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How to Solve Any Problem

April 12, 2010 — By Dr. Pete

I like to solve problems, which is convenient, because that's also my job. My first love was coding, and it taught me to think about problems in a logical way. In the 30 years since then, I've been amazed at how often that approach has applied to the rest of my professional life (and frequently my personal life).

Here are four things I've learned about solving just about any problem:

1. Replicate It

That's fancy programmer talk for "make it happen again," or, as they might say where I grew up in Illinois farm country: "If it ain't broke, break it." You know this story: one morning, your car starts making some noise like a rabid woodland creature. It's about to drive you insane, you take it to the mechanic, and poof! - no noise. The mechanic can't fix a problem he can't find. Some problems are always evident, but others have a way of hiding. Try turning on the lights to find a chirping cricket, and you'll see what I mean.

Tony Hsieh created Zappos' reputation for customer service by requiring all of his employees (even the top brass) to go through a month-long boot camp, starting with call-center duty. If you really want to solve a problem, you have to experience it firsthand.

2. Isolate It

Whether you've got a bug in your code, your website sales are dropping, or you're trying to stop a flu pandemic, you've got to track down the source of the problem. Dive in deep, narrow your focus, and segment, segment, segment (as my friend Avinash would say). Big problems become a lot smaller when you can finally break them down to their core. Solving small problems not only costs a lot less, but it prevents collateral damage. Unleashing Godzilla might solve your city's traffic problem, but adjusting the timing of a few lights is easier to clean up.

3. Ask for Help

I once attended a lecture by the world's foremost authority on how pigeons open their beaks in response to food. After that lecture, I realized that I probably knew more than 99.9999% of the people on earth about the subject of pigeon-beak mechanics. I'm not sure if that's a good thing, but the point is this: someone, somewhere will always know more than you about everything.

Sure, it's hard to hear, but suck it up - these people hold your answers. Some problems are hard, and you're going to need an expert. In graduate school, I spent half my day walking through the halls talking to people and asking them questions, and every minute of it was time well spent. Thanks to the internet and social media, finding and befriending experts is easier than ever. All many of them ask in return is that you pay your own expertise forward.

4. Just Fix It

We've become a culture that spends most of our time looking for shortcuts. We think that, somewhere out there, there's a Web 2.0 tool or iPhone app to magically solve our problems. I once found a friend of mine working on an Excel spreadsheet to automate his class grading. He finally admitted that he spent the entire day on the spreadsheet and could have done the same thing in 30 minutes by hand. Sure, the right tool or automation at the right time can be a life-saver, but we've tipped to the opposite extreme, where we spend more time hunting for tools than actually using them. If we were cavemen, we'd have gone extinct looking for a wheel instead of just carrying our food home.

Consider a couple of extreme examples. How did magician David Blaine make it look like he was holding his breath for 17 minutes? He held his breath for 17 minutes. How do Penn and Teller do the trick where it seems like they're eating handfuls of ants? They eat the ants. Our grandparents had this thing called "elbow grease" - you apply it to a problem and the problem goes away. Shut up and do it.