Problem Solving – what does good look like ?


Few weeks ago, I had dinner with an old friend in India . He is not a technologist and doesn’t have any background in services . We knew each other socially through a common hobby. The last time I saw him was some 25 years ago when I was in college. He asked me what I do in my line of work and the simplest answer I could come up with was “I am a problem solver”. He quite innocently asked me “And are you any good at it?” . We had a good laugh over beers 🙂

The question has stayed on my mind since then . To know if I am any good at it – obviously I need to define what good looks like. So here is what I think what good problem solving looks like – and I would greatly appreciate it if you could add your thoughts and/or challenge my thinking

1. Picking the right problem to solve

We are not short on problems to solve and there isn’t enough time in the day to deal with every problem that comes our way. So it’s critical that we choose which ones have the most impact if we solve them . Often the challenge is to keep reframing a question till you come up with a version that can be solved meaningfully

2. Ownership (or passion?)

The acid test of ownership for me is whether the intent is to find a solution against all odds or to default to find several reasons why the problem can’t be solved . Problems generally don’t age well – so if we don’t tackle them early, we usually are just going to get more grief later. I am not sure if passion is a better term than ownership in this context . The trouble I have with passion here is that I think it often gets in the way of being objective . On the other hand – some of the best solutions happen ONLY because the problem solvers were passionate .

3. Understanding

The difficulty with understanding is not usually a lack of data – but more of our tendency to see only what we want to see. Ability to listen well, poke at it thoughtfully and transfer it to deep understanding is quite hard in practice .

4. Effective dealing with people

All problems have a people angle and people are complex beings. And most problems need multiple people to solve . Every problem gets harder to solve if the problem solver cannot bring together the right people and get them to contribute . With experience , most of us become efficient about doing this – email , conference calls , slack etc all help. But are we really effective though ?

5. Structure

While we all like one grand solution to each problem – the reality is that most problems have multiple solutions . What’s right for short term may not be right for long term for example . If we don’t have a framework ( like perhaps MECE ) to solve problems – it’s hard to know when to stop. The flip side issue is that every framework has limitations too and overlooking those can be disastrous in some cases . Net net – some framework is better than no framework

6. Knowing when to stop

At some point – all solutions have diminishing returns . This can come in many forms. A classic example is “premature optimization” – usually found in larger companies. They tend to build a sales and marketing engine , complex metrics etc before figuring out if there is market fit to begin with . It could also be that another problem with bigger impact could show up and take priority over what you are working on . The ability to stay objective is crucial here to avoid significant opportunity cost

I would really appreciate your views on this

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4 thoughts on “Problem Solving – what does good look like ?

    • Framework needs definition. How large/small etc. I also like what Jeff Bezos insists on: writing the press release for the outcome. It concentrates the mind on the ‘one thing that matters.’

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  1. As always thanks Vijay you seem to have a great quality that the more you thirst for knowledge the more you realize how little any of us really know.

    In my long career involving software development,services and maintenance I have come to realize often folks are either too apprehensive about how to solve a problem or too optimistic

    . Obviously both can cause serious issues.

    Especially when developing an important solution its best to spend time to develop a solution that will be effective but to also consider and avoid all the pitfalls and,exposures.

    Have a way to eliminate the exposure before it becomes a bigger problem than your trying to solve.

    Its also important to know and admit if and when your failing and be prepared to deal with it and start over.

    I have seen many instances where very smart committed people believe they are not succeeding because they are not going fast enough so they redouble their efforts but unfortunately they are driving in the wrong direction getting farther and farther away from success.

    Just some observations

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  2. Vijay, All you have stated are correct and each carries equal weight. 2, 4 & 6 were major issues many times. Ownership – Everyone wanted to have a say but when ownership comes in difficult times only few take it but rest will join when success comes in. A small change in this behavior and cooperating as a team will make impossible to possible. Effective People Management will solve many issues since pat on a shoulder and setting clear expectations will go long way. A true leader leading from front is a game changer (you have written a blog about this already). Finally when to stop. I know TWO huge companies spend $$M to solve implement a real-time solution (superior technical solution and I was part of one and most challenging one too. Great to have it in a resume) but business refused to use it since their business does not operate the same way. If the leadership have stopped after certain paint, they could have saved $$M dollars. Your perspective are on the mark as always.!

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