Making Mistakes and Problem Solving

“Defining the problem is the last step in problem solving.” I thought it was an easy question on the pre-test I give my Back To Work students, but it’s not. It’s the one True/False question that is most often answered incorrectly.

One way to fix a road. Or, tar dribble.

When asked what they think the first step in problem solving is (OK, I encourage them to make stuff up) I hear, “Suggesting something—anything.” “Asking what the boss wants.” “Keep your mouth shut, if you suggest it, you have to do it.”

I feel their pain. It’s hard to get to the solution if you don’t know what the problem is. And it’s hard to nail down the problem. Which makes “defining the problem” the first step in problem solving. You can’t solve it if it’s a moving target.

The way many problems show up is when we make a mistake. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to screw up–not in the studio, not at work, not in front of our friends. But we do. Often on cell phone cameras and YouTube. Most mistakes are actions we wish we could take back the instant we know they are a mistake. And we can’t.

And that’s why we need to fix them ourselves. Not rush to the boss, our mom, our best friend, our coach, teacher or mentor and say, “Tell me what to do.” Admittedly, it sounds great to run for cover.

The person who does the work, screws up, recognizes the screw-up is also the best person to determine the solution. Notice I’m not saying “have all the answers,” or even “Do the fixing as punishment,” but to create the solution. Because when you screw up, you know how it happened. Which is defining the problem in a glaringly clear way.

My answer to “What do I do now?” comes in a matched set of three:

1. Know what went wrong. Make sure it is the real cause, not the loud one. When I dropped a tiny piece of sodium into water (pure sodium, not salt, which is sodium chloride) there was a big bang that broke the beaker and made a lot of smoke. What went wrong was not the bang, the fright or the mess, but the fact that I didn’t know how quickly the sodium would react with the water, releasing that damn explosive hydrogen gas.

2. Create a solution. There will be more than one. There will be more than one right one. In my case, it was understanding what happened, gratitude that we wore safety goggles, thinking maybe the instructor should demo this instead of letting us mis-judge how small “a small piece of sodium” is.

3. Tell your boss by accepting responsibility and suggesting a solution. Accepting responsibility helps keep your credibility, which is important. It also acknowledges the next step: that you know what to do. This also applies to artists, working alone in the studio. It’s generally not the fault of the watercolor or paper, stencil or sewing machine. Once you admit to yourself (that’s the boss, right?) what you did, you can move on to deciding how not to do that again. Or doing something different.

In the case of a business mistake, you want to be the one to suggest the solution, because you have the best information. You can also suggest a solution that will have a good outcome, whether it’s asking for help,  or asking that your solution be considered first. Leave the answer to the boss, and you may not like the solution, think it may not work, and have to do it anyway.

Note: The winners have been chosen for the Raw Art Journaling and Monsoon Papers giveaway.  Congratulations Melydia on winning the book, and Laurie Morris and Lisa from Artist Cellar have won the paper. Thanks to all for participating!

Quinn McDonald has made enough mistakes to figure out how to solve them practically and in a way that saves you from stomping on your own ego.

14 thoughts on “Making Mistakes and Problem Solving

  1. Pingback: How to Help Someone «

  2. Now the kids are back to school checking out my feeds is the last thing I do, after all the chores are finished. That means that right before reading this I finished the packed lunches. Tonight it included dropping one tupper full of food which opened when it hit the ground. That is not the kind of mistake you want to make at 9.30pm Even so Daniel was surprised at how calm I was. {Knowing there was more food prepared help immensely 😉 }

  3. Once you’ve made a mistake, it’s hard to think of a good solution. All your emotions are on double time aleart, and thinking clearly isn;t a priority. Maybe first, you need to slow down, walk throiug the mistake. Then maybe the solution is easier to see?

  4. Scale is a secret key to many things.

    At the smallest scale, so much smaller than atoms that “smaller” may not be the right word, quantum effects contradict all sorts of things we rely on at our scale. Things like causes preceding effects, any given object being only in one place at a time, time running in a relatively steady stream in only one direction. Things like that.

    At the biggest scale, where galaxies are mere details in much larger structures and the speed of light seems horribly slow, the rules of thumb that work for us on a daily basis are also turned in some strange directions. Most of the “stuff” in our universe seems to be missing. There are hints of forces at work that nobody seems to be able to detect locally.

    I found myself completely stopped by your question: “is defining the problem the first or the last step in solving it”. It was, by stages, completely obvious that it’s the first step, and then just as obvious that it’s the last step.

    Defining the problem is the FIRST step in classicly rational problem-solving, which is characterized in a broad sense by reductionist analysis. What is the problem, what is NOT the problem, what could and could not be associated with the problem, and so on. The kitchen faucet is dripping. Tightening it does not stop the drip. Hmmm, the power failed for two hours last night, but that had to do with electricity, not plumbing, so that fails the associational test; on to the next hypothesis. Keep this up long enough and even without much understanding of plumbing you’ll arrive at a hypothesis that passes the test; maybe starting with “failure in some sort of seal” and proceeding to “look, that washer I just found is all corroded, and looks like it would let water seep through.”

    Defining the problem is the LAST step in every iteration of systems thinking. In the plumbing example it might lead to something like the design of a kind of faucet that doesn’t have any washers at all. This is the approach that produces solutions that delight. Two examples:
    – elevators in a skyscraper are irritating people because they have to wait too long for them to arrive. Solution: install mirrors next to the elevators in the lobby; complaints ended.
    – early days of the US and Russian space programs highlighted a problem: ballpoint pens don’t work without gravity. US solution: research program resulting in the “space pen” (a nice but expensive pen you can still buy today). Russian solution: use pencils. (BTW comparing the two space programs yields loads of examples like this; the Russian solutions were commonly simpler and “smarter” in many ways.)

    I finally found my way around the question when I realized the answer is “both”, at different scales. Or to abstract it a bit more: when you’re solving a problem, a good thing to do is be aware that you’re solving it, observe how you do it, and use that observation to restate the problem. Do you need a new kind of ballpoint pen? Or do you really need just a way to write without gravity?

    The even more interesting question, of course, is “why should scale be so important?”

        • On a CRT-style computer screen (and on non-flat-screen TVs) the picture is drawn by a little dot, left-to-right, top-to-bottom, 60 times per second (60 Hertz — Buenos Aires may be one of the places where it’s 50Hz instead). That’s the refresh rate. Sometimes I have the impression that’s how I think; I start over from the beginning all the time and refresh the whole sequence to see if it it still makes sense — or if I still think the same thing. I don’t know why, but as far as I know I started thinking that way at about age 2, when I formed the first memories (that I still retain, anyway) of being self-aware. (#1 was more or less — I think without the language — “there are dogs on my bedroom walls. They are just pictures of dogs. What’s that all about?”)

          “Refreshing” eh? It’s not easy being green.

  5. You’re in luck, when you combine sodium and water you can skip step 2 — you’ve already created a solution! 🙂

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

    • I’m glad you didn’t resist, as that was why I used that example from long ago. I also have a T-shirt that says, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the precipitate.” Of course, I’m the one who is easily amused. And got bad grades in organic chemistry.

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