Definitions Before Solutions
-Peter de Jager
There's a quote, attributed to Einstein, that states, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” It turns out the quote is incorrect, and Einstein never said it.
The more accurately stated advice was, “If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.”, and to the best of our knowledge, it was said by an unnamed professor in the engineering department at Yale.
Regardless of who said it, where and when they said it, and what exactly they said, at the core of this quote is a seed of wisdom. Take time to decide where you're going, before you head off on a journey. It's also the very meaning of why PMBOK exists. Good planning is everything.
This is one of those observations that we often brush off as being blatantly obvious, and yet? We seem to ignore obvious advice all the time.
Three examples should suffice;
1 – Trying to fix a trend in project delivery delays without determining if the delays are due to Scope Creep or Bad Design. The problem definition should include; What exactly is causing the delays?
2 – Starting to implement a change without first checking to see if those affected by it, agree to it. The Problem Definition should include; Do we know who this change will affect, and are they in agreement with the consequences?
3 – Imposing a tax on a service, without understanding the down stream consequences of that tax. The Problem Statement should include; Have we identified, and allowed for, all secondary consequences of the tax?
In all three situations, not properly defining the problem before implementing a solution, puts us in new situations, often far more problematic than the original situations.
Again, when reading the above examples, it's almost impossible not to discard the observations as obvious, and therefore possibly as useless advice. Except for one single thing. All of the above mistakes, happen all the time, are happening somewhere as you read this.
Taking time to think about what we're trying to accomplish, to define it in detail, and then gain unanimous agreement on what our goal is, is not what we do. What we prefer to do, is rush to action.
Rushing to action is partly a result of the pressures of life. We have more things to work on, than we can accomplish in the time allowed. So, we attempt to solve that problem by moving as fast as we can. Stopping to think deeply about the problem is perceived as a waste of time. The mantra we march to is, 'Thinking isn't doing!” Nike's advice 'Just do it!', which is intended as advice to overcome procrastination, is applied to everything we do, with less than desirable results.
Another reason we rush to action is related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect where ignorance is mistaken for knowledge. When presented with a problem, we immediately assume we know what the problem is, and spend very little time examining whether we do or not. It turns out, nearly all problems are more complicated than they appear at first glance. Not accepting this fact, results in solutions that only serve to make things worse.
All of this is difficult enough to deal with when we work on a problem by ourselves, it becomes a minefield when we attempt to work together as a team to solve a problem. Why? Because if any of the above is true, then it is highly unlikely that every team member is operating with the same understanding of the problem, which means they are essentially trying to solve a variety of different problems. Making the assumption, that a team in such a state will implement a single outcome, that solves all the perceptions of what the problem was, is to put it politely, “mistaken”.
Gerald Weinberg, and Donald Gauss in their book, “Are your Lights on?” made the following statement, “A problem exists when there is a difference between what you perceive and what you desire.”
Of all the definitions relating to what problems are and what problem solving is, this one is the best reminder of the fluidity of the situation. It points out that we seldom, if ever, see things the same way, and our desires seldom, if ever, match.
There is no perfect solution to the inherent ambiguities in Problem Solving, but there is one effective strategy.
First? Take the time to write down a definition of the problem.
Second? Seek agreement on that written definition and refuse to move to the problem-solving stage until unanimous agreement is reached.
This approach, it's too simple to be elevated to a 'methodology', addresses the 'rush to action' preference. Just by taking the time to write things down, we slow down the process. If the problem is simple? Then this takes little time. If the problem is complicated? It takes more time, possibly a lot of time to write down what we think is the problem. If someone states that writing down and agreeing on problem definitions takes too long? You're standing in the middle of the danger zone. Complicated problems should, and must, demand more time to define.
This technique also addresses the need to agree on what we're about to work on, what our approaches will be, what our goals are. It clarifies for everyone what we're trying to accomplish. Yes, getting agreement on the simplest of definitions takes time, on larger problems it takes a lot of time. There's another adage relevant to this, 'Measure twice. Cut once.'
Which gets us back to the original advice in the quote, that by itself was perceived differently from one person to the next – if we're going to solve a problem? It's worth our time to take more time agreeing in advance what we're attempting to do.
© 2017 Peter de Jager – Peter never knows for certain what he's trying to solve – that's what focuses his attention on what he attempts to do. You can contact him at