Thursday, August 06, 2009

Define the problem

The ever-popular Seth Godin has a post about "shaving the bear", which he uses as a memorable analogy for the idea of solving the symptoms of a problem rather than addressing the root cause of the problem. (It's based on a PSA about shaving bears so they wouldn't overheat due to global warming.)

Possibly the best lesson I ever learned from the best manager I ever had was about articulating the problem, not the solution you want. (We'll call the manager TZ.) People tend to ask for the solution they want as though not having that solution is the problem. Sometimes that's true, but more often there are many solutions to the actual problem, and by articulating the true problem, many solutions become possible.

It came up because of this situation: TZ was working an event. A small group approached him and asked if he knew where a janitor was. The answer was no, but TZ stopped them and said, "why do you need a janitor?" Because they were out of toilet paper in the men's room, and a janitor would know where it was stored. TZ didn't know where a janitor could be found, but he turned to a nearby woman and asked if she could go into the women's room and bring a roll or two of toilet paper to one of the men and he could take it into the men's room. Actual problem solved. Requested solution unneeded.

The most memorable time I've applied it was in the process that resulted in my school becoming a 1:1 laptop school. It began with the teachers asking for a computer lab. The thing is, we already had a computer lab, but it was full all the time due to space constraints. Putting in another lab would only provide access to teachers who happened to already teach in that room - the space constraints would still be there. What teachers really wanted was more access to computing, access when they wanted it to enhance their teaching. A lab wasn't the best solution to that problem. A 1:1 laptop program, though oddly controversial, solve that and other problems, like inequitable home access. (Why did I find the controversy odd? We're in silicon valley, we'd be solving problems, and it wasn't going to cost any more than the previous solution.)

The first step of both the engineering design process and the scientific method are about defining the problem. Isn't it fun when life lessons are embedded in science? I wonder if it helps kids internalize lessons when we can show the same idea in many domains.

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