You Can’t Solve the Problem You Don’t Understand


Wild 018

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”― Albert Einstein

Suppose that, while you’re networking during L.A.C.E., a fellow Toastmaster asks you, “My members are getting tired of filling two or three meeting roles every meeting. What would you do?”

If you answer, “Recruit more members” or “Consolidate roles” you’re solving a problem you don’t yet understand.

Perhaps the club is very specialized; it’s a closed club for the bank’s employees and is focused on Italian cooking. There are probably only a few potential new members, so option two is appealing. If, instead, the club members were from a controlled access community and their focus was improving their confidence with public speaking skills, the first choice would be better.

What if our officers’ meetings have low attendance? Or we aren’t getting enough chances to speak at our home club? Serve “Designer Pastries” at the meetings? Change clubs?

A British industrialist offered a prize of $1.3M for a man-powered flight through a figure eight course. The technology needed was unknown so teams built very expensive prototypes to develop it; each was wrecked, studied and rebuilt. After watching about 50 competitors fail at great cost aerodynamicist Paul MacCready decided that the problem was the problem. He came up with a new problem: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months. He collected voluminous data, sometimes making two flights (and wrecking his plane twice) in one day. McCready won the prize.

If the problem is, “not enough officers attend the officers’ meeting” the answer isn’t necessarily to make the meeting more fun or cheaper to attend. We can’t yet know the answer because we don’t yet understand the problem. Is the meeting perceived as unnecessary or a waste of time? Is the meeting unproductive? Can the meeting be conducted by conference call (so officers don’t have to deal with long drives through traffic, conflicting time demands or child-care issues)?

If our problem is not getting enough chances to speak, the answer isn’t necessarily “join another (or a different) club. We don’t yet understand the question. Is the club schedule full, or doesn’t the VPE know you’re anxious to speak? Is this a temporary situation; for example, a number of new members are making their Icebreaker speeches? Are you scheduling 20 minute speeches from the Professional Speaking manual? (They’re often difficult to work into a club’s agenda at the last minute.)

Generating answers based upon “what worked for George or what worked last time” might be productive – or not.

Remember that Einstein also said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Insisting on solutions that might have worked for a different problem might be another way to demonstrate insanity – or at least foolishness.


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