Thursday, September 29, 2016

Problem Solving–Overcomplicating The Solution

Problem-solving becomes a very important part of our makeup as we grow into maturity or move up the corporate ladder. - Zig Ziglar

If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions. - Albert Einstein

I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day when I observed a family arguing over a Rubik’s Cube, the novel toy that was a huge hit in the 1980’s and which continues to be popular today.

The father was telling his son, who I would estimate to be about 10 or 12 years old, that the toy was practically unsolvable because it had “billions of combinations”.  Meanwhile, his wife was arguing with her husband that he should leave the boy alone and the son stared at the toy in silence.

After listening to everyone condemn each other for about 10 minutes I walked over to the table, pointed to the toy and asked “May I?”.

The father shrugged and handed me the cube.

“Don’t worry about the number of permutations”, I said to the boy, “You only have a few problems to solve.”

With that, I showed him how to form a cross on one side of the cube, place the corners on the same side, place the edges of the middle layer in the correct locations, position the edges on the final side, complete the corners on the final side and then align the last of the pieces of the final side.  The algorithms for each step are simple and the boy absorbed them quickly.

I mixed up the cube and handed it back to him.  I guided him through each step and he solved the cube in less than 5 minutes.  I mixed the cube up again and he solved it on his own in less than 3 minutes.

He was quite pleased with himself and when I left the table, his mother was mixing up the cube and admiring her son as he solved it repeatedly.  The father said nothing as he watched this interaction.

When the family got up to leave, the young boy waved at me, smiled and said thanks as he and his mother left the coffee shop.

The father came over to me and appeared to be angry with me.

“You ruined a perfectly good toy with what you showed my son”, he said.

“I respectfully disagree”, I replied, “You were teaching him that problems may be larger than they appear and that in many such cases, they are unsolvable or that he isn’t smart enough to solve them.  I taught your son to break a seemingly complex problem into smaller chunks and that by solving each chunk, each of which is exponentially smaller than the overall problem, that the problem as a whole can be solved relatively easily.  This is a lesson I hope he applies to other things as he gets older.”

“And besides”, I said, “It appears that he is enjoying the toy much more now.  If he never learns how to solve it, eventually he will cheat, break it apart and reassemble it as solved.  Cheating is not the way to victory and is rarely accepted in the adult world.”

“I disagree”, he said, still glowering at me, “although I already caught him taking it apart and putting it back together.”

“There you go”, I said to him, “And by the way, the next time you watch your son solve the cube, remember that there are in fact over 43 quintillion permutations to the cube.  Think about that when he solves it.”

The father grunted and walked out.

I’m not sure who needed a lesson more – the son in chunking down the problem into manageable pieces or the father who was teaching his son that easily solvable problems appear to be far greater in size and complexity than they actually are and that giving up is a viable option when the solution is at hand.

The Bottom Line

As a long Wall St. strategy guy and large-scale architect, myself and teams I work with often face projects whose scope and complexity are far too complex for the average mortal man to comprehend, let alone create solutions for.

However, solving a group of smaller problems is far simpler and in fact, is the only way to produce a solution that works for the overall problem.

In our haste to solve problems in Life, we often forget this and set about solving “the big problem” only to be frustrated or completely overwhelmed by it.

Do you have a problem that you are trying to solve, whether it be in business, in relationships or anything else or do you know someone who has such a problem?

Do you or they see the problem as an insurmountable one with too many nuances and complexities or are you / they able to break it down into sizable chunks that are much easier to understand and solve?

Remembering to do this and knowing how without focusing on how complex the overall problem is will mean the difference between solving it or being eaten alive by it.

Even if it has 45 quintillion permutations.

In service and servanthood,


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