On problem solving

Premise

  • I’m a left brain human and picking up interesting problems has always been a major part of my life. Life till college was all fun and play, so were the problems at hand.
  • As I graduated to solving real life problems with higher stakes over the last ~3 years, I have come to realise how fundamentally broken my problem solving approach has been.
  • This is a personal framework I use to slow down my thinking, spend more time with the problem and not jump to solutions. In real world problems it is important to spend time on the problem itself since it is not the solution that is being chased (sounds foreign to recent grads, I know), but it is an outcome that you are optimizing for. Despite this framework I am underwhelming when it gets to problem solving but without it, I can’t even imagine the disaster I would be.

Callout

  • Absolutely NOTHING in this document is original, it is a collation of what I’ve read and seen the smartest people around me do. Deviation but, most of it has come from crashing into conversations I didn’t need to be a part of so working from office for the win.
  • This is a working doc, so will keep updating.
  • I am writing this to get more clarity and have public accountability for flouting my own playbook and doing stupid problem solving.

So, problem solving

It is fascinating how problem solving is two words but what it often triggers is just, solving! This is maybe because solutions give instant dopamine hits.

I have noticed that the best problem solvers I know do justice to the phrase and spend considerable time delving on the problem itself. If this blog were to to be a tweet, that would be it!

Thinking about problem and thinking about solving it

Enough blabber, time to jump into the framework.

Step- 1: Question the problem

  • Why is this an important problem to solve? Ask 5 why’s and you will most likely land at the core problem that is to be solved.
  • What is the impact of solving this problem? What would happen if this problem is not solved?
  • Is this the most important problem to be solved right now?

Step 2- Delve deeper into the problem

This can get abstract so let’s imagine that Martians have taken over Earth and problem at hand is to get our sovereignty back.

Spend some time understanding the problem. Following are some of the tools that help me slow down and spend time with the problem-

  • Define each word in the problem and think of edge cases. How do we define Martians? How do we consider a child of a Martian and an Earth native? How do we define sovereignty? What is the jurisdiction of this sovereignty- just Earth or is there an intergalactic play at hand?
  • Abstract out the problem. How do we get our sovereignty back from Martians? How does an oppressed colony drive away the oppressor? This will come handy in the next step.
  • Rephrase the problem at least 3 times. How to get our sovereignty back? How do we throw Martians away? Is there a setting which Earth citizens can survive but Martians can’t? How do we convince Martians of letting us have our own jurisdiction? Can we create a win-win situation for Martians to let us rule ourselves? Can we remove incentive for Martians to rule us? Can we make it unprofitable for Martians to rule us?
  • Think of the system as entities, functions, incentives and their interaction. This will uncover insights which you won’t naturally think of. This video is a great explainer (h/t Krunal for the video recommendation).
  • Now that we have spent time thinking about the problem, figure scope and boundaries within which we’ll operate. It is okay to let Martians live, we just want our sovereignty back and have functional ties going forward. Cold war post this exercise is okay, possibility of nuclear war is not.

Step 3- Define outcome

  • How will the outcome look like? What is the level of compromise we are willing to settle for?
  • Can this be phased? Bites over gulps!

Step 4- Parameters and principles to compare multiple solutions

Going back to the Martians example,

  • Parameters- casualties, wealth, level of compromise, certainty of victory, time to victory, odds of long term backlash

Step 5- How have others solved for it?

Life is exact opposite to college- you get extra points for copying and standing on shoulders of the giants.

This is self explanatory, but leverage the abstraction done in Step 2 here.

  • From known civilisations on Earth, what cases of colonisation reflected Martian rule the most? How were the colonisers driven away?
  • Gather all possible intel on other colonisations that Martians have carries out.

Step 6- Think of solutions

  • Get creative and rank things on parameters decided in Step 4. :)

Step 7- reconcile

  • Reconcile applicability using hard data
  • Do some anti-thinking and list down all scenarios where the solution can go wrong

Well that’s it, pretty much it. I think about this often so would love to hear your thoughts on it!

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