Define the Problem

“If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem, I would take 55 minutes to define it accurately, and then the solution will be easily attained.”   Albert Einstein

Most people have no idea what they are doing. The best intentions combined with intellectual prowess and plentiful capital rarely achieve anything worthwhile. They fail because they don’t know what they’re trying to solve.

Nothing can be solved until the problem is defined accurately.

Defining and the problem precisely is the only way to solve anything, and, undoubtedly, the single greatest challenge to achieving anything. Otherwise, it is a waste of time and resources (which describes most public policy).

  • All too often decision-makers waste time, resources, and make matters worse because they simply do not understand the actual problem they’re trying to solve.

Many examples can be found, whether social policy and programs, corporate strategy, personal career development, or any other aspect of professional or personal life. Here’s a simple example:

Are you “finding a needle in a haystack,” or are you “separating a needle from a haystack?” While the problem statements may seem similar, they are quite different definitions of the problem.

  • The first seeks a solution by searching through the entire haystack for a needle. A process that may seem (and be) never-ending, wasting substantial time and resources with an uncertain outcome.
  • The second recognizes that there must be a methodology to separate the two. So, the solution can be as simple as understanding that hay will float in water and a needle will not. Putting the haystack in a tub of water will cause the needle to sink to the bottom while the hay floats. The solution becomes obvious if the problem is well-defined.

A more relevant problem is “inequality.” Most agree it’s a problem to be solved, but what is it?

  • Are the very successful too successful?
    • Does everyone have an equal opportunity, but a combination of skill and luck has disproportionately benefited few? Is that really a problem to be solved?
    • Are the successful two enriched? Is our economic reward system out of balance, and if so, how would we change it?
  • Is it that lower-income individuals do not have the same opportunities?
    • Unequal access to education or training?
    • Unfair compensation structures?
    • Prejudice causing blocked or denied opportunities?

Is “inequality” even the right problem to solve?

  • If everyone is doing better but some people are doing much better, is that really a problem?
  • Or, is it that while some are doing relatively better society as a whole is not prospering?

Is inequality simply the outcome that is caused by other, better-defined problems? Perhaps what needs to be solved is a combination of why there may be unequal access to education and training; opportunities filtered for only a select few; a restrictive business environment; innate and systemic bias and prejudice; or other issues?

We don’t know because we have not spent enough time really understanding – only making broad assumptions with untested conclusions. That’s why we don’t even know the real problem, and we’re not going to solve anything. We don’t know what we’re doing. Most policy solves a poorly defined conceptual issue or is aimed at the outcome and not the cause.

Very few problems are well-defined, and few people take the time and effort to understand what it is they are trying to solve.

Motivation, energy, and focus on an outcome are inefficient, misguided, and dysfunctional. Good intentions do not effectively define any problem, and typically lead to very bad outcomes.

Wanting to solve a big problem is fine, but not defining it accurately is inefficient at best, and most likely disastrous. It will never lead to a solution.  Just like searching through a haystack for a needle you may never find when there is a much better way if one takes time to define the problem. It’s the only way to get results.

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