A Well Defined Problem Is Half Solved

Albert Einstein said, “If I were given one hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.”

With few exceptions, we start solving problems before we have rigorously defined them. Sometimes that works but most times not.

The problem solving material you can find is actually solution finding technique. Not the same thing. Solutions are related to action while problem defining is related to what someone acts upon, why do it, with what resource and in what time frame. That is strategic thought as opposed to the tactical thought of the solution.

Colin Powell has stated that the information you need for a solution falls into the range 40% to 70% of all that you could have. Under 40% you are guessing too much, over 70% you are trying to be too perfect. That is a good guideline if you know exactly what the problem is.

When you do not know, and in the beginning no one really does know, you need to think it through. I recently saw this piece and while it is a long one, the process it describes is a good one. It is aimed at business strategic problem solving but with some adaptation it can work for personal finance and even problems like lawn mower replacement.

Are You Solving The Right Problem. Harvard Business Review

The article itself is more than 5,000 words long. The author Dwayne Spradlin is the president and CEO of InnoCentive, an online marketplace that connects organizations with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of fields. Obviously Innocentive will need to be able to describe the problem well or no one can know how to answer.

A quick summary of the method for the ADHD crowd:

The Problem-Definition Process

  • Establish the Need for a Solution
  • What is the basic need?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Who stands to benefit and why?

Justify The Need

  • Is the effort aligned with our strategy?
  • What are the desired benefits for the company, and
  • How will we measure them?
  • How will we ensure that a solution is implemented?

Contextualize the problem

  • What approaches have we tried?
  • What have others tried?
  • What are the internal and external constraints on implementing a solution?

Write the problem statement

  • Is the problem actually many problems?
  • What requirements must a solution meet?
  • Which problem solvers should we engage?
  • What information and language should the problem statement include?
  • What do solvers need to submit?
  • What incentives do solvers need?
  • How will solutions be evaluated and success measured?

In my experience, the “Is the problem actually many problems?” question is the one that destroys casual problem solving. It might well be the first thing you want to address.

As you will find in the article, the approach often results in problems being solved by people with skill sets well outside the expected problem area.

The Solar Flare Problem

NASA needed a way to predict solar flares to protect equipment and people. Its model provided a 4 hour lead time and 50% accuracy. They wanted a better model. With a well designed problem, a semiretired radio-frequency engineer living in rural New Hampshire developed a model that provided an eight-hour lead time and 85% accuracy. He was awarded $30,000 for this solution. There are other examples in the article.

What you can expect from using more rigorous problem defining methods:

  • Find important underlying relationships
  • Eliminate extraneous material
  • Find the focal kernel
  • Find a time line

The message for us all. If you define the problem well, the well-defined problem will give you insights into a method of attack and it will do so more efficiently than “adaptive management.” A euphemism for trial and error.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

5 Comments on “A Well Defined Problem Is Half Solved

  1. Pingback: Logistics Without Tactical or Strategic Thought | moneyFYI

  2. Pingback: Being Your Own Mentor Is Helpful And Satisfying – moneyFYI

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