Problems, then Solutions
Real-world problems have an infinite number of solutions.
These problems also have an infinite number of factors determining a solution’s quality.
But each solution satisfies those factors in just one way.
Over time, problems change, the measures of quality change, and the optional solution changes with them.
Therefore, it’s more useful to understand a problem than any one solution.
This may seem obvious, but we’re prone to become fixated on solutions.
Like a tiger stalking its prey, we should be fixated on problems.
A tiger fixated on a solution will be caught off-guard when the problem moves in an unexpected way.
A tiger fixated on problems moves with them.
When the critical moment appears, the tiger is prepared to make the critical strike.
In proposals, a demonstrated understanding of the problem space is more valuable than the detailed specification of a single solution.
The problem space is all of the factors that go into a problem, across time. In the real-world, problems change over time, and priorities change over time, so value of any one solution changes as well. Fragile solutions break as soon as the problem shifts. Flexible solutions can handle change, and flexible strategies have an array of solutions at their disposal.
Too often, we get caught up in our favorite solution. Especially when it’s our solution. Confirmation bias takes over. We start to dream about our success, and villainize any ideas that endanger that dream. I’ve seen countless proposals dragged into the ground by people willing to die for their pet solution. And I’ve died on enough of those hills myself.
Given the problem space, there’s a solution space. The solution space holds all of the solutions we can deploy at any one time, but also all of the possible solutions we can deploy across time. Given that space, we can create strategies that are not only capable of solving the problem today, but across time as the problem moves throughout the problem space.
The best solutions have an evolutionary aspect to them. They start out as one thing; but as time passes, they’re capable of evolving to become more robust, precise, and better-fitting to the problem. When that’s not possible, adaptive strategies are also great. This means we can start with one solution today, but completely drop it and move to another soultion once the problem changes. We’re not tied to our pet solutions at all; we’re rather ready to kill them as soon as they become suboptimal.
Problem-solving is like martial arts. Amateurs dream of the one-punch knockout that sends their career into stardom. But professionals have a variety of knockout moves, so they instead watch their opponent for opportunities. If one movement fails, they have a backup plan. If their opponent exposes something unexpected, they adapt. And like a fighting opponent, problems don’t sit still. Problems adapt, priorities change over time, and winners adapt with them.