When facing problems, we instinctively try to find quick solutions and close the case. We expect the same from others when we turn to them with an issue. We assume that the nature of the problem is exactly as we see it and we tend to identify the core of the problem with its symptoms. All we need is an answer. 

What is more, we are naturally strongly biased toward a predicted kind of solution and we tend to pay attention to those aspects of the problem, which directly focuses our thinking in that direction. We can even pretend that the heart of an issue is exactly matching the idea which we just happen to have, so we formulate the question accordingly. And vice versa - it is easy to suggest the answer with the way of formulating the problem (this is widely abused by parents and polling experts). Simply speaking, we are totally irrational in our rational thinking on problems. This was proven by Nobel Prize winner, prof. Daniel Kahneman, who undermined the theory of rational choice - a paradigm used in microeconomics for understanding social and economic behaviour. 

There is an urban myth which may help us to understand how this works. One of the renowned Japanese cosmetic producers received a complaint that a consumer had bought a box of soap that had happened to be empty. It was obvious that quality control failed by allowing the empty box to get through the production line. Goal: zero defects option in packing room. The engineers found the solution and the control team was soon supplied with an X-ray machine, operated by two people equipped with high resolution monitors, allowing them to look through each box and detect potential empty ones. 

The same problem happened to a small soap factory in India. The same problem, but with very different resources and capabilities. According to hearsay, the solution was found by a workman who placed a strong electric fan next to the production line, and all empty boxes were simply blown out of the line as they passed in front of the fan. Instead of chasing the empty boxes, he made sure to keep the heavy full ones at a packing table. 

The solution was fast, cheap and effective - a real philosopher's stone for all project managers - all thanks to someone realising what is really desired at the end instead of just finding a remedy for a symptom. We should be creative, not only in finding ideas, but also, if not mostly, in the phase of understanding the problem. It is really worthwhile to make friends with it. Look inside, outside, deep, wide, from the bottom, on the surface, zoom in, pan, with roentgen, sonar or radar, as if you were ignorant in your domain or an expert in a completely different one, pretend the problem doesn’t relate to you, or you are the problem itself. The possibilities are infinite - it only depends on the degree of intimacy with your new friend. Stay with him long enough.


  • 2015-08-21 17:19:04
  • Darek Olak
  • creativity, problem solving, innovation, creative techniques, personal development