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Problem solving is one of those abilities that allegedly distinguishes human beings from other animals. Though many critters can solve problems, and some even use tools, humans are the only creatures that invent new technologies to solve problems.

For example, the problem of getting from point A to point B faster than one can walk. For thousands of years the only way humans could go anywhere was to walk. Then someone climbed on a horse, and stayed on long enough to realize the horse ran faster than a person, and could go somewhere pretty fast. But, the solution wasn't much different than a flea hitching a ride on a cat to go somewhere faster. So this wasn't a technological solution.

But, one day someone decided horses had certain limitations, such as an ill temper at times, and invented the steam engine, and then the train. These were technological innovations to the problem which then created the problem of trains running into school buses at railroad crossings.

Thus, with many other examples of problem solutions creating more problems to solve, is created The First Rule of Problem Solving:

The solution to a problem will create more new problems.

The best example of The First Rule is the automobile, which was created to replace the horse. We can go much farther and faster in the car than on a horse, but we needed to spend huge amounts of money building better roads for the cars, and created a vast new opportunity for people to cheat each other in the selling and repairing of the cars.

When faced with a problem to solve, the central issue is to identify all the other problems that will be created with the solution. Rarely does anyone do this. Witness the invention of the atomic bomb. The problem being solved at the time was how to drop 2 million tons of bombs on Japan using the least number of airplanes to accomplish this goal. Prior to the atom bomb, it took 1,000 B-29s to drop 200,000 tons of munitions on a Japanese city. The atom bomb allowed one airplane to do the work of 1,000. This was as far as the thinking went in July of 1945 when the decision was made to nuke Hiroshima and three other Japanese cities.

Little did anyone consider that someday atomic bombs could be put in a suitcase and delivered by Federal Express to a city.

The really proficient problem solver will look at all of the potential extrapolations of his solution, and identify some of the new problems that will be created with the solution. Properly done, this forecasting of consequential problems will keep the problem-solver fully employed for life, because the solution will simply beget other problems to solve.

The problem of only having two spaces for the year in computers leading to the Y2K problem is a spectacular example of solving one problem and creating vast employment opportunities for people to solve the consequential problem of the end of civilization as we know it.

Thus, the second rule of problem solving:

The solution to a problem must maximize employment.

An essential element of problem solving is identification of the problem that needs to be solved.

Probably the very first problem humans faced, which generated the evolution of intelligence, was how to stay in trees. The reason most of us have nightmares about falling is that our ancestors fell out of trees a lot. We were the monkeys that weren't good at sleeping on limbs. Thus we had to survive on the ground, with all those nasty sabertooth tigers and such.

The minute we realized we were stuck on the ground, we faced the problem of surviving. Food, for example. How does one kill a mammoth? A bunch of people chase the mammoth off a cliff. Imagine some ancient problem solver trying to persuade his tribesmen to chase after a critter many times their size?

Ancient problems were easy to solve. Need food? Bash something with a rock. Need shelter? Find a cave.

But as humans evolved, so did the complexity of our problems. The more intelligent we became, the more problems we were able to understand. What is unknown is which evolved first...the intelligence to identify more problems, or the existence of more problems which required the evolution of the intelligence to be aware of them.

Getting out of the rain or snow to sleep evolved from finding a cave to buying a home in the right neighborhood and getting a really good mortgage.

And with the increasing number of problems, also came the increasing number of alternate solutions. Thus, choosing which solution to apply to the problem became the problem.

Consider the story of Adam and Eve. This is a story about problem solving and intelligence. When Eve ate that apple, she solved a problem and took a risk. The message here is not that Eve ate the apple, but that the snake told her not to, and she did anyway. Consider the snake as a metaphor for intelligence. Understanding the consequences of one's action. Humans fell from the grace of animals who don't think about the consequences of their actions, into sapience, where we do. Or maybe we evolved beyond animals into consciousness where we considered problems and alternative solutions.

Ever ingenious, humans invented the consultant to figure out not only what the problems are that need to be solved, but which solution to apply to the problem.

Obviously the cave men did not hire a consultant to figure out how to kill a mammoth. But we cannot solve a problem today without hiring the consultant to define the problem, all the stakeholders in the problem, the environmental and social impacts of the alternative solutions, and which solution is the best under an increasing number of variables.

Thus, an increasing number of humans solve their problems of food and shelter by assisting other humans in defining problems and analyzing alternative solutions. God must be amused at this evolutionary progress. Then again the snake was probably the first consultant.

* * *


One very essential step in figuring out what a problem is involves identifying who is pissed off at something and what that something is. For example, if your spouse is peeved at you coming home at 3 in the morning, you can easily spot the who and what.

Another approach is to identify what is not working right. For example, if you turn on the switch in your home and you get no light, your problem is a lack of electricity.

Unfortunately, many people are unable to spot the most simple definition of a problem.

A problem is always defined as the most obvious thing.

With this approach:

The best solution is always the most obvious thing as well.

This has been expressed as the KISS principal--keep it simple and stupid.

One of the most common problem/solution situations humans face is finding lost objects.

"I've lost my car keys." An obvious problem statement, as opposed to "I can't get my car started."

Keys, and most other objects obey the law of gravity, meaning they will not move by themselves. Thus to get lost, they must be carried to the point of being lost.

I had a friend who lost a $20,000 cashiers check payable to bearer on demand. A serious problem if there ever was one. So I suggested that the person go back to where they were sure they had the check (the bank) and retrace their movement to the point where they realized the check was lost. This took some argument. However, once the person started in on the retracement, they found the check, which had fallen out of a folder and was lying on the ground. Gravity. Unfortunately, I didn't get a percentage of the check.

Another friend, when faced with the lostness of something, immediately jumps to the conclusion that someone else is responsible. "My cleaning lady must have stolen my stamps." No. The stamps are simply lost. When the location of the stamps were retraced from the last point of possession they turned up exactly where they had been put, and forgotten. No cleaning lady participation.

The losing of things consistently identifies another problem...that one keeps losing things. There is an obvious solution, put things away in the same place all the time.

Unless one has a really excellent memory, the random placement of items such as one's car keys will consistently produce the result of the keys being "lost".

However, the act of random placement of things (which usually become lost), is the sort of problem for which only a consultant will work. How many spouses have tried to tell their counterparts this solution, to no avail? Which becomes another problem, eventually leading to divorce. One must pay someone else to give this advice.

As one can see, the simple problem of losing one's keys on a frequent basis results in another Rule of Problem Solving:

Solutions cascade into conflict.

Which brings us to the ultimate question in problem solving....should the problem even be solved?

Knowing that the solutions to problems create more problems, which cascade into conflict, one has to sit down and decide whether or not to ignore the initial problem.

This is extremely difficult to do, since humans are hard-wired into identifying problems and then solving them. That is why humans invented computer games which can be played on Apples.

Many people have spent thousands of dollars learning an essential ingredient for a happy say "its not my problem."

So your spouse is always forgetting where he or she put the car keys. So what? Never, ever offer to help solve this problem. It is not your problem.

The only time to attempt to solve someone else's problem is when they hire you to do it. Thus, the goal of using problem solving to maximize employment. This is the highest form of evolution of human intelligence. Or maybe the lowest, since this art is usually practiced by government.


A very useful thing to do is make a list of your problems which you think need to be solved. Then decide in each it really your problem, or is it someone else's problem.

This is called Problem Reduction.

Using Problem Reduction decreases the number of solutions you need.

For the remaining problems, consider at least two alterative solutions.

For example, if your problem is your cost of living exceeds your income, there are two obvious solutions....increase your income, or decrease your cost of living.

At this point, make a list of alternative solutions for each solution.

For example, for the "increase your income" solution, you could:

(A) Get a better job

(B) Rob a bank

(C) Start an internet company

(D) Buy a lottery ticket

(E) Get a second job

You should try to come up with at least 10 possible solutions.

Then, evaluate the probability of success for each solution. For example, winning the lottery is about a 1 in 20 million chance. Low probability. Robbing a bank will probably land you in jail. Eventually you may run out of high probability solutions, which means you should either add some more solutions to the list, or go to the other category...reduce your cost of living.

In that category you could come up with at least ten ways to reduce how much you spend. But then, consider the probability of success of each. How many times have you disconnected your cable service to save money, to only reinstate it when the next good fight is on HBO?

The problem with the problem here is that eventually some bank will send you a credit card, and you will solve your problem by running up more debt.

Which will be solved when another bank sends you a new credit card, so you can "balance transfer" the old card debt to the new one.

You could of course go bankrupt, which is America's way of starting over, which the banks want to make harder to do since everyone is using their credit cards to solve the problem of not enough income to meet expenses.

Imagine Eve reaching for a credit card instead of an apple.


The ability to identify problems and solve them started with a monkey who kept falling off a limb. What we have accomplished in 2 million years of evolution in problem solving is to invent new limbs to fall from.



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Copyright 1998-2006 by Hugh Holub