The Neglected Skill¶
Problem-solving is a vital skill for navigating life's challenges, and a sign of intelligence and creativity. However, much less discussed and equally important is its precursor: problem-identification. It raises an intriguing question: why is the process of recognizing problems often overlooked and sometimes even ignored?
I find it perplexing how one can attempt to solve problems without accurate identification. But we see it happen too often. When an organization is faced with a challenge, the person who quickly offers a solution is often praised. Meanwhile, someone with an engineering mindset is still diligently working to understand the root cause of the problem. While taking immediate action may be a reasonable approach for simple problems, it is rarely the right approach when dealing with complex situations.
Rushing to solutions without a thorough understanding of the problem can lead to unintended consequences and further complications. This particular pattern of behavior became unmistakably prevalent during the Covid-19 times. Politicians and individuals in influential positions were quick to proclaim the necessity of taking action without investing sufficient time in fundamental research. Companies that offered any semblance of a solution found themselves swiftly rewarded with substantial sums of money, propelling them into immediate action. Meanwhile, in contrast, experts in fields such as statistics, mathematics, and medical research were still diligently occupied with crucial tasks: calculating the risks associated with the virus (such as the Infection Fatality Rate), exploring innovative solutions (such as 3D-printed medical devices for hospitals), and meticulously studying an abundance of scientific studies and literature.
Curiously, those who sought to identify the true underlying problems or ascertain the root causes were met with resistance and often faced repercussions, such as dismissal from their positions. The pursuit of understanding the core issues at hand became an unwelcome endeavor, overshadowed by the prevailing urge for immediate action and invisible results.
the Paradox of Avoidance¶
One reason for avoiding problem-identification is that it makes some people feel uncomfortable. As a result, those brave enough to broach the subject may find themselves labeled as "negative" or "difficult" by managers, friends, and even family members, and they're being branded as "problem-seekers." Paradoxically, although everyone acknowledges problem-solving as the crucial skill, problem-identification seems to have an opposite reputation.
It's truly intriguing how some people shy away from discussing "problems" and solely focus on "solving." Or, as activists and politicians like to call their endeavors: 'saving'. Be it for nature, climate, stray dogs, oceans, the impoverished, or the hungry, everything needs to be "saved". And the moment someone brings up the idea of figuring out the root cause of these issues, they get hit with attacks from those who see themselves as the ultimate problem-solvers.
Politics aside, I find it fascinating aspect of the human behavior that arises from this mode of thinking.
the Psychology of Problem-Identification¶
So, why do certain individuals shy away from problem-identification? Sometimes, it serves as a coping mechanism to deal with our own shortcomings. For instance, one might feel uneasy upon realizing that their own consumption habits contribute to environmental damage. To maintain a positive self-image, they may compensate by adopting the persona of a "problem-solver."
Identifying problems may not be as apparent or glamorous as finding solutions, which can lead to it being undervalued. Moreover, individuals in positions of influence may fear being held accountable if a problem persists, prompting them to hastily pursue solutions without thoroughly addressing the underlying issues.
Another intriguing aspect of human behavior is our inclination to heavily rely on the most readily available information or experiences when making judgments or decisions, which is known as the as the Availability heuristic. When faced with a problem, we often lean on past experiences or anything that is simply available.
But it doesn't stop there. When information is scarce or lacking, a similar mechanism comes into play: the Anchoring and adjustment heuristic. This refers to our tendency to be influenced by initial values or estimates when making judgments or decisions, regardless of their relevance or arbitrariness. When confronted with a problem, we may be swayed by our initial assumptions or estimates, failing to adequately adjust them based on later information or feedback.
In addition to these cognitive biases, we also possess a tendency to favor information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while dismissing information that contradicts them. This confirmation bias further reinforces the inclination to overlook problem-identification, providing individuals with a sense of justification— at least in their own minds.
These cognitive mechanisms shed light on why some individuals tend to disregard problem-identification. They create a framework where readily available information, anchoring to initial values, and confirmation bias all work together to reinforce existing beliefs and deter the thorough examination of underlying issues.
Let's explore another influential factor: the Overconfidence bias. This bias involves an inclination to overestimate our own abilities or the accuracy of our judgments. When faced with a problem, we may exhibit unwarranted confidence in our own ideas or solutions, closing ourselves off to feedback or alternative perspectives.
You might be thinking, "Ah, that reminds me of someone I know!" or even recalling a certain politician who fits the bill. The truth is, we all possess some of these characteristics to varying degrees.
Without proper problem-identification, the entire problem-solving process becomes susceptible to failure due to the influence of human biases. It's a precarious situation when one fallacy amplifies another bias. Attempts to resolve issues can quickly go off track when these layers of human fallacies and incorrect judgments stack upon one another.
Biases in identification¶
Interestingly, some of these same mechanisms that apply to problem-solving can also influence problem-identification itself. For example, the anchoring and adjustment heuristic, may lead us to fixate on certain aspects of a root-cause while neglecting others, potentially resulting in a narrow or incomplete understanding of the issue. Similarly, the overconfidence bias can lead us to be excessively confident in our initial assessment of a situation, preventing us from being receptive to feedback or alternative perspectives.
Complex situations demand a comprehensive problem-solving strategy that values thorough problem identification and analysis. It's not about rushing to action but rather taking the time to unravel the complexity, understand the interconnections, and develop thoughtful solutions. Proper problem-identification demands a systematic approach involving data gathering, information analysis, asking the right questions, and the freedom to explore different angles. It should be welcomed with appreciation and recognition for its indispensable role in the journey toward effective problem-solving.
If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.