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Problem Solving
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  • “Successful problem solving requires that you first find the right approach to understanding the problem and developing the best solution.
    We fail most often because we make assumptions about the problem. This then leads to a bad solution”
    Bernard Robertson-Dunn.

    This is a re-statement of the old saying:

    "To the man who has a hammer, every problem looks like a nail"

    This means that, when deciding to solve a problem, the first question you should ask yourself  is: "Am I trying to solve the problem with the best tool, technique, approach?"

    A useful follow-up question is

    "How co you know that you are, in fact, using the best approach?"

    The next question should then be:

    "What is the problem?"

    In fact all these questions can only be answered together, because the way you identify the problem will colour your perception of how to solve it.

    Often, the most appropriate approach is obvious: if you have a mathematical problem, use a mathematical approach. However, if you have a social problem, using mathematics could be dangerous.

    One of the areas where bad assumptions are often made is in Information Systems. The logic often goes: The business has a problem - lets build or buy an IT system.

    IMHO, the most common reason why this occurs is because people tend to think in terms of symptoms and solutions, not causes and problems. And what reinforces this is that vendors of products and services sell solutions.

    In Systems Thinking - Four Key Questions by Barry Richmond of High Performance Systems, he says:

    Fundamental Impediment Number 1
    The first of the “fundamental impediments” to the adoption of Systems thinking is that we’re prisoners of our frame of reference. Ever have the experience of visiting another continent? Somewhere where people speak a different language, and have adopted a different set of customs? Invariably, after you’re there for awhile, you begin to see things about your homeland that previously had been invisible. You couldn’t see them at home because you’d been living and breathing them since birth. They had become part of your “givens,” your stock of taken-forgranted assumptions. This unconscious bedrock is the source of a fundamental impediment to the adoption of Systems Thinking. Because of it, it’s difficult to “stand back far enough” to really see what’s what.

    I agree with what he says, except for the part about adopting Systems Thinking. To me the unconscious bedrock is the reason for the un-acknowledged assumption that leads people to try and solve problems using only the tools they know, and to not realise that that decision can make a mess of what they are trying to achieve.

    And, ironically, I believe that Barry Richmond falls into the trap that he himself identifies. He knows about Systems Thinking so he proposes that this is the approach to "be more widely adopted".

    Bernard Robertson-Dunn,
    28 March 2011