Clean Thinking, Problem Solving

The key to solving problems

Many people believe that the challenge of problem solving is that they are missing a key piece of information required to make a decision. More often than not, the opposite is true – that there is so much information to weed through, solving the problem simply seems insurmountable.

I have a brilliant client who is seeking a way to make policy change. We defined the desired outcome and put a plan in place. But then…

“Mr. X said this, and Ms. Y said that.”

“I know nothing has resulted in pursuing this path, BUT!! Ms. Z said I should be working through her.”

“The ‘real’ issue is that there isn’t a great way to share information…”

And so on. So many people, so much legacy, so many things happening all around!

And none of the information was actionable. It was just there, being incredibly distracting.

If you look up “problem solving,” the internet will tell you that you must (1) define the problem, (2) determine the cause, (3) identify a solution, and (4) implement the solution.

Oh. Well, easy, right?

(1) and (2) are usually not at the heart of issues in problem solving, though of course, sometimes situations call for closer examination of those steps. The challenge in problem solving is often (3), identifying the solution. What I suggest is that the key to identifying the solution is not necessarily finding something new. Instead, the key is weeding out the unnecessary and useless information that is distracting.

The way to weed out unnecessary and useless information is to simply ask if it is actionable. A solution to a problem will usually require some action, so if the data points you have are not actionable, by default they are not useful.

That’s right. For the purposes of problem-solving, information is either actionable or not at all useful in identifying solutions.

I know some information will feel relevant or useful or important. You may experience resistance to letting go of information because of the “mights.”

“I don’t know if this information is useful! Maybe it is!”

Guess what. That’s in the category of not actionable and not useful right now.

If the information is just not useful right now, in order to proceed toward an actual solution, you must put that information aside. All the remaining actionable data points serve to put real potential solutions on the table. None of the remaining information is useless because the information left on the table are options you can actually do something with.

Of course you should do your homework. Of course you should brainstorm well, if needed. But once the information is in front of you, decide what is useful and actionable, vs just interesting but not helpful.

The problem is not to find the answer; it’s to face the answer. – Terence McKenna

This little tweak to your process will get you over the hump.


Come on! Tell us what you're thinking.