Problem Solving Is Easier If You Begin Correctly

This is MoneyFYI blog article Number 3606. It will draw on points from Blog article #75 which appeared on the 26th of November 2012. A Well Defined Problem Is Half Solved. As of the 29th of December 2021 it has been viewed 7,362 times. It is in the top 10 most popular.

The point of the earlier article and several others on the same point in the interim is you can waste a lot of time and money solving poorly defined problems.

Robert A. Humphrey expressed the point succinctly. “An undefined problem has an infinite number of solutions.

Do you have infinite resources to explore them all? Probably not. Better then to define the problem to the point you can solve it with finite resources.

Defining a problem

Much of what you will find on the subject is solution finding material. Not the same thing. Problem definition  comes before solution.

The earlier blog piece contains a link to a Harvard Business School  article that deals with the question. It is quite long but very useful if you want to increase your skill. It outlines four areas for study:

The Problem-Definition Process Step #1

  • 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?

As I pointed out in the 2012 article, dealing with a problem that looks like a single problem frequently turns into a bag of interrelated problems that you can analyze better in pieces. Life is perverse sometimes, though. Solving one part sometimes makes another facet worse. Never try to solve a a problem as if it is one when it is truly many.

Another point to consider is the “How solved do you want it?” question. I recall a tax specialist in the accounting firm making an important point. “You can have the 80% right answer in 15 minutes, you can have the 99% right answer for $50,000 worth of time. There is no 100% right answer.” Defining the necessary goodness of the solution matters a lot in terms of cost/benefit.

In the real world

It is usually discovered that solving the last 10% of a problem takes as much energy and money as solving the first 90%. Be sure you know what an acceptable solution looks like. Always remember the problem context will change eventually and your near perfect solution today will stop working. Maybe it would have been better to have a 90% good solution for half the price and build it so it can evolve and stay relevant.

The bits to take away

Problem defining and solution finding are different disciplines.

If you define the problem well enough, parts of the solution will magically appear. Problem definition is never wasted effort.

Perfect solutions are a trap. The future context will change and perfect solutions are fragile.

Problem defining and solution finding is creative and exciting. As my favourite mathematician, Paul Erdős, has pointed out, “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.”


Happy New Year

Help me please. If you have found this useful, please subscribe and forward it to others.

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

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