Sunday, June 11, 2006

Making a good problem is a tough skill to master, but it’s necessary for just about any kind of managerial job.
For instance, an important part of teaching is creating problems for your students. The trick is to create a problem that can best be solved by learning whatever the teacher wants the students to learn.
The classic example is a test. The problem is how to get the right answers; the solution is supposed to be knowing the material.
Creating the problems is like an old Karnac routine in which the teacher works backwards from the desired solution. The trick is that, working backwards makes it very easy to come up with a poorly designed problem. You make the mistake of assuming that only the desired path leads to a solution.
For instance, say I want the solution to a problem to be reading all of a particular novel. Well, that would be a solution to a simple problem like answering the question “Did you read the book?”
But the problem has other solutions, simple solutions, like lying. I could come up with a trickier problem like writing a plot summary, but there would still be solutions to the problem other than reading the book.
The Commonwealth has created a problem for school districts called the PSSA, the delightful test that PA students waste a certain amount of the school year taking and on which every school district is supposed to make certain high scores. The solution to the problem is supposed to be that PA schools produce scads of students who have all been educated well above average.
The problem is how to get the required test scores. The solution is simple and obvious—by taking student time away from what we used to do in schools and spending a bunch of our time teaching them how to take the PSSA. This solution is called “teaching to the test” and everybody in education knows it’s a bad way to do business, but it is absolutely the most efficient way to solve the problem that the state has created.
Defining a problem well is the mark of as good manager. Your building is burning and someone is in the boss’s office screaming, “The building is on fire!!” Here’s a quick quiz. Which of the following people would you rather work for?
Boss A: The problem is that the building is on fire.
Boss B: The problem is that the people in the building are in danger of being killed in a fire.
Boss C: The problem is that someone is complaining loudly about something or other.
Problem definition skills have changed the course of major industries. When American auto sales started to circle the drain in the seventies, Lee Iacoca became famous because while his peers were recognizing one problem (People don’t want to buy our cars) he was recognizing a whole other problem (We aren’t making cars that anyone would want to buy).
A good problem is one that you have the power to solve; a bad problem is one that you don’t. So “people won’t come give us their money” is a bad problem, but “we don’t offer people things that they want” is a good problem.
The second problem is the one many bad managers avoid, because to them it sounds too much like “it’s our fault.” But it is also the definition of the problem that gives us some power to create a solution. It may make you feel better to define a problem as “stupid doodyheads are being mean for no reason,” but that is not a problem that you can solve.
Problem definition skills are critical in politics. I don’t, for instance, think that people voted for Gore or Bush because of some belief that either of those yahoos had a solution for anything. But we trust politicians who see the same problems we do.
Local politics are no different. The Venangoland air often carries a whiff of despair that comes from defining problems like “The business world has changed since 1962” or “People don’t want to come give us all their money.” These problems can no more be solved than “The sun keeps coming up in the east.”
The critical issue is not the search for solutions. It’s the search for problems that put the power and responsibility on the people whose actions we can control—ourselves. Once we see problems that put the power to make a difference in our hands instead of the hands of fate or luck or Big Government or shadowy unknown rich people—well, once we see those problems, then the solutions will announce themselves.

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