Solving Problems Three Ways

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“Houston, we have a problem.”

That phrase has worked its way into the lexicon. Never mind that it’s not exactly what astronaut Jack Swigert said on April 13, 1970. Now we often use the phrase humorously to indicate an “oops!”

The reason the phrase has become so popular is that all of us have problems all the time. You can classify them into three different groups based on what it takes to solve them.

Using Recipes to Solve Problems

Some problems are easy to solve. We know exactly what to do. Want to make something for dinner? Pull out a favorite recipe book, assemble the ingredients, and follow the directions. Those recipes are a lot like the instruction cards that Frederick Taylor handed out to machine operators at Bethlehem Steel around the turn of the 20th century.

Sometimes, we must make common adjustments to our recipes. At our house, we generally cook with unsalted butter. We also like to prepare dishes from old cookbooks, like the classic Charleston Receipts. All the recipes in those old cookbooks were prepared using salted butter. So, to get things to come out right, we either need to buy some salted butter and use it, or add some salt.

Problems you can solve with a recipe are easy and straightforward. We know what the goal is, we know the steps to take, and we know common adjustments for routine circumstances.

Using Rules of Thumb to Solve Problems

Some rules can’t be solved with a simple recipe. But, often, we can use rules of thumb, also called guidelines or heuristics.

Should you take an umbrella with you to work, or not? You could use the rule of thumb that you will take an umbrella on any day where the forecast shows a 40 percent or more chance for rain. This kind of rule of thumb will get things wrong some of the time, but it’s usually no big deal because it will keep you from getting rain-soaked more often than not.

We can use other rules of thumb for the way that we choose to live our lives. Author Michael Pollan has written several books about food and eating. Those are good for his academic reputation, but mostly he’s known for his simple rules of thumb to help you eat right.

One of them is “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Another reduces all his nutritional insights to three simple rules of thumb. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Rules of thumb like that work over a long period of time, so there’s not a quick and easy way to test them and see how they’re working. But, when you can, it’s usually a good idea to check quickly to see if the rule of thumb we’re using is getting the result we want. If not, we should try a different rule of thumb or change the way we apply the rule of thumb we’ve got.

One type of rule of thumb that’s particularly seductive, and therefore dangerous, is solving a problem based on a precedent. We take the lessons learned from one situation and apply them to another. Often, that doesn’t lead to great results.

During the Vietnam era, decision makers applied the precedent of the capitulation of Prime Minister Chamberlain to Hitler at Munich in 1938. At the end of the 20th century, government decision makers used the example of decisions made in the Vietnam War to justify some of their decisions in Iraq.

If you’re using a precedent as a problem-solving guideline, the most important thing to consider is how the situation you’re using as a guideline and the present situation are both alike and different.

Guidelines are powerful ways to solve problems, and they work in a variety of situations. But there are some problems that require an entirely different kind of thinking.

A Whole ‘Nother Kind of Problem

Every now and then, we’re surprised by a problem that we can’t solve with the recipes and rules of thumb we know. Then it’s time for some creative problem-solving. Or maybe not.

Many problems that are new to you are old hat to someone in a different industry, or a different profession, or who lives in another part of the world.

When Roald Amundsen was planning his trip to the South Pole, he looked to people who lived in cold climates for guidance about clothing and equipment. Thanks to the web and social media you can identify people who deal with the problem you’re facing as a matter of routine. If that doesn’t’ do the trick, strap on your gear and start creative problem solving.

Much of the literature suggests that the first thing you should do is spend a lot of time identifying the problem. I think that’s good, because a good problem definition often suggests its own solution. To get there faster, don’t ask “What’s the problem?” Instead ask for the story of the problem.

If you do this in a group, you’ll usually get several different stories of the problem. They’ll be mostly alike, but different in significant ways, and they make an excellent way to build up your problem definition. As you gather information and impressions be sure to sort them into what you know, what you don’t know, and what you presume.

Once you have an idea about what the problem is, you can set about finding ways to solve it. That’s where we tend to make a couple of mistakes. One mistake is taking the first solution that comes to mind and seems to work. It’s better to come up with several solutions, going beyond the first good idea to the second and third, and then try them out.

The fact is, that we human beings aren’t very good imagining how things will work out. Most of the time, prototypes beat planning.


The Apollo 13 mission didn’t really have a problem. Instead, they had what management thinker Russell Ackoff called a “mess.” A mess is a system of problems. Sometimes you get a mess when you solve one problem and the solution creates a new problem. Other times, your mess is a situation where trying out a solution changes your assumptions and sends you back to the drawing board. And sometimes you just have to keep trying things till you find something that works.

Bottom Line

Everybody has problems, and we can all do a little better job of solving them. Sometimes recipes will work just fine, but other times, you’ll need rules of thumb or complex decision making. Always, we need to find ways to check whether our solutions are working so that we know whether we need to keep on solving.

For Further Reading

Charleston Receipts

Thinking in Time

Simple Rules

The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen

There are over a dozen tips on problem solving in my ebook, Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

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