Problem solving module

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A quixotic attempt to change the world, one iteration at a timeIndex: Click to expand:

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Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

— Reinhold Niebuhr

If a phenomenon has a complete mechanical explanation, it will have an infinite number of others that will each account equally well for all the specific details revealed by experiment.

— Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis (1905)

The question was given to a bunch of engineers: how do we make the journey to Paris better? They came up with a very good solution: spend £6 billion building completely new tracks from London to the coast, knocking 40 minutes off a 3½ hour journey. But it strikes me as an unimaginative way of improving a train journey merely to make it shorter. What you should in fact do is employ all the world’s top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train handing out free Château Petrus for the duration of the journey. You’ll still have about £3 billion pounds left and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down.

Rory Sutherland[1]

These tools are designed to help frame a problem and encourage you to look at it a different way. Take the space pen as a model. Or slowing down the Eurostar as a means of “speeding it up”.

Define the problem

What is your problem? Define the issue as you see it. We will get to whether your problem is the problem later. So:

  • Your goal/agenda: What are you trying to do? What happens if you don’t do it? Who is relying on you completing your task? To whom are you responsible?
  • Seen it, pinched it, spent it: What have you already tried to fix the problem, and why didn’t it work?
  • If you had a magic wand, how would you fix it? What, or who, stops that happening? These are blockers.

Some people describe this as root cause analysis. But root cause analysis is a bit simplistic and deterministic. It is very linear: it assumes there is a logical solution.

Is it a problem?

AKA “think even harder about what the problem is”. Is what you think is the problem, really the problem? What, deep down is the ultimate business objective? (No, it is not “to cut costs”, by the way. Is the way the system is currently set up optimised to achieve that business objective (odds are it won’t be — it will be two or three derivatives away from that “illegible” business objective. Is the problem really that the “Eurostar takes too long to get to Paris”, or that “getting on and off the train is a grim experience”? If it is the latter, then no amount of re-laying tracks is going to change that. But improving the process at either end — a check-in app, nicer departure lounges — more places to spend your money while you wait — might be the answer.

In the short term: containment

What can you do to contain the situation and make sure it doesn’t get worse? What happens if you do nothing? How can you:

  • Manage expectations: Managing expectations works wonders. Communicate. Let people know there’s a delay and you are working on it. Sometimes owning up to — and owning — a problem improves your relationship. Humanise the problem. Present the problem from your client’s perpective. Seek your clients’ feedback: maybe the people most affected by the issue will have constructive suggestions about how to deal with it: what is important, what isn’t, and how you might most effectively resolve the problem.
  • Mitigate consequences while you fix it: You might be able to resolve the problem, or lessen its impact, some other way — all the more reason to communicate with “stakeholders”.


Not all problems will involve a “blocker”, but many will. Identify any blockers. They could be:

  • Rules”: An established process, internal policy, contract, cultural norm, convention, law, regulation, etc) (including how they are applied by people).
  • “Tools”: You don’t have the tools or resources you need to do the job, or they’re not good enough;
  • “Fools”: A human being human not responding, not understanding, not having time to help, not agreeing that there’s a problem, not agreeing with your solution, refusing to help or being positively destructive
  • “You”: You could be the problem. You may not personally have the ability or capacity to carry out the task to the client’s expectation. You just haven’t managed to figure it out yet.


  • Rules”: Is it a substantive rule conflict, or a mandate conflict.
  • Rule conflict: “No diving in the pool” when you want to dive. These are hard, unless you have the wherewithal to change the rule. If not, you must rearticulate your goal so it is not against the rules.
  • Mandate conflict: “Be safe when in the pool” when you want to dive, but the lifeguard interprets as meaning “no diving”. Mandate conflicts are as much a “fool” as a “rule” problem. See below for “fool” techniques, but otherwise consider the mandate holder’s problems — what is that person having to put up with? Could that explain its reaction to your issue? how much flex is there in the mandate? Is there scope for compromise? How much flexibility is there in the conflicting mandate? What sort of things could be changed to help you without disrupting that mandate?
  • Tools”: If you don’t have the tools, could you reconfigure the process/product to do without them (for example by simplifying legal docs)? Think pencil, not zero gravity space pen.
  • Fools”: If it isn’t working for you, likely it isn’t working out for him/her either. Can you present the issue another way? Can you bring external influence to bear on the person? Can you offer to help solve their problem, and solve yours at the sametime?
  • “You”: How do you get the skills? how can you reprioritise? Are you even needed in the process?


  • I can fix it
  • I can’t fix it
  • Live with it
  • Pass it on to someone else who can live with it
  • Pass it on to someone else who can’t live with it but who might be able to fix it.


  1. Transcript of his brilliant talk here.