Non-Linear Problems

All problems solve by applying resources. Some are unaffected by how resources are allocated.

For example, will three people using an auger be able to dig a post hole faster than one?  Probably not.  Certainly 10 people could not dig one hole ten times faster.  The nature of the problem defines an appropriate method of attack.  In this case, more resource will not change the fundamental nature of the problem.  The solution is not linearly connected to the resources applied.

At the other extreme are problems where the time solution is dependent on how the resources are applied.  A large gravel pile can be moved twice as fast by twice as many people with shovels.

People make mistakes when they see resources to be the limit.  Clever approaches may be better than brute force.  Maybe a better tool will generate more results than more people.  Maybe redefine the problem.  Maybe the problem need not be addressed at all.

Mindful allocation of resources is both effective and efficient.  The root of the solution is found in understanding the problem in many different ways. More resources applied to problems that do not respond to resources is a failing tactic.  A pregnant woman has a child in nine months.  Nine women cannot have a child in one month.

If we look at government spending we find that output is often inversely proportional to spending.  The more you spend the less you get.  Poor understanding of the problem. Education is a well known area that demonstrates that characteristic.  It is like the question that if 4 men can build a house in 4 weeks, how long would it take 8 men.  Answer = 8 weeks.

Problem identification, depth of understanding, and wider solution search offer value.

In our personal lives, resources are not easy to come by.  Time and money are scarce.  Planning sometimes shows ways to get some of the things you want with smaller resource commitments.   The advantage then is that there are resources for application to other problems that do respond to more resource.

Sometimes the resource you need is someone who has done it before.  There are problems that you will only solve once so there is no experience to help you get a good answer.

Look for better tools, more skill, or more timely application.  Understand the problem before you commit to a solution. 

A well defined problem is half solved.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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