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Want to be a better problem solver? Do this first.

Posted in the following categories: Problem Solving

The way that most people solve problems reminds me of a scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. During the trial of the Knave of Hearts, the King says “let the jury consider their verdict.” The impatient Queen interrupts and says, “No, no! Sentence first. Verdict afterward.”

In solving problems, our first instinct is to identify solutions. This approach puts the cart before the horse, or the sentence before the verdict. When we immediately launch into solution mode, we end up chasing the wrong problem.

Problems often have multiple causes. When we rush to identify solutions, the first definition of the problem sticks, even though it usually isn’t the right problem to tackle.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, don’t be the first to raise your hand with a possible solution. Instead, get better at identifying the problem. Before you start spinning out solutions, step back and ask yourself, “Am I solving the right problem?” You’ll find that redefining the problem will unleash far more creative, cheaper, and effective solutions.

Read on to learn how this strategy was deployed to save the lives of rovers on Mars, premature babies in Nepal, and chickens in Kenya.

What if we sent two rovers instead of one?

I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t even considered the possibility.

At the time, I was a member of the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover project that would send a robot geologist (as we lovingly called it) to explore the red planet. In 1999, as we were busy building the rover and planning operations scenarios, everything went downhill.

In December of that year, a different spacecraft called the Mars Polar Lander was scheduled to touch down on the Martian surface. It didn’t. The landing system malfunctioned, likely due to a premature shutdown of the descent engines. Instead of a soft, easy touchdown, the Lander plummeted into Mars at hundreds of miles per hour, joining the spacecraft graveyard that is the Martian surface.

From our perspective, this created a serious conundrum. We were planning to use the same landing mechanism as the Mars Polar Lander, and that mechanism had just failed spectacularly. Our mission was understandably put on hold. As we were scrambling to find solutions that focused on alternative landing mechanisms, this seemingly simple question changed everything.

What if we sent two rovers instead of one?

Until that point, NASA had been sending one spacecraft to Mars every two years, when the Earth was at its closest point to the red planet. This was the status quo, and the status quo is notoriously hard to change.

What if we sent two rovers instead of one?

This question reframed the problem. The issue wasn’t necessarily a faulty descent and landing system (which we changed). It was the inherent risk involved in sending a delicate robot to Mars. Even if the landing system worked, any number of other things could go wrong when you’re traveling 34 million miles through outer space.

The solution was to hedge our bets and flip the script that NASA had been using. Instead of putting all of our eggs in one spacecraft’s basket and crossing our fingers that nothing bad happens along the way, we decided to send two rovers instead of one. Even if one failed, the other might make it. What’s more, with economies of scale, the second rover ended up costing far less than the first.

The rovers–named Spirit and Opportunity–were launched separately and both safely landed on the Martian surface in January 2004. They were designed to operate for 90 days. As of September 5, 2017, Opportunity is still roving the Martian surface, and we are 4841 Martian days into our 90-day mission–all because someone dared to see the problem in a different light.

An incubator redefined

Each year, hundreds of thousands of premature babies die of hypothermia. To them, room temperature feels like freezing cold water. The problem is particularly acute in developing countries, so the traditional question for solving the problem was “How do get incubators to developing countries?”

There are two problems with this approach. First, incubators are far too expensive. Second, many premature babies are born in rural areas with no access to a medical facility. Following a field trip to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, the founders of Embrace Infant Warmer were alarmed to learn that the incubators in hospitals were sitting unused.

In other words, the problem wasn’t the lack of incubators in hospitals. Rather, it was the lack of accessible infant warmers in rural areas with no access to hospitals or, for that matter, to electricity. The traditional solution–send more incubators to hospitals–would do nothing to move the needle.

In reframing the problem, the founders of Embrace Infant Warmer produced a brilliant innovation that has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of premature babies. The infant warmer, which looks like a sleeping bag, is small, light, and can be re-used. It keeps the premature infant at the right temperature for up to four hours–all without electricity. It only takes a few minutes to “recharge” the warmer by putting it in boiling water.

What’s more, it’s cheap. A traditional incubator is $20,000, whereas the Embrace costs only $25. You can buy 800 Embrace warmers for the same price as a single incubator.

The story of the blue chicken

It’s not easy being a chick in Kenya. During the first ten weeks of your life, you face two lethal threats. The first is disease, which is preventable with a relatively cheap vaccination. The second, and far more dangerous, is becoming lunch for aerial predators–eagles and hawks–who are circling the skies overhead.

Depending on how you define the problem, the solution to the second threat can be quite costly. A farmer who quickly jumps into solution mode might conclude that an expensive coop or fence must be built.

But if you’re Paul Seward, you redefine the problem: Instead of protecting the prey, you fool the predators.

Seward, who runs an NGO in Kenya to help local farmers, came up with a simple method for fending off aerial predators: Paint the chicks blue. The blue paint throws off the eagles and hawks who fail to realize that they’re staring at a potential food source. What’s more, the paint is biodegradable and washes off after 10 weeks. By that time, the chicks are savvy enough to find cover when they spot the shadow of a potential predator.

The next time you confront a problem, resist the urge to jump into solution mode. If you have an hour to solve a problem, follow in the footsteps of Albert Einstein and spend 55 minutes identifying the right problem and 5 minutes devising possible solutions.

You’ll become a far better problem solver as a result.

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