What do you mean by a problem? Is there a spectrum that we should know about?
You cannot solve problems you cannot understand, so start there. By definition there are two categories.
- Given a set of initial conditions, prove something. Like math homework. If you know how to do it, then it is merely a question. If you don’t, it falls into category 2)
- A situation deemed harmful or unwelcome that must be overcome. Math problems you cannot solve, and most of life.
Real life would be very simple if it stopped there. Learn the solutions and implement. Experience. Learn from others. All doable. But life is not that simple.
Seth Godin proposes another kind of problem. A paradox. Problems that contain conflicts, changing limits, or a scale that is beyond resources. These cannot be solved because they are poorly defined or too big. As Max Ma says, “That’s not a problem; that’s impossible.”
Removing conflicts and limits will make them partially solvable. If one of the limits to a particular problem is, “Everyone must like the solution” then the problem is unsolvable. If instead, the answer provided that there would be some side effects but they would be resolvable or ignored, then that works. Pleasing everyone is impossible.
Another serious impediment to solutions is trying to solve a problem that is more than one problem rolled up into a single statement. Solving poverty is like this. More money should work, but money is seldom the answer. Poverty is the symptom not the problem. Weak infrastructure, inadequate education, poor or malevolent leadership, attitudinal mistakes and misapplied experience are more likely the problem and it is beyond difficult to see how to attack those simultaneously. Multi-layered problems solve by evolving an answer. No single action will “fix” it. The problems in Canada’s northern native communities are like that.
Sometimes, a problem is unsolvable because it is misdescribed. Anthropocentric climate change is one of these. Is it a scientific issue? If it is, data, tests, and falsifiable theories will eventual point to the right answer. Is it a political issue involving transfer of wealth from richer countries to poorer countries and to the bureaucracy that administers the transfer? If this, then science will provide no guidance. Solving a problem while it is disguised as another, is wasteful.
Problem solving is challenging work. If you begin with a well-defined question and understand how the variables interact with it, you can usually minimize if not solve the problem.
A good deal of effective problem solving is knowing when to quit solving it. There are no perfect answers. A prompt 80% good answer with livable side effects is much better than a 99% solution far in the future. And much cheaper. Overselling reduces resources for other problems.
There are no 100% solutions so each of us must learn to live with answers that let us move on.
Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario. In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.
Please be in touch if I can help you. firstname.lastname@example.org 866-285-7772