Problem Solving Is A Process

Suppose there is a problem in your life.  Suppose further that you wish to solve it and have the resources to do so.  But, somehow you have misdiagnosed it. What are the chances you will come up with an acceptable solution? Pretty low!

It is no better for governments.

Superficial effects don’t describe the problem

Even when the symptoms are obvious, they do not describe the problem in its totality. That happens with back pain. If your spine is injured, your body responds by trying to “splint ” the area by tightening muscles around it. Muscle relaxing drugs may relieve the pain but open your back to real injury.

Solving the wrong problem, or treating a symptom as a problem, is potentially costly. You may have used time and possibly money resources for nothing. You may have increased or changed the problem and made it so actual solutions cannot work.

Impatience is your enemy.

Impatient people want answers too soon. They are attracted to things that change the symptoms rather than change the nature of the problem. Symptoms are simple. We see it all the time. Does the UN really think Elon Musk paying for food for a year would solve world hunger? Of course they don’t, but it gets them into the media and it may help people address the real problem. Maybe help.

Looking deeper

Bureaucrats are not known for their creativity. Are they the best choice to address problems like hunger, or disease, or energy use, or unfairness in society? Although they have useful functions, being in charge is not one. For bureaucracies, problem preservation is more important. It’s their job at risk if they solve problems.

In society there are all sorts of things that might or might not be a problem.  Pay equity, voter registration, homelessness, climate change, racism, cancer causing chemicals, covid control, and many more.

Approaching a collection of problems

How would a competent problem solver go about it? That easy. They would start by recognizing there are not enough resources to solve all the problems. They would do cost benefit analyses on each and would discover the problems are wickedly complicated once you pass through the symptoms and into the causal factors. Nonetheless, you could rank the problems and begin to think about how to fix them

Suppose the best order of solution can be organized around several factors.

  1. The condition that creates the problem and the need for a solution is well-described, complete, and likely true.
  2. The problem is curable or chronic.
  3. The cost to deal with it is knowable.
  4. The cost to not fix it is also knowable.
  5.  The resulting analysis and all the others too, can be communicated so decision makers can agree on priorities

It is a bit like writing a time limited exam with hard questions. You should begin with the ones you know how to do and in order of what they are worth. Leave the ones you don’t know how to do, or ones that will take proportionally too much time until later. If you run out of time, you will not be giving up many marks you could have had. Understand resource allocation against your goal.

Solutions require creative people 

Today most problems become political. When that happens, reasons and costs and comparisons to alternative choices, given limited resources, becomes lost. Impatience and ideology keeps them that way.

“A creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. They don’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas” Abe Tannenbaum

Do you know politicians who will wait for a better answer to appear. Not often, even those better answers do appear. When the politicians stay out of the way, many things get solved.

Using a resource limited model to allocate time and money eliminates the rhetoric and optical illusions that we presently suffer through.

The downside is some ideologically lovely problems will be unfunded. Often their costs far exceed their benefits in the short run. Those problems might reappear later when better solution choices came available.

People should be required to learn basic data analysis.  The delusional ideas most people have about statistics can fill a book.  Sadly, obvious looks right, but usually is not.  Correlation and causation are not tightly connected.

Even simple connections seem to elude some 

In the early 1800s, Charles Babbage designed, but never built, a machine to calculate logarithms and other polynomial functions. While seeking funding from governments to build it, he had this to say about his experience.

“On two occasions I have been asked, ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’  I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question”

The confusion of ideas we see today are at least as common, and possibly more harmful.

We attack problems that may not be problems at all. We invent solutions that may solve nothing and possibly imperil viable solutions.  We rely on people who do not understand what they see to design the solution, or at a minimum choose judiciously among the things to be addressed.

Bits to Take Away

We attack problems that may not be problems at all. We invent solutions that may solve nothing and possibly imperil viable solutions.  We rely on people who do not understand what they see to design the solution, or at a minimum choose judiciously among the things to be addressed.

Facts can be overwhelmed by factions.

All resources are limited.

There are no simple solutions to complicated problems.

Creating priorities means some problems will be left aside.

You need clear visions to put things in perspective.


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I build strategy and fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways and alternate timing to achieve both spending and estate distribution goals. In the past I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, 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. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning, have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email to don@moneyfyi.com

 

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