"A problem well stated is a problem half-solved." This advice was presented by Charles F. Kettering, over 100 years ago. Kettering was an innovator in the time of Einstein, renowned for his invention of the electric starter and numerous compelling lectures. One might call him "infamous" for his creation of leaded gasoline and torpedos. But this is not about Kettering; it's about problem-solving.
The chance for attaining a satisfactory solution is closely linked to how precisely the initial problem is defined. Everyone can describe a problem. If you want to know someone, find out what is bothering them. What challenges is your next door neighbor facing just this week? The answer is only a knock away. And so while the description or story around a problem can be attained in a five-minute conversation, clearly defining that issue, in a way that frames it up as solvable, is an effort all its own.
Problems are abundant, and as such, so are the opportunities to create brilliant solutions. Unfortunately, the work of building solutions can often involve addressing symptoms while glossing over the root causes. Kettering’s advice is about revealing and defining causes instead of getting distracted by broad symptoms. Treat the causes, and the symptoms will resolve themselves.
Further, our personal experience of many large problems may seem simple, but, the problems themselves are often much more complicated or esoteric than we assume. This especially true when you begin trying to address global issues.
Consider the following examples:
- War and senseless violence
- Climate change
- Quality healthcare
“Compassion, access, and affordability!” These words, these ideas, and related actions are the core of most immediate, progressive solutions that are offered. But, the broad strokes of these suggested solutions do not address the details, logistics, and causes of the problems they aspire to resolve. Imagine the thousands of variables tied to just the very first step in getting clean drinking water to a rural, undeveloped region that has been under constant political duress. It’s just not as simple as drilling a well and buying a solar panel.
Truly know your problem, and you'll begin to know your solution.
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
These W’s are the fundamentals of journalism, the essence of scientific method, and the path to a solution. Let’s shift gears from thinking about the problems of the world, to thinking about a pervasive personal problem:
“I hate my job!”
Alright. That’s a common problem…but, let's put it through the paces:
Who? Who’s fault is it that you dislike your job? Who might improve your job?
What? What are your problems? What obstacles keep you from the job of your dreams? What are the benefits of my work dissatisfaction?
Where? Where else might you work? A different department? A different state? A different country?
When? When can you address your problems? When should you change your situation?
Why? Why do you dislike your job? Why don’t you just get a different job?
How? (The big one) What are the first steps? How will you adapt when new, unexpected secondary challenges arise?
By asking the right questions, something that seems either overly simple or far too impossible to begin to address, is wide-open for creative solutions. Maybe you dislike your job, or maybe you think you can take a crack at a much larger issue.
I suggest you take the time to define your problem fully. You may find that your assumed problem is not the real problem at all. Your resolution may be more attainable than you assumed.
So, how do you craft a “...problem well stated...”?
- Write it down. Put it through the W's.
- Get some outside perspectives.
- Disregard your assumed parameters.
- Accept that the best solution is probably the one that surprises you the most.
“It’s amazing what ordinary people can accomplish without preconceived notions.”
Another worthwhile piece of advice from our friend Kettering.