How to Handle a Problem You Can’t Solve
Finding a solution is only one way to proactively respond to problems..
Posted July 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- What Is a Career
- Find a career counselor near me
- The difference between a big problem and a small problem is the amount of risk we’re exposed to.
- New research has uncovered an often overlooked category of solutions to help solve difficult problems.
- Sometimes it's more productive to eliminate, shrink, or delegate a problem than it is to solve it.
After returning from a 12-month deployment in Iraq, Patrick Skluzacek began to experience horrible nightmares. Veterans Affairs didn’t have a cure. Afraid to close his eyes, Patrick turned to alcohol to help himself sleep. As his drinking and mental health grew worse, he went on to lose his job, his wife, and even his home.
Patrick’s son Tyler was desperate to help. But he wasn’t a psychologist or a sleep expert. He was just a college student studying mathematics and computer science. So rather than trying to heal his father from the effects of trauma, Tyler decided to look for a way to prevent the nightmares from happening.
Using his programming skills, Tyler developed a smartwatch app that monitored his father’s heart rate and movement during sleep to spot nightmares early. The app then prompted the watch to vibrate gently, coaxing Patrick out of bad dreams without completely waking him.
With the help of his son’s invention, Patrick has once again lived a normal life.
Thankfully, most of us have never had to watch a parent struggle with post- traumatic stress disorder, but we’ve all faced problems that felt too big to solve–in our professional lives as well as at home. The experience of the Skluzaceks, both father and son, illustrates some strategies you might employ the next time you’re up against what feels like an impossible dilemma.
1. If you can’t solve a problem, look for ways to eliminate it.
Problems live inside systems, and one way to get rid of a problem is to eliminate the system it belongs to. Tyler never found a cure for his dad’s PTSD . He simply found a way to interrupt his father’s nightmares, preventing them from happening again.
In an organizational context, we can usually wipe out problems that seem unsolvable by replacing troublesome staff, software, or policies. But new research out of the University of Virginia has found that our brains often overlook these “subtractive solutions”— tunneling instead on what might be added to improve a situation.
2. If you can’t eliminate a problem, look for ways to shrink it.
The difference between a big problem and a small problem is the amount of risk we’re exposed to. So if you can’t fix the cause, try to reduce the effects. For example, certain positions in your company might be inherently stressful , posing the threat of high burnout rates. If you can’t find a way to modify the positions to make them less demanding, an alternative might be to offer more vacation days or free massage therapy sessions to the affected individuals. The root problem will still exist, but it will have a smaller negative impact on your organization.
3. See if you can delegate the problem to someone else.
As Tyler’s story illustrates, sometimes we are our own best options. But in many cases, we can turn to others for help. A surprising number of leaders are comfortable delegating tasks but never think to delegate problems. Doing so can free up your time and empower your colleagues to make a bigger impact. Plus, most problems are easier to solve with a fresh perspective, making a handoff even more advantageous.
4. Ask yourself what insight would make the problem easier to solve.
If you can’t solve a problem, it might be indicative of a gap in your expertise. That’s perfectly normal. The key is simply to pinpoint what those gaps are. To do so, try filling in this sentence:
I would be able to solve this problem if only I knew…
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Once you’ve identified the gaps in your knowledge, brainstorm ways to find reliable answers, colleagues might be a useful resource, and consulting is often an effective option. If your timeline and budget don’t allow for consulting, on-demand online trainings are another way to expand your understanding, and a surprising number of experts offer these virtual courses.
5. Question whether you actually need to solve the problem right now.
Sometimes, the true cost of a problem is the work it distracts you from. In Tyler’s case, ignoring his father’s nightmares wasn’t an option. But sometimes, procrastinating on one problem allows you to be more productive in other areas. If you’re facing a dilemma that seems unsolvable, try asking yourself if fixing it is really your best opportunity for personal growth or organizational contribution at that moment. Will you incur any high costs by waiting to tackle the issue?
Challenges don’t always have an obvious cure, but you can still respond intentionally and productively. In fact, knowing what to do with tough dilemmas is a skill that sets great leaders apart. After all, difficult decisions are one of the primary responsibilities great leaders get paid to handle.
Kyle Young is a strategy consultant and writer who works to help people achieve their goals.
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Coaching for Leaders
Leaders Aren't Born, They're Made
5 Actions To Take With A Problem You Can’t Fix
I was conducting a training earlier this week when one of our clients asked about handling a tough situation. He’s responsible for making sure that supplies and parts are available to a production department…but one of the parts his team oversees is late.
It’s a critical piece for production, so a lot of people are concerned about it. However, there’s seemingly little he can do (beyond what he already has) since the part is manufactured by another organization that is working diligently on a fix.
His question to us: “People are upset. What can I do in the meantime?”
Here are five actions to consider if you find yourself in a similar situation:
1. Overcommunicate, overcommunicate, overcommunicate When there’s a problem at hand, a gut reaction from many of us is to solve it quietly before anyone finds out. This sometimes works, which is why it’s a temping path forward.
When it doesn’t work, catching everyone off guard with bad news can result in a spectacular mess. Once you’ve assembled the facts and assessed the problem, alert the people who could be impacted – especially on a high visibility issue. No effective leader has ever avoided mistakes, and neither will you.
But don’t stop there. Make a substantial increases on regular updates to stakeholders when a problem is active. Even if the update is, “I don’t have an update today,” everyone knows you are still paying attention. Nothing pours gasoline on a fire quite like the perception that you aren’t paying attention to a problem.
2. Make expectations very clear Be absolutely certain that your expectations are clear on what’s needed to resolve the problem…both from you and the other parties involved.
If you are waiting on someone else, make the deadline and deliverables clear. Show an example if you have to. Get on the road if necessary. If they can’t articulate exactly what is needed by what deadline, it’s not clear enough.
3. What’s the option you haven’t considered? I met a friend yesterday and the subject of a project I’m working on came up. I mentioned one of the obstacles I’m facing and he immediately suggested a solution I hadn’t considered.
With a day’s reflection, the idea seems obvious now, but I couldn’t see it until someone else looked at it with fresh eyes.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” -Albert Einstein
What are you missing that might be another way around the problem? Find someone you respect who isn’t in the middle of it and ask.
4. Start on the prevention plan When the immediate issue gets resolved, the first question from others will inevitably be, “What are you doing to keep this from happening again?”
Effective leaders anticipate this question and are working on the answer, long before it’s asked. Being proactive here shows that you take the problem seriously and that you care. Get better plans and procedures in place fast.
5. Keep It In Perspective At the end of the day, you can only do the best you can do. If you’ve done all the above and made every effort to solve this issue, additional stress won’t help.
Dale Carnegie’s advice to “count your blessings, not your troubles” is helpful at these times. Find out what grounds you and do it while you wait.
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How to handle a problem you can’t solve
Life is hard. No one floats through the whole thing care-free, drowning in love and friendship, having found passion and purpose, and in perfect health all the time! No, our boss can be unfair, our elderly parent may be sick, and the global pandemic is an ongoing challenge. Despite what is portrayed on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, we all have problems, big and small. Sometimes careful consideration can solve a problem, but what can we do when we come across an obstacle that we can’t solve?
First, tell somebody. Verbalizing the challenge out loud can help you conceive the situation in different ways, and you may receive validation and empathy from the other person. It feels good to know that others see your problem, and perhaps have even gone through it themselves.
Communicate your needs. Too many people think they need to “push through” or that they are the only one who can solve the problem. However, by letting others know that you are struggling at the moment you may receive help. Your co-worker may have the ability to assist you with that big project, but she has to know you need support first!
Get more information. Sometimes it is not the problem that is unsolvable, but that we lack the knowledge to solve it. Ask yourself, “Am I missing information that could create a solution?” If you are, try and get that info from online courses, books, or others who know more.
Keep it in perspective. We all know a problem doesn’t improve just because we worry about it. Try and use the 10/10/10 rule to guide your level of concern. Will this problem matter in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 years?
Engage in self-care. Take moments for yourself to do things that you enjoy and that are relaxing. Keep in mind there is a difference between rejuvenating activities and mindless distractions. While there is nothing wrong with bingeing Netflix or playing on your phone, it won’t reinvigorate you like a mindful walk, gardening, or even singing a favourite song in the car. Don’t distract from the moment, engage with it, mindfully, on purpose, in the present and non-judgmentally. The problem will not go away, but you will set it down for a few minutes and be refreshed when you have to pick it up again.
Is this a system-level problem? Some problems are big, really big, like system-level big. Racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, access to medical care and healthy food, ageism and sizeism. This list is nowhere near exhaustive! These kinds of problems are not solved by individuals, if you are struggling with one or more of these, getting involved in advocacy will let you work towards change and provide comfort in knowing that others are working to make these issues disappear too.
Can the problem be solved right now? As humans, we crave certainty and stability and problems are harbingers of chaos and change. Social workers say, “we must learn to sit in the mess.” This gives us a moment to separate from the issue and let some time pass in the hopes external factors (like a promotion or moving) will shift, allowing new options to present themselves. Sitting in a mess is uncomfortable; often we can only breathe, tell others, engage in self-care, and wait. And wait. And wait. In the meantime, repeat to yourself, “I’m doing the best I can.” And believe it.
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Your 4-Step Guide to Solving Any Problem at Work—Faster
Hot jobs on the muse.
At my company, we have a special group of individuals known as the “Escalation and Action Team.” They’re dedicated to solving our organization’s most critical problems, and recently, I had to submit an urgent one to them.
What was the issue, you ask? In short, my job is to pull outcome reports for our clients, indicating the prevalence of health risks and behaviors in the population (i.e., high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, sedentary behavior). One report I pulled excluded more than 75% of people who should’ve been in it.
As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly ideal. I mean, if you ordered a pizza and the box only had two slices when it was delivered, would you just shrug and say “Oh well, better than nothing!”
Just as it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to provide you with the entire pizza you ordered, it’s my job to provide clients with the most detailed and accurate reporting so I can best inform the future of their program and the health of their participants.
The escalation team worked diligently to address the problem and kept me informed the entire way—I’m happy to report that problem’s fixed. And along the way, due to the team’s transparency, I learned a bit more about problem solving techniques .
So, next time you you run up against an obstacle, rather than panicking, try taking the following steps to tackle it.
1. Identify the Problem
I know. You’re looking at me and rolling your eyes. Identify the problem? I already know what it is, you fool. But—do you really?
When defining what’s wrong, you need to break it down and be as specific as possible. Instead of simply saying “This report is wrong,” I needed to provide the team with the following information:
- Why is the report wrong? “It does not have enough people in it.”
- How do you know the report is wrong? “I know that X amount participated, but the results of only 25% of that are showing.”
- When do you need a resolution by? “I need to be able to show the client the accurate data by [date].
As Michael Cooper , an executive business coach says , “A well-defined problem often contains its own solution within it, and that solution is usually quite obvious and straightforward.” According to Cooper, properly explaining an issue is “simple and any difficulty that arises is because it requires patience, repetition, and thorough examination. It is the most important element of critical thinking.”
2. Get to the Bottom of It
A huge part of solving an issue is finding the cause. Why did this happen?
Let’s go back to the pizza scenario quickly. The problem’s been identified: Your pizza arrives and it is missing six out of eight slices. But, why is the box almost empty?
There is a very big difference between “Oops, I accidentally grabbed the wrong box out of the car” and “Sorry, I ate most of your pizza on the drive over here.”
In Scenario A, the problem can be fixed by the delivery person returning to his car and grabbing the correct box. In Scenario B, well, someone needs to make you a whole new pizza or give you back all your money. Or both, actually. (Also, your pizza guy may need his job description read to him again.)
The solution you decide upon depends heavily upon the root of the cause. And while it may be a bit (or very) tedious to find the culprit, it will make finding the solution so much easier. Think about trying to unravel a knot in your headphones—if you keep pulling at the center, it just keeps getting worse and worse. But is you start at the end of the line, you can untangle it much more quickly.
3. Phone a Friend
I really like to figure things out on my own. Google is my best friend (I know, you’re jealous), and I like to dig through files and systems in an effort to find the answer. But, while I do believe you should try to gather as much info yourself before bringing in others, there are limits. There comes a certain point in which you’re just wasting time and running in circles.
Because I can get lost in a black hole of digging, I’ve developed a rule: Search for 30 minutes. If there’s no answer by then, call in the troops. Your colleagues can offer you different perspectives you may not see because you are so in the weeds with the problem. In addition, they may have historical knowledge you don’t have. Maybe this same thing’s arisen before, and they already know the solution. Don’t waste time resolving something that’s already been resolved.
There’s only so much I know about the back end of our reporting system. In fact, I know very little. I didn’t even have insight as to where I could look to find the magical answer. After I tried running the report, I pulled in the experts. Without them, I would still be sitting here with a dud.
Lastly, even if you can solve the problem on your own, you should still alert others to it for a few reasons:
- You don’t want anyone, especially your manager, to be blindsided by any impact it may have.
- Your co-workers can learn from your story.
- Others may have good ideas for how to prevent said problem from happening again.
4. Fix the Problem
Once you determine the steps that need to be taken in order to start fixing the issue, ask the appropriate people for help. Maybe you determine you can do it all yourself. But if you can’t, don’t take it all on as some kind of workplace martyr. For instance, if the solution requires someone to do some coding and that’s completely foreign to you, don’t try to do it . (You can learn how to code another time.)
Make sure that when you’re delegating, you provide all the necessary information: any background details they do not have, the desired outcome, and the specific time frame. Everybody needs to be on the exact same page.
Issues pop up. It’s life. Knowing a few problem solving strategies and how to deal with them will not only do wonders for your stress levels, but also for your career. After all, in a study by Burning Glass Technologies , this skill was listed in the top 10 skills employers search for in the majority of career areas.
Do you have a different approach when something goes wrong at work? Let me know on Twitter !
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Are You Solving the Right Problem?
- Dwayne Spradlin
Most firms aren’t, and that undermines their innovation efforts.
The rigor with which a problem is defined is the most important factor in finding a good solution. Many organizations, however, are not proficient at articulating their problems and identifying which ones are crucial to their strategies.
They may even be trying to solve the wrong problems—missing opportunities and wasting resources in the process. The key is to ask the right questions.
The author describes a process that his firm, InnoCentive, has used to help clients define and articulate business, technical, social, and policy challenges and then present them to an online community of more than 250,000 solvers. The four-step process consists of asking a series of questions and using the answers to create a problem statement that will elicit novel ideas from an array of experts.
- Establish the need for a solution. What is the basic need? Who will benefit from a solution?
- Justify the need. Why should your organization attempt to solve this problem? Is it aligned with your strategy? If a solution is found, who will implement it?
- Contextualize the problem. What have you and others already tried? Are there internal and external constraints to implementing a solution?
- Write the problem statement. What requirements must a solution meet? What language should you use to describe the problem? How will you evaluate solutions and measure success?
EnterpriseWorks/VITA, a nonprofit organization, used this process to find a low-cost, lightweight, and convenient product that expands access to clean drinking water in the developing world.
“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein said.
Those were wise words, but from what I have observed, most organizations don’t heed them when tackling innovation projects. Indeed, when developing new products, processes, or even businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important. Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies. How many times have you seen a project go down one path only to realize in hindsight that it should have gone down another? How many times have you seen an innovation program deliver a seemingly breakthrough result only to find that it can’t be implemented or it addresses the wrong problem? Many organizations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.
I offer here a process for defining problems that any organization can employ on its own. My firm, InnoCentive, has used it to help more than 100 corporations, government agencies, and foundations improve the quality and efficiency of their innovation efforts and, as a result, their overall performance. Through this process, which we call challenge-driven innovation, clients define and articulate their business, technical, social, and policy issues and present them as challenges to a community of more than 250,000 solvers—scientists, engineers, and other experts who hail from 200 countries—on InnoCentive.com, our innovation marketplace. Successful solvers have earned awards of $5,000 to $1 million.
Since our launch, more than 10 years ago, we have managed more than 2,000 problems and solved more than half of them—a much higher proportion than most organizations achieve on their own. Indeed, our success rates have improved dramatically over the years (34% in 2006, 39% in 2009, and 57% in 2011), which is a function of the increasing quality of the questions we pose and of our solver community. Interestingly, even unsolved problems have been tremendously valuable to many clients, allowing them to cancel ill-fated programs much earlier than they otherwise would have and then redeploy their resources.
In our early years, we focused on highly specific technical problems, but we have since expanded, taking on everything from basic R&D and product development to the health and safety of astronauts to banking services in developing countries. We now know that the rigor with which a problem is defined is the most important factor in finding a suitable solution. But we’ve seen that most organizations are not proficient at articulating their problems clearly and concisely. Many have considerable difficulty even identifying which problems are crucial to their missions and strategies.
In fact, many clients have realized while working with us that they may not be tackling the right issues. Consider a company that engages InnoCentive to find a lubricant for its manufacturing machinery. This exchange ensues:
InnoCentive staffer: “Why do you need the lubricant?”
Client’s engineer: “Because we’re now expecting our machinery to do things it was not designed to do, and it needs a particular lubricant to operate.”
InnoCentive staffer: “Why don’t you replace the machinery?”
Client’s engineer: “Because no one makes equipment that exactly fits our needs.”
This raises a deeper question: Does the company need the lubricant, or does it need a new way to make its product? It could be that rethinking the manufacturing process would give the firm a new basis for competitive advantage. (Asking questions until you get to the root cause of a problem draws from the famous Five Whys problem-solving technique developed at Toyota and employed in Six Sigma.)
The Problem-Definition Process
Establish the need for a solution, what is the.
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, what have others.
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
How will solutions
be evaluated and success measured?
The example is like many we’ve seen: Someone in the bowels of the organization is assigned to fix a very specific, near-term problem. But because the firm doesn’t employ a rigorous process for understanding the dimensions of the problem, leaders miss an opportunity to address underlying strategic issues. The situation is exacerbated by what Stefan Thomke and Donald Reinertsen have identified as the fallacy of “The sooner the project is started, the sooner it will be finished.” (See “Six Myths of Product Development,” HBR May 2012.) Organizational teams speed toward a solution, fearing that if they spend too much time defining the problem, their superiors will punish them for taking so long to get to the starting line.
Ironically, that approach is more likely to waste time and money and reduce the odds of success than one that strives at the outset to achieve an in-depth understanding of the problem and its importance to the firm. With this in mind, we developed a four-step process for defining and articulating problems, which we have honed with our clients. It consists of asking a series of questions and using the answers to create a thorough problem statement. This process is important for two reasons. First, it rallies the organization around a shared understanding of the problem, why the firm should tackle it, and the level of resources it should receive. Firms that don’t engage in this process often allocate too few resources to solving major problems or too many to solving low-priority or wrongly defined ones. It’s useful to assign a value to the solution: An organization will be more willing to devote considerable time and resources to an effort that is shown to represent a $100 million market opportunity than to an initiative whose value is much less or is unclear. Second, the process helps an organization cast the widest possible net for potential solutions, giving internal and external experts in disparate fields the information they need to crack the problem.
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HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Nonprofits and the Social Sectors
To illustrate how the process works, we’ll describe an initiative to expand access to clean drinking water undertaken by the nonprofit EnterpriseWorks/VITA, a division of Relief International. EWV’s mission is to foster economic growth and raise the standard of living in developing countries by expanding access to technologies and helping entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses.
The organization chose Jon Naugle, its technical director, as the initiative’s “problem champion.” Individuals in this role should have a deep understanding of the field or domain and be capable program administrators. Because problem champions may also be charged with implementing solutions, a proven leader with the authority, responsibility, and resources to see the project through can be invaluable in this role, particularly for a larger and more strategic undertaking. Naugle, an engineer with more than 25 years of agricultural and rural-development experience in East and West Africa and the Caribbean, fit the bill. He was supported by specialists who understood local market conditions, available materials, and other critical issues related to the delivery of drinking water.
Step 1: Establish the Need for a Solution
The purpose of this step is to articulate the problem in the simplest terms possible: “We are looking for X in order to achieve Z as measured by W.” Such a statement, akin to an elevator pitch, is a call to arms that clarifies the importance of the issue and helps secure resources to address it. This initial framing answers three questions:
What is the basic need?
This is the essential problem, stated clearly and concisely. It is important at this stage to focus on the need that’s at the heart of the problem instead of jumping to a solution. Defining the scope is also important. Clearly, looking for lubricant for a piece of machinery is different from seeking a radically new manufacturing process.
The basic need EWV identified was access to clean drinking water for the estimated 1.1 billion people in the world who lack it. This is a pressing issue even in areas that have plenty of rainfall, because the water is not effectively captured, stored, and distributed.
What is the desired outcome?
Answering this question requires understanding the perspectives of customers and other beneficiaries. (The Five Whys approach can be very helpful.) Again, avoid the temptation to favor a particular solution or approach. This question should be addressed qualitatively and quantitatively whenever possible. A high-level but specific goal, such as “improving fuel efficiency to 100 mpg by 2020,” can be helpful at this stage.
In answering this question, Naugle and his team realized that the outcome had to be more than access to water; the access had to be convenient. Women and children in countries such as Uganda often must walk long distances to fetch water from valleys and then carry it uphill to their villages. The desired outcome EWV defined was to provide water for daily family needs without requiring enormous expenditures of time and energy.
Who stands to benefit and why?
Answering this question compels an organization to identify all potential customers and beneficiaries. It is at this stage that you understand whether, say, you are solving a lubricant problem for the engineer or for the head of manufacturing—whose definitions of success may vary considerably.
If the problem you want to solve is industrywide, it’s crucial to understand why the market has failed to address it.
By pondering this question, EWV came to see that the benefits would accrue to individuals and families as well as to regions and countries. Women would spend less time walking to retrieve water, giving them more time for working in the field or in outside employment that would bring their families needed income. Children would be able to attend school. And over the longer term, regions and countries would benefit from the improved education and productivity of the population.
Step 2: Justify the Need
The purpose of answering the questions in this step is to explain why your organization should attempt to solve the problem.
Is the effort aligned with our strategy?
In other words, will satisfying the need serve the organization’s strategic goals? It is not unusual for an organization to be working on problems that are no longer in sync with its strategy or mission. In that case, the effort (and perhaps the whole initiative) should be reconsidered.
In the case of EWV, simply improving access to clean drinking water wouldn’t be enough; to fit the organization’s mission, the solution should generate economic development and opportunities for local businesses. It needed to involve something that people would buy.
In addition, you should consider whether the problem fits with your firm’s priorities. Since EWV’s other projects included providing access to affordable products such as cookstoves and treadle pumps, the drinking water project was appropriate.
What are the desired benefits for the company, and how will we measure them?
In for-profit companies, the desired benefit could be to reach a revenue target, attain a certain market share, or achieve specific cycle-time improvements. EWV hoped to further its goal of being a recognized leader in helping the world’s poor by transferring technology through the private sector. That benefit would be measured by market impact: How many families are paying for the solution? How is it affecting their lives? Are sales and installation creating jobs? Given the potential benefits, EWV deemed the priority to be high.
How will we ensure that a solution is implemented?
Assume that a solution is found. Someone in the organization must be responsible for carrying it out—whether that means installing a new manufacturing technology, launching a new business, or commercializing a product innovation. That person could be the problem champion, but he or she could also be the manager of an existing division, a cross-functional team, or a new department.
At EWV, Jon Naugle was also put in charge of carrying out the solution. In addition to his technical background, Naugle had a track record of successfully implementing similar projects. For instance, he had served as EWV’s country director in Niger, where he oversaw a component of a World Bank pilot project to promote small-scale private irrigation. His part of the project involved getting the private sector to manufacture treadle pumps and manually drill wells.
It is important at this stage to initiate a high-level conversation in the organization about the resources a solution might require. This can seem premature—after all, you’re still defining the problem, and the field of possible solutions could be very large—but it’s actually not too early to begin exploring what resources your organization is willing and able to devote to evaluating solutions and then implementing the best one. Even at the outset, you may have an inkling that implementing a solution will be much more expensive than others in the organization realize. In that case, it’s important to communicate a rough estimate of the money and people that will be required and to make sure that the organization is willing to continue down this path. The result of such a discussion might be that some constraints on resourcing must be built into the problem statement. Early on in its drinking water project, EWV set a cap on how much it would devote to initial research and the testing of possible solutions.
Now that you have laid out the need for a solution and its importance to the organization, you must define the problem in detail. This involves applying a rigorous method to ensure that you have captured all the information that someone—including people in fields far removed from your industry—might need to solve the problem.
Step 3: Contextualize the Problem
Examining past efforts to find a solution can save time and resources and generate highly innovative thinking. If the problem is industrywide, it’s crucial to understand why the market has failed to address it.
How Well-Defined Problems Lead to Breakthrough Solutions
The subarctic oil problem.
More than 20 years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, cleanup teams operating in subarctic waters still struggled because oil became so viscous at low temperatures that it was difficult to pump from barges to onshore collection stations.
How the Problem Was Defined
In its search for a solution, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute framed the problem as one of “materials viscosity” rather than “oil cleanup” and used language that was not specific to the petroleum industry. The goal was to attract novel suggestions from many fields.
A chemist in the cement industry was awarded $20,000 for proposing a modification of commercially available construction equipment that would vibrate the frozen oil, keeping it fluid.
The ALS Research Problem
By the late 2000s, researchers trying to develop a cure or treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) had not made much progress. One major obstacle was the inability to detect and track the progression of the disease accurately and quickly. Because researchers could not know precisely what stage ALS sufferers had reached, they greatly increased the pool of participants in clinical trials and lengthened their studies, which drove up costs so much that few treatments were developed and evaluated.
Instead of framing its initiative as a search for a cure, Prize4Life, a nonprofit organization, focused on making ALS research feasible and effective. The solution it sought was a biomarker that would enable faster and more-accurate detection and measurement of the progression of the disease.
In 2011, a researcher from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston was paid $1 million for a noninvasive, painless, and low-cost approach, which detects ALS and assesses its progression by measuring changes in an electrical current traveling through muscle. This biomarker lowers the cost of ALS research by providing accurate and timely data that allow researchers to conduct shorter studies with fewer patients.
The Solar Flare Problem
In 2009 NASA decided it needed a better way to forecast solar flares in order to protect astronauts and satellites in space and power grids on Earth. The model it had been using for the past 30 years predicted whether radiation from a solar flare would reach Earth with only a four-hour lead time and no more than 50% accuracy.
NASA did not ask potential solvers simply to find a better way to predict solar flares; instead, it pitched the problem as a data challenge, calling on experts with analytic backgrounds to use one of the agency’s greatest assets—30 years of space weather data—to develop a forecasting model. This data-driven approach not only invited solvers from various fields but also enabled NASA to provide instant feedback, using its archived data, on the accuracy of proposed models.
A semiretired radio-frequency engineer living in rural New Hampshire used data analysis and original predictive algorithms to develop a forecasting model that provided an eight-hour lead time and 85% accuracy. He was awarded $30,000 for this solution.
What approaches have we tried?
The aim here is to find solutions that might already exist in your organization and identify those that it has disproved. By answering this question, you can avoid reinventing the wheel or going down a dead end.
In previous efforts to expand access to clean water, EWV had offered products and services ranging from manually drilled wells for irrigation to filters for household water treatment. As with all its projects, EWV identified products that low-income consumers could afford and, if possible, that local entrepreneurs could manufacture or service. As Naugle and his team revisited those efforts, they realized that both solutions worked only if a water source, such as surface water or a shallow aquifer, was close to the household. As a result, they decided to focus on rainwater—which falls everywhere in the world to a greater or lesser extent—as a source that could reach many more people. More specifically, the team turned its attention to the concept of rainwater harvesting. “Rainwater is delivered directly to the end user,” Naugle says. “It’s as close as you can get to a piped water system without having a piped water supply.”
What have others tried?
EWV’s investigation of previous attempts at rainwater harvesting involved reviewing research on the topic, conducting five field studies, and surveying 20 countries to ask what technology was being used, what was and was not working, what prevented or encouraged the use of various solutions, how much the solutions cost, and what role government played.
“One of the key things we learned from the surveys,” Naugle says, “was that once you have a hard roof—which many people do—to use as a collection surface, the most expensive thing is storage.”
Here was the problem that needed to be solved. EWV found that existing solutions for storing rainwater, such as concrete tanks, were too expensive for low-income families in developing countries, so households were sharing storage tanks. But because no one took ownership of the communal facilities, they often fell into disrepair. Consequently, Naugle and his team homed in on the concept of a low-cost household rainwater-storage device.
Their research into prior solutions surfaced what seemed initially like a promising approach: storing rainwater in a 525-gallon jar that was almost as tall as an adult and three times as wide. In Thailand, they learned, 5 million of those jars had been deployed over five years. After further investigation, however, they found that the jars were made of cement, which was available in Thailand at a low price. More important, the country’s good roads made it possible to manufacture the jars in one location and transport them in trucks around the country. That solution wouldn’t work in areas that had neither cement nor high-quality roads. Indeed, through interviews with villagers in Uganda, EWV found that even empty polyethylene barrels large enough to hold only 50 gallons of water were difficult to carry along a path. It became clear that a viable storage solution had to be light enough to be carried some distance in areas without roads.
What are the internal and external constraints on implementing a solution?
Now that you have a better idea of what you want to accomplish, it’s time to revisit the issue of resources and organizational commitment: Do you have the necessary support for soliciting and then evaluating possible solutions? Are you sure that you can obtain the money and the people to implement the most promising one?
External constraints are just as important to evaluate: Are there issues concerning patents or intellectual-property rights? Are there laws and regulations to be considered? Answering these questions may require consultation with various stakeholders and experts.
Do you have the necessary support for soliciting and evaluating possible solutions? Do you have the money and the people to implement the most promising one?
EWV’s exploration of possible external constraints included examining government policies regarding rainwater storage. Naugle and his team found that the governments of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam supported the idea, but the strongest proponent was Uganda’s minister of water and the environment, Maria Mutagamba. Consequently, EWV decided to test the storage solution in Uganda.
Step 4: Write the Problem Statement
Now it’s time to write a full description of the problem you’re seeking to solve and the requirements the solution must meet. The problem statement, which captures all that the organization has learned through answering the questions in the previous steps, helps establish a consensus on what a viable solution would be and what resources would be required to achieve it.
A full, clear description also helps people both inside and outside the organization quickly grasp the issue. This is especially important because solutions to complex problems in an industry or discipline often come from experts in other fields (see “Getting Unusual Suspects to Solve R&D Puzzles,” HBR May 2007). For example, the method for moving viscous oil from spills in Arctic and subarctic waters from collection barges to disposal tanks came from a chemist in the cement industry, who responded to the Oil Spill Recovery Institute’s description of the problem in terms that were precise but not specific to the petroleum industry. Thus the institute was able to solve in a matter of months a challenge that had stumped petroleum engineers for years. (To read the institute’s full problem statement, visit hbr.org/problem-statement1 .)
Here are some questions that can help you develop a thorough problem statement:
Is the problem actually many problems?
The aim here is to drill down to root causes. Complex, seemingly insoluble issues are much more approachable when broken into discrete elements.
For EWV, this meant making it clear that the solution needed to be a storage product that individual households could afford, that was light enough to be easily transported on poor-quality roads or paths, and that could be easily maintained.
What requirements must a solution meet?
EWV conducted extensive on-the-ground surveys with potential customers in Uganda to identify the must-have versus the nice-to-have elements of a solution. (See the sidebar “Elements of a Successful Solution.”) It didn’t matter to EWV whether the solution was a new device or an adaptation of an existing one. Likewise, the solution didn’t need to be one that could be mass-produced. That is, it could be something that local small-scale entrepreneurs could manufacture.
Elements of a Successful Solution
EnterpriseWorks/VITA surveyed potential customers in Uganda to develop a list of must-have and nice-to-have elements for a product that would provide access to clean drinking water. The winning solution, shown here in a Ugandan village, met all the criteria.
1. A price, including installation, of no more than $20
2. Storage capacity of at least 125 gallons
3. A weight light enough for one adult to carry a half mile on rough paths
4. Material that would prevent deterioration of water quality
5. An estimate of the cost of operating and maintaining the device over three years and a clear explanation of how to repair and replace components
6. A means, such as a filter, of removing gross organic matter from the incoming rain stream
7. A means, such as a tap or a pump, of extracting water without contaminating the contents of the unit
8. A method for completely draining the water and cleaning the system
1. An aesthetically pleasing design
2. Additional functionality so that the unit could be used for multiple purposes
3. Features such as a modular design or salvageable parts that would add value to the device after its lifetime
Experts in rainwater harvesting told Naugle and his team that their target price of $20 was unachievable, which meant that subsidies would be required. But a subsidized product was against EWV’s strategy and philosophy.
Which problem solvers should we engage?
The dead end EWV hit in seeking a $20 solution from those experts led the organization to conclude that it needed to enlist as many experts outside the field as possible. That is when EWV decided to engage InnoCentive and its network of 250,000 solvers.
What information and language should the problem statement include?
To engage the largest number of solvers from the widest variety of fields, a problem statement must meet the twin goals of being extremely specific but not unnecessarily technical. It shouldn’t contain industry or discipline jargon or presuppose knowledge of a particular field. It may (and probably should) include a summary of previous solution attempts and detailed requirements.
With those criteria in mind, Naugle and his team crafted a problem statement. (The following is the abstract; for the full problem statement, visit hbr.org/problem-statement2 .) “EnterpriseWorks is seeking design ideas for a low-cost rainwater storage system that can be installed in households in developing countries. The solution is expected to facilitate access to clean water at a household level, addressing a problem that affects millions of people worldwide who are living in impoverished communities or rural areas where access to clean water is limited. Domestic rainwater harvesting is a proven technology that can be a valuable option for accessing and storing water year round. However, the high cost of available rainwater storage systems makes them well beyond the reach of low-income families to install in their homes. A solution to this problem would not only provide convenient and affordable access to scarce water resources but would also allow families, particularly the women and children who are usually tasked with water collection, to spend less time walking distances to collect water and more time on activities that can bring in income and improve the quality of life.”
To engage the largest number of solvers from the widest variety of fields, a problem statement must meet the twin goals of being extremely specific but not unnecessarily technical.
What do solvers need to submit?
What information about the proposed solution does your organization need in order to invest in it? For example, would a well-founded hypothetical approach be sufficient, or is a full-blown prototype needed? EWV decided that a solver had to submit a written explanation of the solution and detailed drawings.
What incentives do solvers need?
The point of asking this question is to ensure that the right people are motivated to address the problem. For internal solvers, incentives can be written into job descriptions or offered as promotions and bonuses. For external solvers, the incentive might be a cash award. EWV offered to pay $15,000 to the solver who provided the best solution through the InnoCentive network.
How will solutions be evaluated and success measured?
Addressing this question forces a company to be explicit about how it will evaluate the solutions it receives. Clarity and transparency are crucial to arriving at viable solutions and to ensuring that the evaluation process is fair and rigorous. In some cases a “we’ll know it when we see it” approach is reasonable—for example, when a company is looking for a new branding strategy. Most of the time, however, it is a sign that earlier steps in the process have not been approached with sufficient rigor.
EWV stipulated that it would evaluate solutions on their ability to meet the criteria of low cost, high storage capacity, low weight, and easy maintenance. It added that it would prefer designs that were modular (so that the unit would be easier to transport) and adaptable or salvageable or had multiple functions (so that owners could reuse the materials after the product’s lifetime or sell them to others for various applications). The overarching goal was to keep costs low and to help poor families justify the purchase.
Ultimately, the solution to EWV’s rainwater-storage problem came from someone outside the field: a German inventor whose company specialized in the design of tourist submarines. The solution he proposed required no elaborate machinery; in fact, it had no pumps or moving parts. It was an established industrial technology that had not been applied to water storage: a plastic bag within a plastic bag with a tube at the top. The outer bag (made of less-expensive, woven polypropylene) provided the structure’s strength, while the inner bag (made of more-expensive, linear low-density polyethylene) was impermeable and could hold 125 gallons of water. The two-bag approach allowed the inner bag to be thinner, reducing the price of the product, while the outer bag was strong enough to contain a ton and a half of water.
The structure folded into a packet the size of a briefcase and weighed about eight pounds. In short, the solution was affordable, commercially viable, could be easily transported to remote areas, and could be sold and installed by local entrepreneurs. (Retailers make from $4 to $8 per unit, depending on the volume they purchase. Installers of the gutters, downspout, and base earn about $6.)
EWV developed an initial version and tested it in Uganda, where the organization asked end users such questions as What do you think of its weight? Does it meet your needs? Even mundane issues like color came into play: The woven outer bags were white, which women pointed out would immediately look dirty. EWV modified the design on the basis of this input: For example, it changed the color of the device to brown, expanded its size to 350 gallons (while keeping the target price of no more than $20 per 125 gallons of water storage), altered its shape to make it more stable, and replaced the original siphon with an outlet tap.
After 14 months of field testing, EWV rolled out the commercial product in Uganda in March 2011. By the end of May 2012, 50 to 60 shops, village sales agents, and cooperatives were selling the product; more than 80 entrepreneurs had been trained to install it; and 1,418 units had been deployed in eight districts in southwestern Uganda.
EWV deems this a success at this stage in the rollout. It hopes to make the units available in 10 countries—and have tens or hundreds of thousands of units installed—within five years. Ultimately, it believes, millions of units will be in use for a variety of applications, including household drinking water, irrigation, and construction. Interestingly, the main obstacle to getting people to buy the device has been skepticism that something that comes in such a small package (the size of a typical five-gallon jerrican) can hold the equivalent of 70 jerricans. Believing that the remedy is to show villagers the installed product, EWV is currently testing various promotion and marketing programs. As the EWV story illustrates, critically analyzing and clearly articulating a problem can yield highly innovative solutions. Organizations that apply these simple concepts and develop the skills and discipline to ask better questions and define their problems with more rigor can create strategic advantage, unlock truly groundbreaking innovation, and drive better business performance. Asking better questions delivers better results.
- DS Dwayne Spradlin is the president and CEO of InnoCentive , an online marketplace that connects organizations with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of fields. He is a coauthor, with Alpheus Bingham, of The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise (FT Press, 2011).
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What happens if you're unable to solve a problem? [closed]
I'm a year away from graduating from university, and I'm really looking forward to solving practical problems. Especially non-trivial ones which require a bit of research and a lot of thinking.
But at the same time, that is also my greatest fear - being faced with a problem that I'm unable to solve, no matter how hard I try. And with pressure to deliver code on impending deadlines just around the corner, it does look a bit scary when viewing it from the safe playgrounds on uni (where the worst thing that can happen is that you have to redo a course or exam).
So for those who have been in industry for any longer length of time, what would happen if you were told to solve a problem that you couldn't? Has it happened, and if so, what did happen? Did they just drop it and said "Oh well, guess we can make do with something else"? Were there consequences? Were you reprimanded, or even fired?
- 24 this applies to any profession - fail fast, ask for help, research possible solutions before commiting – Steven A. Lowe Dec 7, 2010 at 16:54
- 9 Do not worry. 80% of the jobs out there is maintaining old heaps of junk. – Job Dec 8, 2010 at 1:34
- Unable to solve a problem? That's possible? – WernerCD Dec 8, 2010 at 2:35
- 3 I don't think this will ever be a real issue, unless it's a problem that Jon Skeet can't solve in which case we're all doomed! – Skizz Dec 8, 2010 at 13:22
22 Answers 22
First of all, your fear is very healthy, and normal. Here are my musings after about 15 years in the software industry. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you understand the problem?
- Do you know that the problem is unsolvable (within your time/budget constraints)?
- Do you just not know how to solve the problem?
- Is your client/boss asking for the impossible.
- Is it worth it? (ROI)
- Is it a REAL problem?
1) First of all, make sure you understand the problem. There are no stupid questions. Do you understand what your client/boss is asking you versus what they need?
2) This will happen. "Build me a bridge by tomorrow" . Make sure that you know for a fact that a problem is unsolvable within your constraints. Your client/boss might be flexible on the time/budget and these can be modified to give you more time/budget.
3) If the problem is understandable and the constraints are within reason, and there is technology that can solve the problem, but you just don't know enough...that's what StackOverflow and the Internet is for. Make sure you do your research first. Try to ask explicit questions that have quantifiable answers. Ask your peers. Have a design session.
4) This is a variant of answer number 2. It seems like your client/boss is asking the impossible. Do some research. Never say that the problem is unsolvable, unless you know exactly why and you can clarify.
5) ROI stands for Return On Investment. This refers to an investment in time. Your Time!. Is the problem important enough to solve to warrant the amount of time it will take you to research and solve the problem. Discuss this with your client/boss
6) Is it a real problem. Clients, often times, understand what they want, but don't necessarily understand what they need. Try to understand what your Client/Boss actually needs and discuss this with them.
Hope these guidelines help you.
- 3 Most informative answer yet. Hope it gets more votes. – gablin Dec 7, 2010 at 16:33
- 6 Not a bad answer. I just wanted to add that the most successful hackers maintain a certain level of practical arrogance: i.e., assume you can beat any challenge. Most of the time you'll be right, and you'll solve more problems than someone who doesn't operate under than assumption. That said, not solving a problem isn't the end of the world -- just don't leave it to the last minute. Managing up means making sure your boss has reasonable expectations. If you aren't sure how to do something, let the boss know you need time to research and come back with recommendations. – HedgeMage Dec 7, 2010 at 16:47
- I like that #4 isn't a question – endolith Jun 4, 2015 at 0:22
Two things to remember if you're stuck with a seemingly unsolvable problem:
Let other folks know you're stuck as soon as possible. It will help them to adjust the estimate in time before it's too late.
If you see one way of solving a problem doesn't work - drop it before you've wasted too much time. Ask for help or try out a different approach. It's not about proving yourself hard and smart, it's about getting things done.
- 11 +1 for "ask for help". Another pair of eyes on the problem can be extremely useful. – Michael K Dec 7, 2010 at 15:15
- 5 +1 for your second point... beware of the 95% solution. That is, the solution that gets you 95% of the way there very quickly, but is nearly impossible to make work 100%. I find it's easy to throw a lot of extra time trying to get the last 5% because you're "almost there". – Scott Whitlock Dec 7, 2010 at 15:25
- 5 "Mr Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news at once." – JeffO Dec 7, 2010 at 15:54
- 3 Being able to ask for help is very important. So many times I've seen new developers come back after 2 weeks with nothing to show for it because they got stuck on the first day. Of course, your mentor/boss should be asking you how you're going, etc, but don't lie and say "everything's going OK" when it's clearly not! – Dean Harding Dec 8, 2010 at 0:10
- 4 Even the simple act of explaining the problem to somebody else can allow you to find a solution. – alexanderpas Dec 8, 2010 at 2:15
I go to StackOverflow ;)
But all joking aside, do not fear the unknown. Your whole career will be facing the unknown, because if you already solved it, it won't be a problem the next time.
- 12 That's not a joke for me, its normally my first port of call. In-fact the process of formulating a question often provides the impetus for discovering a solution myself. – NimChimpsky Dec 7, 2010 at 15:07
- 10 Last time I just couldn't figure out a problem with some software, asking on SO got me an almost immediate correct answer. – David Thornley Dec 7, 2010 at 19:06
- Great Answer! +1 - The best part of software development - "Your whole career will be facing the unknown." – Karthik Sreenivasan Jan 24, 2012 at 6:41
I'm going to have to go with a simple answer: I ask for help. Just like others sometimes ask me for help when they're stuck trying to find a solution for something.
Edit: I should mention that I often find the solution just by describing the problem to a co-worker, or sometimes even when I start posting a question on sites like StackOverflow.
- 3 Sometimes talking to a co-worker who understand the work can help, even if they don't offer any suggestions, just talking it out can help you sort it out in your own head – funkymushroom Dec 7, 2010 at 16:00
Look at from different angles
I've come across this many a times, usually what happens is:
You have a problem, initially you have an idea in your head how you would solve it. When it comes to actually implementing your solution, it turns out that is doesn't work (probably due to the weak model of the actual problem). After struggling to solve the problem, be it more research or asking others. None of it works, the pure frustration!
Finally you opt for what you didn't want to do ->
"The Dirty Hack"
It works, but you feel dirty...
- 3 +1 for dirty hack, sometimes the unavailability of a proper solution looks like no solution at all... sure, nobody likes global variables, but if this is the only available way to get a piece of information from A to B... better than not delivering at all. – user281377 Dec 7, 2010 at 21:38
- +1 - Clear description of the most common experience faced by a software developer. – Karthik Sreenivasan Jan 24, 2012 at 6:50
Usually, I get someone smarter than me to fix it. He does and he's my boss. I feel stupid. We move on.
- 4 I envy you --- you have a boss who understands what you do even better than you do. Be grateful! – JasonFruit Dec 8, 2010 at 13:24
- In fact I'm happy mine isn't. ;-) My boss serves me to get obstacles out of the way, organize help when i need it, keep me motivated and going, etc. if he was better on my job he shouldn't be my boss but do my job. – johannes Aug 28, 2012 at 2:21
- Your boss should know more than you on many things, imo. – johnny Aug 28, 2012 at 16:54
It depends on the reason why you are unable...
logically impossible: Discuss it with the one who wrote the requirements, maybe there is a misunderstanding. Example: at one point, the spec says that the application must look and feel native on all platforms (Windows/Linux/Mac), and in another place, it says that the program must look exactly identical on all platforms
technically impossible: Reevaluate the tools you are working with, maybe they are not appropriate. Discuss the problem with your peers and the project manager. Example: hard realtime requirements in an environment where garbage collection can stop the execution for an indeterminate time
insufficient performance: Maybe you are using the wrong algorithm, or maybe the problem is too hard (e.g. NP-hard) and the requirements doesn't take that into account. Reevaluate the algorithm you are using, maybe there is a faster way. Discuss the problem with your peers and the project manager. Consider switching to a good-enough heuristic instead of a perfect result. Example: path optimization with dozens or even hundreds of nodes
you just don't know how to do it: Ask your peers, ask stackoverflow, search the internet. Contact the support of the tool/lib you are using. Discuss it with the project manager.
it should work, but doesn't, and you have no clue why: Refactor the program to make it more testable. Consider race conditions, they are often the reason for hard-to-find bugs. Ask peers for help, four eyes see more than two. Check the internet for known bugs in the tools/libs you are using.
I think other people nicely point out how to deal with it in a professional manner. I would like to say how to deal with the personal feeling like frustration, fear.
Bottom line is you will be FINE even if you do not resolve issues in timely manner. Life goes on.
Sometimes, the schedule would be pushed. The project would be either successful of failed. You may be fired and then have great job. You just never know.
Don't get me wrong. It does't mean it is OK to let the problem be there. All we can do is doing my best and let it go.
Sometimes, I think the frustration, fear not solving problem is my life as a average developer.
I'm not sure I'd say that I couldn't solve a problem, but there have been cases where I did give up on trying to solve a problem. After pouring many hours into trying to fix a bug or implement some feature that I don't have an idea of how to do it, I may tell someone on my team, team leader or manager, "I'm stuck on this. What do you want me to do?" so that they know where I am. They could say, "Keep at it, we think you'll get it," or "Move on to something else that isn't that important," or a few other things and then I'll know what I should be doing.
I've had bugs that I didn't resolve and some features that didn't get done, sure. While I can try to get something done, not everything is within my power to solve in a reasonable time. A key point in this is to have communication so that your superiors know where you are.
That said, I did have a couple of times where I ran into some rather special circumstances:
While working at a large Canadian bank in Toronto, I would be asked to do all kinds of stuff that I didn't know how to do when I was given the task. For example, I was asked to test out this method for securing laptops where the "Esc" and "Enter" keys were swapped on boot-up and with the right key sequence the laptop would be usable again that just seemed bizarre to try to figure out, "Would this work? How do I know this would or wouldn't be OK with the users?" There were other tasks that I either just didn't have the hardware or other resources to get it done. At the same time it was rather educational as this gave me many things to note on any future employment situation to prevent trouble. Things like ensuring when I'm paid, how is my time tracked, and other communication issues were illustrated with great detail to me here that I haven't really forgotten.
While working at an Application Service Provider in Calgary, I was given this project of trying to create a copy of another website within our internal application that we sold as a service. A key point here is that I wasn't given a time line or suggestions on what part to do first, just general research and a month later I was asked for a demo just as I was having a bad reaction to some pain medication. That reaction lasted a week that I took off of work suddenly and then the following week, I went to a Microsoft event that was kind of the last straw as I was fired the next day. Something to note here is how I had a rather poor relationship with my boss as anytime he'd come near my area my immediate thought was, "Now what's wrong?" which tended to not be a rather healthy thing to have as a reaction to someone many times over.
As others have said, communication is critical - letting people know (who will be impacted) when you're stuck: your boss, team members, clients, etc.
A sharp co-worker once instilled upon me that success has roots in two things:
Having a good relationship, I suppose, is a function of good communication and setting expectations up front.
I follow the Polya princinple:
"If there is a problem you can't solve, then there is an easier problem you can't solve: find it." George Polya
The beauty of the principle is that at some point there will be a problem that is small enough and that you will be able to solve which, hopefully if you did things right, will allow you to bootstrap a solution to the original problem. This principle has not failed me yet.
The " seek help " answers are definitely correct. It is highly unlikely that you are the first person to ever encounter a particular problem.
But as a though experiment, what if there is no help? What if you must solve the problem on your own? The most important problem solving ability is the ability to identify and challenge your own assumptions . If you can enumerate your assumptions about a problem one-by-one and eliminate each in turn, you will eventually come upon the errant assumption and new possibilities for a solution will open up as a result.
(By the way, this is also the best approach when you can't see an answer to a problem you get in a job interview. Verbally list out your assumptions, and determine which one is wrong and then re-attack the problem. Almost all "trick questions" are based upon natural yet faulty assumptions).
Asking for help is really the best answer, but here's a little more that may be useful.
Yes, it's happened to me, and no, I never got reprimanded or fired for it, because...
In industry, it's all about whether you solve problems on time and within budget, and decent managers understand that's not always possible.
What really happens is your manager says, "I'd like you to do X, what do you think it will take?" And you can give lots of answers. Good ones include:
- I've done something really similar to this, so I think it will take three weeks and $3,000 worth of testing hardware.
- I've something generally similar to this. So let me think about it and get back to you this afternoon.
- I've never done anything like this. So let me research it and get back to you tomorrow.
- Nobody on the planet has ever done this. If you want to look into it, it will take me two weeks to do enough experimentation to make an estimate.
It's the manager's job to decide whether and how to proceed. If they do choose to proceed, it's your job to meet your estimates, or let the manager know if there's an impediment. As long as you do that, in a reasonable company there won't be negative consequences.
Of course, there are also unreasonable companies that don't give you the time or resources to get your job done. I've worked at some of those, and everybody was handed problems that couldn't be solved within the company's constraints. One of them laid off about 98% of the programming staff within eight months, and that certainly was a consequence, but it wasn't personally directed at me, and I still consider my boss and his boss from there to be good friends.
- +1 Very good incremental list of targets. Managers have to accept that the less well known the problem is, the longer it will take to get an estimate for how long it will take to solve, also it increases the error margin on such estimates. At the end of the day, if you have unreasonable managers, then the job is always at risk - so you should still proceed as above, as that covers your back a bit more. At least you can say "I told you so". – Orbling Dec 8, 2010 at 0:55
There are lots of different types of problems that you will be stumped on, and many have different ways to handle them.
One type of problem is implementing something you haven't seen before like a strange sound API or something. In this case I'd ask on SO, seriously.
Another is a very large problem to solve. This type of problem can be approached iteratively. They tell you "Implement Humongous". You look it over and write as many steps as you can figure out. Then you break down the complicated steps into smaller steps. As you are forced to think about smaller steps they become clearer. If you encounter a technical difficulty, try a test implementation and ask here if necessary.
One of the more annoying problems is poorly specified requests. They just want a thing that does "x" and don't tell you how it should be done. For these a good approach is prototype an interface (typically a GUI) and let someone play with it.
Then there are time constraints that can't be met. This often involves modifying expectations and delivering functional prototypes.
You will generally find your way through things one way or another. It's frightening but once you're in it you can pretty much always find some way through.
Your best bet may be to just paint the words "Don't Panic" on the outside of your laptop. And don't forget your towel.
- +1 For HHGTTG reference and "Then there are time constraints that can't be met." Too true. In the modern marketing-led business world, you may well be asked to build something that is soon, if not already, on sale; but would take a team twice the size, three times the allotted time to produce. – Orbling Dec 8, 2010 at 0:58
My sequence of solving problems (every next spet is performed only if the previous did not work):
- Try to google
- Ask someone
- Search SO directly (bypassing Google)
- Smoke (== clear head)
- Ask a question on SO
- Wait till morning (== clear head even more)
- Use that dirty hack and feel bad about myself :(
Nasty problems are solved on steps 5-6.
Really-really bad problems usually need some time (step 7 is THE solution to most 'seems-that-i-cannot-do-anything' problems). And I mean it - switch to another task for the rest of the day and try to solve the problem first thing in the morning. That does wonders.
And only then comes step 8.
- I usually find the best place to come up with solutions to problems is either a) on my bicycle or b) in the shower. It then becomes a race between getting somewhere where there's a note-taking device or forgetting what I just came up with (I'm getting on a bit now and my short term memory is what it err what was I talking about?) – Skizz Dec 8, 2010 at 13:21
I haven't heard of anything happening like this. First of all you are never given a problem which can not be solved at all. The problem may be hard and may take time to solve. When given a problem, you will have to tell this is the time I will require. If in your research you think that this problem really can not be solved, you have to raise a flag and tell your manager that this problem will take some more time, or is really difficult to solve. It's all about the schedule. If you promise something and will not be able to deliver then it's problem. But if you keep telling your status and concerns, it is the responsibility of manager to take care of it. He should redirect you to proper person who can help, or adjust the schedule.
- 3 -1, it is definitely possible to be given a problem which is impossible to solve. "Design a brute force password solver which can crack 30 character passwords in under a minute, which needs to run on a Pentium 2 with 256 megs of ram." – AttackingHobo Dec 7, 2010 at 18:47
- 1 There are plenty of unsolvable problems. The trick is to know that they are unsolvable very quickly. Preferably before the marketing guy asking you to solve it has finished telling you the problem. – Orbling Dec 7, 2010 at 20:20
- @AttackingHobo...that's not even a realistic problem – Dacto Dec 8, 2010 at 0:05
There's some great advice here! My two cents worth is; Don't be overwhelmed by the BIG problem, don't forget that the exciting and challenging part of solving a problem is breaking it down into series of manageable and more importantly comprehensible sub-problems, which in turn break down again and again into smaller sub-problems. Any good programmer will typically do this on a minute by minute basis while they are creating code (using functions, methods, sub-routines etc to help reduce the overall complexity of a section of code) and this methodology typically applies to any BIG problem you face in life (not just at work).
It depends on what the specific problem is, obviously. But the response can be any of :
- Find a workaround/substitution
- Buy a commercial solution that approximates what you want
- Dont give up and keep working at it as long as you need to until you succeed .
Number 3 may require time off from the problem and revisiting it weeks or months later. That often helps.
In my experiece, sometimes there's problem that you can't solve, at least in time restriction. So seeking help as soon as possible, after some solving effort failed you .
Remember the rule of thumb: always look at the reason the boss hires you. Do whatever you think you can do for the best work result, and sometimes that's an early fail report (far better than a late one).
In short, if you think you may find the solution, feel free to try, but give your boss estimation about the risk and the time cost. It's their problem now.
If hundred-million dollar projects can fail even with experienced people, you shouldn't worry about you failing as you are still a student. I've had a problem to work on and I found that if it is something you get stuck on - you must record every attempt you made to solve it.
- Proof of attempts done to solve a problem.
- Recording this type of failure is important so you learn from it and don't do it again a few days later thinking it will work.
My experience is that a fresh graduate is not thrown into the deep. Instead, you will likely be part of a team that also includes experienced developers.
My advice would be: make use of them. When you are unsure how to tackle a problem, or if you want to know if your solution is going in the right direction, discuss this with them. And if you feel you are stuck somewhere, grab one of the experienced guys and explain your problem and ask for help.
Most often, just explaining your problem will reveal a solution and explaining your solution may equally reveal flaws in it.
Often this happens because you haven't defined the problem properly and accurately. Perhaps you're trying to solve a preconceived solution instead of the actual problem itself.
The problem is only what you observe, not what you imagine.
"My bloody car won't start" is a problem. "The battery is flat." is a preconceived solution to the car-starting problem. Even testing the battery doesn't prove it is the only cause of the problem. Unless you have actually recharged or replaced the battery and successfully started the car then you have no proof that the battery is the cause of the problem problem.
Simplify and keep simplifying. Break it down into small parts. If you can't solve those parts, smash them. You'll feel better. Then break it down into different small parts. Each one of those parts must be observable phenomenon.
Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged productivity industry or ask your own question .
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4 steps to solve any problem at work.
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Problems exist everywhere.
But so do solutions.
The workplace is littered with problems that need to be solved on a daily basis, bet it a customer complaint, a quality issue, budget cuts, or communication issues and team dynamics.
With all of these problems to be solved, it should come as no surprise that one of the top traits employers look for in hiring talent is someone who’s a great “problem solver”...but what does that really look like?
In my years of working with clients who feel stuck, don’t like their current job or are unsure of how to start their dream business (all of which are problems waiting to be solved), I have come to realize that problem-solving isn’t simply the ability to fix issues when they come up; it comes down to how much focus you can bring to identifying the problem itself.
As Albert Einstein puts it, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
And yet, in a world where instead of listening, we’re often preparing our responses to others, it would appear that we rarely follow his advice.
In most instances, we jump straight into action to put out a fire, rather than take the time to understand where the flame is starting from in the first place. We don’t spend time up-front to understand what the problem we’re actually solving is, which leads to spending time focused on aspects that don’t actually get to the root of the issue.
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For instance, in my years of coaching clients who seek clarity, I have found it isn’t clarity that they truly need; the root of their discomfort and struggle is that they need to reconnect with who they authentically are. Disconnection is the root of the problem.
Whether it be in your professional life or personal life, I have created a simple four-step pathway to solving problems the right way.
1. Check your assumptions.
When you first identify a problem, make sure your statement has no trace of a solution. If you have been selling a course online, for instance, and sales aren’t what you imagined, you might think it would be prudent to jump straight into sending out more emails and relaunching a drip funnel. But what if your audience wasn’t even on your email list? Or what if the product offering wasn’t something they were actually interested in buying? There are many possible causes for this problem. All of this assumption leads the problem statement to become unclear and the solutions to be unrecognizable.
First, recognize that assumptions are an innate human characteristic and something everyone does in order to survive at our most primal level. Research has found that the brain actually rewards assumptions and is hardwired to convince us we are right, even when we may be wrong. According to research conducted by Bojana Kuzmanovic of the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne, any time we hear information that supports our assumptions, the brain activates two areas of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and cognitive behavior) associated with reward.
With this in mind, transform your assumptions into questions. Rather than believe an assumption—“No one bought my product because they didn’t see the email advertisements,” reframe it into a question:“Why didn’t anyone purchase my product?” This immediately gets you out of assumption mode and into discovering the root of the problem.
2. Get to the root of the problem.
It’s not enough to identify a problem if you don’t understand why it’s a problem.
Research becomes an incredibly valuable component in this problem-solving process. While it will take time up-front, this aspect of solving a problem is what will make the first solution implemented likely the last solution you need to apply.
Begin to talk with your audience, whether that be customers, leads, or co-workers. Find where they spend their time online and in-person and begin to intimately connect with them as a means to discover their thoughts on your problem. Hit the books and begin to study other people who live in the same professional space as you to better understand the problems they have overcome and how they did so. Read competitors’ product reviews and pay extra attention to the comments section of their feed to see if they experience the same issues. Do all of this research before you take any action.
3. State the problem in as many ways as possible.
Have you ever found yourself convinced that a single idea is the solution? No matter what, this idea is all you can think about. Latching on to just one problem statement in this manner can give you tunnel vision.
When stressed out, your brain is depleted of dopamine, but when you hyperfocus on something, you actually activate the prefrontal cortex, triggering dopamine in your brain. Under great stress, your senses become tunneled in order to keep you feeling good and moving forward.
In order to combat this tunnel vision, create a list of potential reasons for why you may have the issue, no matter how silly, wild or weird they may be. Don’t judge yourself for the problems you create; view this simply as an exercise of your brain to get things moving and reconnect with your creativity. After creating the list, return back to the original problem statement and reference the research you gathered to see if new solutions or the true problem presents itself.
Post-it Notes, penicillin, the microwave and even potato chips were all invented by accident: one series of studies and actions led to these massively utilized and consumed products entering the market. In most cases, the inventors were trying to apply them to an audience or a process that didn’t fit. With a little bit of reframing and the commitment to look at alternative options, the right solutions presented themselves. So don’t hold yourself back in creatively finding the root of your problem.
4. Ask what you COULD do.
We all want to “get it right,” which is why it’s so tempting to ask, “What should I do?” But the word “should” tends to lock our minds into the ways it’s been done before.
An experiment from the Academy of Management showed that making the simple switch from “should” to “could” led participants to generate more creative solutions to challenges. Be the one to ask, “What if…?” and “How about…?” You may be surprised by what comes up.
While these four steps initially may feel like you’re slowing things down, it is vital to remember that putting in this extra time up-front prevents wasting time later on implementing the wrong actions and ineffective solutions.
Don’t jump the gun and start sporadically spraying water on the fire; look at the entire landscape to understand where the true root of the problem lies.
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How To Deal With Your Problems
Problem-solving doesn’t have to be stressful. When we create a step-by-step plan, we can gracefully work through even the toughest issues.
Do you have a problem you’d rather not think about? Perhaps you keep moving it to tomorrow’s to-do list. And when tomorrow comes, you do it again – and again.
Before you know it, the problem has become a giant monster that gets more vicious with each passing day. It’s screaming to be solved, but now it’s almost too overwhelming to deal with.
However, tackling a problem doesn’t have to be so stressful. When you have the right tools in your problem-solving toolbox, you can handle most problems with more success and far less stress.
5 steps for dealing with a problem
Whether it’s a relationship problem , a financial problem, or a work problem, problems are a regular part of life.
Some problems can feel overwhelmingly complicated. But when you divide problem-solving into actionable steps, it becomes much easier to tackle.
Here are 5 steps for dealing with a problem:
- Identify the problem . In order to find a solution, it can help to identify the root cause of the problem instead of just the symptoms of the issue. To do this, keep asking “why?” until you get to the root. It can also help to journal about how you are feeling and consider where your stress is coming from.
- Brainstorm potential solutions . There may be several solutions to your problem. List the pros and cons of each one. Take your time with this. You may even ask advice from a few friends. This will help you weigh in multiple perspectives.
- Choose the best solution. Consider solution is the most practical, sustainable, and most likely to succeed. Once you’ve chosen a solution, direct your energy into your choice.
- Create a step-by-step plan . Now that you’ve chosen a solution, list out a step-by-step plan to get it done. You can set project goals (e.g. do this task and then this task, etc.) or time goals (work on this task for 4 hours). Taking manageable steps is important, because trying to tackle the problem all at once creates mental chaos and anxiety.
- Don’t procrastinate . Putting the problem off until later can create more anxiety. Procrastination also increases your problems if you’re under a time constraint. For instance, if you have to write a 2,000-word report in a week, don’t wait until the night before to start it.
Tips for becoming a better problem solver
Below are several tips for better problem-solving.
- Be confident . As best you can, try to be confident that there’s a solution right around the corner (you just have to find it). 2018 research shows that your motivation increases when you’re confident that you will get the desired reward or outcome. Developing this type of positive thinking often first requires building your self-esteem , so that you are confident in your problem-solving abilities.
- Be proactive. Always think ahead and try to anticipate any potential obstacles. Let’s say that you have a big math exam today and a limited amount of time to take it. Be sure to bring extra pencils in case one breaks.
- Consider it a challenge. See your problem as a challenge rather than an annoyance or a difficulty. This helps put you in the driver’s seat. The ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism tells us to focus on what we can control and to turn every obstacle into an opportunity for growth.
- Ask the experts. A good problem-solver doesn’t always try to figure things out alone. Sometimes you need help and expert advice. For instance, if you’re trying to fix an appliance, call someone you know who’s done it before.
- Don’t complain, just start moving. Complaining uses a lot of energy and makes you feel even worse. Let’s say you have three meetings to attend in one day. Instead of complaining about how much you have to do, start working on a time management solution.
- Take responsibility. Sometimes, our plans fail, and that’s OK. This is a part of life. Successful people get back on their feet and try again. Look for the lessons in each mistake or perceived failure. Be careful not to blame another person, because this makes you feel less in control.
Certain personality traits can also come in handy. Authors of a 2021 study with college students suggest that a few characteristics are helpful toward developing strong problem-solving skills:
- thirst for knowledge
- positive attitude
- action-oriented temperament
Although these traits may come more easily to some, anyone can develop their problem-solving skills with a little practice.
Why being a good problem solver is important
Good problem-solving skills are a necessary and important part of daily life.
In fact, we solve problems every day without thinking much about it. For instance, maybe you’re at work and you suddenly realize there’s a rip in your pants. Or maybe you’re a nickel short for the vending machine. What do you do in these situations?
Everyday, we have to handle these little problems with creativity and patience .
When you build up the skills for solving small daily inconveniences, you’re preparing yourself for the times when you encounter a bigger life problem or task. This way, you have the confidence and motivation to work through your stress and grow from a challenging experience.
Problem-solving involves identifying the problem, developing possible solutions, and taking the appropriate course of action.
In many cases, problem-solving can be quite intuitive and not very difficult at all. And the more you practice your problem-solving skills, the more intuitive solutions become.
Steve Jobs, American entrepreneur and CEO of Apple, is quoted as saying, “When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.”
The best part is that when you finally overcome a problem, it feels really good!
Last medically reviewed on June 22, 2022
3 sources collapsed
- Canva M. (2011). Steve Jobs: His 10 best quotes about art and creativity. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/comic-riffs/post/steve-jobs-his-10-best-quotes-about-art-and-creativity/2011/10/06/gIQAc0ZARL_blog.html
- Steel P, et al. (2018). Examining procrastination across multiple goal stages: A longitudinal study of temporal motivation theory. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00327/full
- Wang Y-P. (2021). Effects of online problem-solving instruction and identification attitude toward instructional strategies on students' creativity. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.771128/full
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