We're Pretty Bad At Defining Problems



“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


"Cognitive flexibility refers to the brain’s ability to transition from thinking about one concept to another. The quicker you are able to switch or “shift” your thinking from one dimension (e.g. color of an object) to another (e.g. shape of an object), the greater your level of cognitive flexibility."

Source: Mental Health Daily


"The bias blind spot is the cognitive bias of recognizing the impact of biases on the judgement of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one's own judgment." - Emily Pronin


To sum up the quotes above:


1) Make sure you understand the problem before you try and solve it

2) Your ability to shift perspective lies somewhere on the cognitive flexibility spectrum

3) I can see how biases frame your train of thought, but have difficulty seeing how biases affect mine


I coach my supervisors, managers and students on of these points exactly as you see them here. I teach them in this order as well, but do not present them all at once and that's for a very good reason.


Let's work through the quotes in order.


Einsteins's quote and following explanation usually elicits a resounding "duh" from my audience. That's to be expected as we all tend to think of ourselves as master problem solvers...especially management types. So of course we'd make sure we understood the problem before trying to solve it.

(Note: Almost no one does this unless they make a conscious effort to do so.)


The ability to shift perspective is a bit more difficult than you might believe. The prism through which we view the world has grown and developed throughout our lives.


Every experience has either strengthened or weakened how we interpret what is happening, how it is happening, why it is happening and even guides our thoughts towards an expected outcome.


So when YOU are presented with a situation are you more likely to

a) render an opinion from your default view point or

b) take the time to rationally analyze the data?

(Note: Almost everyone instinctively goes to choice "a".)


Those of you who picked "b" above...the last quote is for you.


I've spent YEARS teaching this to my managers, supervisors and students and guess what? When I am presented with a problem, every so often I find myself moving towards possible solutions before defining the problem AND almost all of my solutions are based on what I think I see instead of data.


Almost everyone I share this with does this as well. You have to train yourself to ignore your senses and intuition and look at the situation impartially and without bias.

(Note: I feel like an idiot every time I find myself jumping to solutions.)


Here's the bottom line: Knowing this information doesn't necessarily make problem solving any easier; however, it will help you better focus your attention on what you NEED to solve instead of what you THINK you need to solve.

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