This Is Why We Suck at Problem-Solving

21 Jun 2024

The immediate trigger for this blog is the less-than-expected performance by India’s ruling party of the last decade, i.e., BJP and what transpired afterward in the media, on social media, & various WhatsApp groups. What one got to see was hysteria & then crazy speculation about why it happened and what were the root causes. Nearly 1000 reasons must have been thrown around.

Something similar happened during Covid. From the laymen to the experts to the heads of state, everyone had some solution or other every day. Often, a contradictory solution to what they suggested just a few days back. In both cases, & through multiple other experiences, I have come to realize that…

People are very poor at finding out the root cause(s) of a problem.

When presented with a problem, coming up with a solution, implementing the solution, & ensuring that it is sustainable is part of what I do, day in and day out. Having done this for several years, across several industries, & with several organizations. I reached the same conclusion as above. Be it a technical problem like a memory leak, a behavioral issue, problems in the process, etc. It does not matter what the nature of the problem is. When I look back, I can see some recurring issues.

“Correlation does not mean causation” is an idea most people struggle with. Just because event B happens when event A also happens, just because when you increase input x, output y increases, they automatically jump to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

When multiple variables affect an outcome, two contradictory aspects need to be considered simultaneously. We need to isolate the impact of each variable. Also, we need to understand their combined impact & sometimes the interrelations between the variables themselves.

What happens is that one of the variables is identified (sometimes, just correlation, sometimes causation). It gets fine-tuned, & we announce victory only to realize that the improvements we thought would materialize haven’t.

Then there is the problem of complex vs complicated. Almost all techniques we are aware of are suitable for solving complicated problems. These techniques involve reductionist approaches which fail miserably in solving complex problems.

One of the greatest assets for a problem solver is humility. “I don’t know” is a very powerful statement when you are trying to solve a problem. It means that you are open to challenge/validate every assumption. While you might have tonnes of experience, you are ready to take a fresh look at the problem at hand.

The customers/stakeholders though like to only hire people who can show a high degree of confidence and claim that “I know the solution”, “ This is nothing new for me”, “I have already solved it” or “Here ..I have a panacea..don't think JUST DO IT”.

Another challenge is often people who pay an analyst/problem solver want immediate actions. They are not ready to accept that problem-solving needs time .. time to observe, time to analyze, time to hypothesize, time to run experiments, & time to see the outcomes of a change.

Yes sounds like someone is going to sit on his butt for long periods but the more complex a problem, the more time you need to sit on your butt doing all these things rather than being “Action Jackson.”

When I ask for time to observe/collect data, I am told “That is already done, here is the data”. There is very little appreciation of the fact that data that is gathered by a 3rd party while it is a good starting point for a problem solver, going through the process of capturing this data in itself is a learning experience & provides a lot of insights. It also avoids biases that the data-capturing machinery might have.

Last but not least, the urge to declare victory prematurely. This happens the most in large corporates as their timing is everything. Just before the quarter ends, just before the appraisal cycle, one needs to show the results. So, the moment green shoots of progress are seen, out goes the email with 20 people, 200 in CC.

Then there is a long chain of “Kudos,” “Amazing Work,” etc.. till one discovers that the victory was short-lived. The concept of letting the changes “BAKE IN”, wait & watch are alien.

To conclude, here are things to keep in mind.

  • Correlation does not mean causation.

  • When multiple variables affect an outcome, individuals, as well as combined impact, need to be understood.

  • Complex & Complicated systems need very different problem-solving approaches.

  • “I don’t know” is a very good starting point. If this person has solved problems in the past, he will solve your present problem as well; even if his current status is “I don’t know.”

  • Problem-solving is a lot of brain work. Don’t get biased by the lack of visible action.

  • The success of the solution depends on how well data collection happens. Don’t short-circuit it.

  • It takes time to provide long-term/permanent solutions for problems. Don’t be like Bart & Lisa with your non-stop “Are we there already?”

Having identified the problems, the actual process of implementing the solutions has its own set of issues. But that is for some other day to write about.

Credit: Photo by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash