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5 Tips For Solving Hard Problems

January 28, 2023

The inspiration for this article came from a recent experience. I was interviewed on the topic of management and leadership and one of the questions I had to answer was “What have you found to be effective when faced with challenges as a leader?". This made me think about my approach to solving hard problems. The more tools one has in their arsenal the better the chances to solve a particularly tricky issue. So here we go, my 5 tips for solving hard problems:

1. Understand the "why"

A big part of solving a hard problem is understanding it very well. Not just what you are solving but also the constraints that come with it and most importantly the “why”. There is a really good book on the topic by Simon Sinek called “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action". Regardless if you are in a leadership position or not, if you plan to come up with the best solution understanding the "why" is paramount.

2. Release the pressure valve

Oftentimes when solving hard problems they are also consequently high stakes and high pressure. Some people thrive in those stressful environments. Kudos to them. However, from my anecdotal experience, most people don’t. So I try to do everything I can to release the pressure valve. I know this is not always possible but think of ways to buy yourself more time or make the problem less impactful. Also, remember you are not alone and no one expects you to come up with all of the solutions. If you find yourself in a leadership position, your behavior matters, and everyone will be looking at how you handle the situation. Stay calm and reassure your team that everything is under control and that y'all got this.

3. Create and remove constraints

When dealing with a hard problem, looking at it from different angles is oftentimes very helpful to come up with a solid solution. By creating or removing variables or constraints you force yourself to think of different solutions and do that thing everyone mentions in their job postings - “think out of the box”. This can be done in so many ways and the more you do it, the more creative you will become. One simple way is to play around with common variables like time and budget. As an example, how might you solve the same problem if you had an infinite amount of time and resources? What about if you need to do the same thing with half or even a third of the time and resources? Exploring extremes like these can oftentimes help you converge on a solution you would otherwise not think of.

4. Invention thinking

This technique is based on the cognitive bias called loss aversion. Basically, most individuals experience the pain of losing as psychologically way more powerful than the pleasure of gaining something. This is an evolutionary mechanism from the caveman days when not being eaten by a lion was more important than getting those 200 grams of berries. Anecdotally my brain works very much the same way. I am a very risk-averse individual by nature. That is not necessarily good or bad as long as you are aware that’s how your brain works. But even if you are in that rare case where you want to win more than you want to not lose, this trick will also be of help. The idea is to access that other part of your brain that is designed for problem-solving. As an example, instead of thinking about how you can make money, invert the question and think about how you might not lose money. Another way to use inversion is to brainstorm how you might lose money and then invert the answers.

5. The 5 Whys

This method was invented and used by Toyota Motor Corporation. It helped them to identify the root cause of a defect or problem by simply repeating the question “Why” five times. Although this idea comes from manufacturing I have seen it successfully implemented for a variety of problems. In practice, you might not need to ask “Why” five times in order to get to the root cause. But the principle stands and it is quite effective at forcing you to dive deeper and understand the problem better.

And that covers the 5 techniques I use most often to help me solve hard problems. Give them a try and let me know if they helped by dropping me a message on LinkedIn.

As always I hope at least someone can find value in reading this article.

Keep a growth mindset and take care!

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