Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Understand old solutions to solve new problems

In my last post, I ended with a comment about the importance of understanding solutions in order to solve a broader range of problems.  Problems have an essence.  If you understand the essence of a problem, you can draw from solutions for that class of problems.

Consider the problem of managing vaccination history for a patient.  Take a moment to enumerate the essential characteristics of this problem. Can you think of systems you have seen or used that address problems with similar characteristics?

What would you say if I told you that tracking vaccinations is a very similar problem to your vehicle’s recommended maintenance schedule?  If you don’t believe me, next time you get your oil changed, ask to take a look at the screen the service manager uses to upsell you on a new air filter.  Replace each recommended service with a vaccination and you should see what I mean.

Experience with and exposure to varied solutions is important.  However, it is not enough.  You must internalize the relationship to the problems they solve and the essence of those problems.

Here is an approach that may help:

  1. When you use tools (physical or software), identify the problem the tool solves.  Ignore the features – focus on the problems.  For example, don’t think of a hammer as something to “Drive a nail into a wall.”  Think “Deliver force to an object.”  
  2. When solving a problem, tease out its essence.  Find solutions that solve problems sharing essential characteristics.  For example, replacing the lid on a paint can requires the use of directed force to seal the canister.

Go out and build an inventory of solutions and the problems they solve.  The larger your solution inventory, the broader the range of problems you will be able to solve.

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