Deep Thoughts

How to solve a problem: The art of beginning at the end

Bloody problems, we spend our life trying to avoid them, navigating them and sometimes drowning under them.

Nobody likes problems. But, we all know they are necessary for our growth during the short time we occupy this world. Without problems, I would dare say the world would be a rather boring and un-progressive place.

As shocking as it might be to you, there are some people who love problems. Many humans delight at the prospect of solving yet another problem.

It is this community of people I have spent a great wealth of time connecting with and studying. I’ve been doing this with one simple goal in mind. To find a somewhat simple approach that any of us can apply in trying to solve any problem.

My research has been less about finding a silver bullet. It’s been more focused on creating an easily adapted approach to get you to the root cause of a problem and look to produce some solutions.

I’m not going to bore you with my endless reams of research. Instead, I’m going to share the commonalities I found in the approach of several world class problem solvers.

But, before we head into this piece of gold, let me share some advice on the mindset of problem solving which kept popping up during my studies.

I found that many people fall to defeat before they even try to solve a problem. This mainly occurs because these people become obsessed with the actual problem. Frustrated by its mere existence, they spend more time enraged about the problem even being here rather than trying to solve it.

What I noticed between world class problem solvers and the average human, is the framing of the situation presented to them. 

The average person seemed to become more engulfed on the notion of the existence of said problems. Whereas, the world class problems solvers paid less attention to the problem and pushed all their energy into solution design.

This to me demonstrated the different levels of mindset which benefit us in problem solving.

There’s a fantastic quote from the most unlikely of sources in Captain Jack Sparrow of the famous Disney Pirates of the Caribbean films, who said “The problem is not the problem, the problem is your attitude about the problem”. 

Mindset plays a key part in your approach to problem solving. So, lesson number one in the art of problem solving is to reframe your mindset. Remind yourself that wasting your energy on raging about the existence of a problem will get you nowhere. 

Your problem will always be your attitude about the problem. Change your behaviours and you’ll build a more helpful mindset to problem solving.

The beauty of reverse engineering

Now we’ve covered the mental element, let’s get back to the commonalities I found in how world class problem solvers actually solve their problems.

Essentially, they break down the process into 3 components:

  1. What does my ideal output to this problem look like? Or what is the solution I hope to reach?
  2. Now I know my ideal output, how can I reverse engineer my way back from my ideal solution to where I am now. Or, in other words, how do I work my way backwards from solution to start?
  3. Create a breakdown of each phase needed to solve the problem. If the output is X, write down the stages needed to reach this in a backwards format e.g launch product = output, final phase = prepare communication campaign. This is what I came to know as reverse engineering.

The above is by no means a groundbreaking new approach. You may well already do this or perhaps, you’ve adapted something similar.

No matter what approach you take now. This is what I’ve learnt from my research on world class problem solvers and I’m sure it can help anyone with navigating their own challenges.

This is not meant to be complex. I’m sure some of you reading this might think this all sounds too easy so it won’t work. Yet, in my research, it was the simple things that made the biggest difference.

I’ve used this approach of reverse engineering problems in my own life and work. For me, it has worked wonders in allowing me to de-construct challenges and take what I learn into future experiences.

I’m sure beginning at the end sounds slightly counter-intuitive at first, but if you find yourself constantly staring at a wall blankly, desperate for a divine intervention to help you solve your latest problem. Perhaps, engaging in a bit of reverse engineering will change your view.

TL:DR (Too long, didn’t read)

(To solve a problem, reframe your mind and work backwards from your desired output/solution. Break down the things needed to get to your solution in reverse order and get to work on these. This is the beauty of what is called reverse engineering.)

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