Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part I

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach

This essay is not about creative problem-solving. This essay is about overcoming the interpersonal difficulties we encounter when we try to put solutions into place.

The Problem-Solving Approach

The problem-solving approach might be characterized as one of several change management techniques. It is recommended by a variety of sources for a myriad of situations.

  • Educators stress solving word problems using mathematics. The idea is to take a situation described in words, frame it as a mathematical equation, and then solve the equation.
  • SPIN Selling teaches a highly successful technique for closing large-scale product or service sales. The technique involves understanding a problem (SPIN = Situation, Problem, Implication, Need) and presenting the product or service sale as a solution to that problem. More importantly for my purposes in this essay, SPIN Selling teaches a way to influence others to participate in a solution (by purchasing your product or service).
  • Getting to Yes teaches techniques for turning negotiations into cooperative problem-solving sessions. More importantly for my purposes in this essay, the techniques are applicable at all scales: from friends negotiating evening plans to heads of state negotiating territorial rights.
  • In the movie Kinsey, a biography of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, the title character is shown adopting a problem-solving approach when he and his new wife, both virgins, encounter problems with sex.

“That's it, Mac. Every problem has a solution--even this one.”

I have always found the problem-solving approach attractive. I distinctly recall realizing, in my early teens, that I had a good chance of improving situations at school or home if I treated them as problems requiring a solution. The appeal of this approach was the hope it held: that the same approach that got me good grades in school assignments might be applicable in the real world. This attraction to the problem-solving approach eventually drew me to an engineering education and career.

Over the course of my education and career, I learned tools and techniques to solve engineering problems. However, I quickly realized that engineering solutions, innovations, and inventions were necessary but insufficient to add value to businesses or their customers. For the value of engineering solutions to be realized, other problems had to be solved in management, marketing, sales, and even finance and accounting. I have employed the problem-solving approach in all of these areas, and believe it to have been critical to nearly every one of my successes. Indeed, I have come to believe you can add and unlock value generally, in business, political, social, and even family enterprises, by identifying bigger and bigger problems, solving them, and developing a reputation for doing so.

However, the problem solving approach has not always worked for me. This essay describes some of the pitfalls I have encountered, and explores ways to avoid them in the future.

Part II of this essay will discuss Problem-Solving Problems.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 4 December 2006 12:12 AM