A Problem Half-Solved

A well-formulated description of a problem is itself halfway to a solution. Let’s say that Bradd shares some office supplies with a coworker, Rupert. There’s a portion of the table between them where Bradd and Rupert keep things like rulers and scissors and a stapler and other things that they don’t need to each own individually.

Rupert always sets the scissors at the edge of table, where they could easily fall to the floor and maybe injure someone. Rupert likes to put them there, because it’s convenient for him, but Bradd worries that it’s dangerous.

What is the real problem here, and how do we solve it?

Let’s try to write a single sentence that describes the problem as accurately as possible. It might not be perfect, but here’s my stab at it:

“Bradd is upset that Rupert’s leaving of a pair of scissors at the table edge poses a danger to people.”

With a well-written problem statement, basically every word or short sentence fragment provides a potential solution. First, note that the problem is not that scissors are being left at the edge of the table – it’s that “Bradd is upset that” scissors are being left at the edge of the table.

So, we can go straight through the sentence and easily come up with a half-dozen or more potential solutions.

Bradd“: Have Bradd move to another work area, where the scissors at the edge of Rupert’s desk won’t bother him.

Bradd is upset“: Have Bradd not be upset. Look up workplace statistics on the number of severe injuries caused by falling scissors in the workplace and convince Bradd that this is not a major issue.

Rupert“: Have Rupert move to another work area, where the scissors at the edge of Rupert’s desk won’t bother Bradd.

a pair of scissors“: Get each person their own pair of scissors, so that they don’t need to share a pair anymore. Each can then store their own scissors however they see fit.

at the table edge“: Put a big cup on the table and have Bradd and Rupert agree to only store scissors in that cup. Add a rubber lip to the edge of the table so that the scissors are unlikely to fall off. Attach a magnetic strip (like the ones chefs use to store knives) to the underside of the table or to the wall and use it to store the scissors. Get a bigger table.

poses a danger“: Replace the scissors with round-tipped safety scissors that can’t stab someone.

a danger to people“: Have Bradd wear steel-toed boots in the office.

And so forth.

The act of writing the problem statement can make other issues more visible. Perhaps Bradd doesn’t like the steel-toed boot solution because he’s also worried that the floor might get damaged by falling scissors. Well, it doesn’t say anything about the floor in the problem statement, now does it? So, the problem statement might need to get revised two or three times before the real problem is uncovered.

Another thing to realize is that many of these proposed solutions are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to both get round-tipped scissors AND to use a magnetic strip to hold them.

And, of course, some of these solutions are more practical than others – Are people in an office setting really going to wear hard hats and safety goggles and steel-toed boots to protect against the dangers of scissors and paper clips and staplers? Probably not. But it’s generally worthwhile to consider multiple possible solutions and how practical they are before settling on the best one or ones. It’s surprising to me how often I hear people identify something problematic and then suggest a single solution without stating the true problem or considering other possible solutions besides the first one that pops into their head.