager to get to solutions that we neglect spending any time refining it.

What most of us don’t realise – and what Einstein may have been suggesting – is that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve.

Not only will your solutions be more plentiful and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much, much more easily. Most importantly, you’ll have the confidence to be tackling a worthwhile problem.

2. Rephrase the problem

When an executive asked employees to brainstorm “ways to increase their productivity”, all he got back were blank stares. Once he rephrased his request as “ways to make their jobs easier”, he couldn’t keep up with the amount of suggestions!

Words carry strong implicit meaning and, as such, play a major role in how we perceive a problem. In the example above, ‘be productive’ might seem like a sacrifice you’re doing for the company, while ‘make your job easier’ may be more like something you’re doing for your own benefit, but from which the company also benefits. In the end, the problem is still the same, however the feelings – and the points of view – associated with each of them are vastly different.

Play freely with the problem statement, try rewording it several times. For a methodical approach, take single words and substitute variations. ‘Increase sales’? Try replacing ‘increase’ with ‘attract’, ‘develop’, ‘extend’, ‘repeat’ and see how your perception of the problem changes.

3. Expose & challenge assumptions

Every problem – no matter how apparently simple it may be – comes with a long list of assumptions attached. Many of these assumptions may be inaccurate and could make your problem statement inadequate or even misguided.

The first step to get rid of bad assumptions is to make them explicit. Write a list and expose as many assumptions as you can – especially those that may seem the most obvious and ‘untouchable’.

That, in itself, brings more clarity to the problem at hand. But go further and test each assumption for validity: think in ways that they might not be valid and their consequences. What you will find may surprise you: that many of those bad assumptions are self-imposed — with just a bit of scrutiny you are able to safely drop them.

For example, suppose you’re about to enter the restaurant business. One of your assumptions might be ‘restaurants have a menu’. While such an assumption may seem true at first, try challenging it and maybe you’ll find some very interesting business models (such as one restaurant in which customers bring dish ideas for the chef to cook, for example).

4. Chunk up

Each problem is a small piece of a greater problem. In the same way that you can explore a problem laterally – such as by playing with words or challenging assumptions – you can also explore it at different “altitudes”.

If you feel you’re overwhelmed with details or looking at a problem too narrowly, look at it from a more general perspective. In order to make your problem more general, ask questions such as:

Another approach that helps a lot in getting a more general view of a problem is replacing words in the problem statement with hyponyms – words that have a broader meaning than the given word. (For example, a hyponym of ‘car’ is ‘vehicle’).

5. Chunk down

If each problem is part of a greater problem, it also means that each problem is composed of many smaller problems. It turns out that deconstructing a problem in many smaller problems – each of them more specific than the original – can also provide greater insights about it.

‘Chunking the problem down’ (making it more specific) is especially useful if you find the problem overwhelming or daunting.

Some of the typical questions you can ask to make a problem more specific are: 

Just as in ‘chunking up’, word substitution can also come to great use here. The class of words that are useful here are hyponyms: words that are stricter in meaning than the given one (e.g. two hyponyms of ‘car’ are ‘minivan’ and ‘limousine’). 

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