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If I had an hour to solve a problem...

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem

and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

— attributed to Albert Einstein

You're ordering takeaway dinner tonight.

You start to scroll through the options.

How many good options will you look at before you decide?


Most people stop at one. They take the first option that looks good.

And that makes sense. Because:


a) It's just a meal, not that big a deal.

b) You know what your likes and dislikes are, or how heavy/light you'd like your dinner to be. In other words, you know what you value in food.

c) You probably have enough experience with different restaurants to judge for yourself - and if you don't, there's a handy star rating system. This keeps the uncertainty down to a minimum.


But you can probably see why, when it comes to bigger and more infrequent decisions, this approach (going with the first option that looks good) backfires.

This is especially true when your values are not so clear and the uncertainty is high.


And yet...

Speed instead of value


Most decisions in business (and beyond) are made using intuition and ingrained habits. When faced with a decision, we instinctively react to find a 'solution' to the problem, usually choosing the first alternative that comes to mind.

If that's not good enough, we think a bit more about another alternative.

If it sounds good, we take it.


When we follow this kind of thinking, we put too much focus on easy to think of alternatives (vs. what we want to achieve).


If we're going to make high quality decisions, this is not the way to go.


In fact, this process is very limiting.

How can you make a high quality decision without having first identified what it is that quality means for that decision? How can you create quality alternatives without thoroughly understanding what quality means to you? How can you make a quality decision based on the first alternative that comes to mind without considering more? How can you look for quality if your vision is distorted by your overvalued intuition?

Our intuition develops over the course of our lives, but at any given time it's much more limited than we think it is. The main reason for this (apart from our tendency to be overconfident) is that intuition development suffers in 'wicked' environments - where there is complexity (too many factors), ambiguity (no clear solution), multiple perspectives (different values), no feedback or unintended consequences. While basketball players, footballers and tennis players work in 'friendly' environments that help them develop strong intuition, most of life is 'wicked'. So although we tend to rely on intuition as a shortcut to decision making, we really shouldn't.


Taking the time to understand


Once we recognize a problem or opportunity, we need to make a decision to address it. Instead of jumping to solutions, the first step is to properly define the situation by creating a decision statement to clearly and concisely describe what you want to decide. This statement is the basis for your detailed thinking. Yes, that's how important it is.


Here's how it should look, according to decision expert Ralph Keeney:


Decide {which, what, when, where, how or if} {X}.


For example:


"Decide which of three companies to be our partner for project A."

"Decide where we want to build our new production plant."

Be careful


Avoid ambiguity. Decision statements in the form of 'decide whether to do something or not' are often ambiguous because it is impossible to evaluate the relative desirability of choosing company X without knowing what the other alternatives might be.


Never simply accept a decision statement as it is presented to you or as you initially conceive it. You have a choice, in fact a decision in itself, about how you want to express the decision you are faced with. It is often useful to develop several possible statements of your decision and to think carefully about which one best describes it. Once you've chosen the best one, try to improve it. This process is called reframing and here’s an example:

Consult all people who will be involved. This way you will ensure that all members of your team feel included and that all ideas with merit are heard. It is also the first step in building the team that will work on the decision. It sets the stage for the rest of the decision process, which will run more smoothly if it is rooted in a definition of the decision that everyone agrees on.


Address the right, broader decision and avoid being too narrow in your focus. For example, deciding “how big our new production plant should be” is probably a sub-decision, or a factor to be considered in the broader decision of  “where to build it”. 

Here's a lengthier example:


There's a recession and your high-end product is no longer selling well.

A marketing study tells you that consumers who stopped buying the product were put off by its relatively high price. You conclude that the company needs to "reduce production costs", and you find a way to do it.

Sales stabilize for six months, but then start to fall again.

New market research suggests that the remaining loyal customers, who were not particularly cost-conscious, stopped buying the product because the its quality deteriorated.

In less than a year, sales of the product are too low to maintain production.

A post-mortem of the decision process concludes that the company made the wrong decision by considering only cutting costs to win back lost customers and attract new ones.

The manager should have taken the time to think carefully about which decision to make.

The decision statement might have been "decide how to increase the profitability of our product", a much broader statement than the one focused only on cutting costs. It would have included, for example investing in advertising, improving product quality, streamlining operations, raising prices and other profitability management options.


Keeping the decision too narrow makes it easier to act in the short-term but, as often is the case, jumping to solutions without taking the time to think and understand can have detrimental effects in the long-run.

Question for you


Think of a problem that is puzzling you. How can you redefine it as "Decide {which, what, when, where, how or if} {X}"?

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