43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Solving problems outside your comfort zone

I sometimes think that one factor in success as a business or as a human being has a lot to do with what kind of problems you're comfortable solving -- and how you get better at addressing the stuff that falls outside that comfort zone.

History is littered with revolutionaries who couldn't run the country they'd overthrown, Generals who've insisted on re-fighting the last war, talented programmers who were promoted to becoming ineffective (and very unhappy) managers, and, of course, there's the countless companies that just couldn't make the leap when technology or cultural change rendered their comfy old business model moot.

Seems like there's a thread here that's worth thinking about.

How do you get better at knowing when you’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately as I take what had been mostly a hobby and try to "Go Pro" with it. For me, that's meant a lot of stumbles around moving from being a one-man show into what may eventually become a small company (who knows?). I'm finding it really challenging to stop solving the problems I'm comfortable solving, and to ask for and accept help with the stuff I suck at or that doesn't represent the best use of my time.

I think this applies to almost everybody, from the time they're born, right? You figure out a few things, you do some informal experiments with reality, and then you try to suss out the patterns that won't get you hit by a car or carted off to jail. But the old patterns almost always stop doing the trick at some point or in some unexpected context. For example, that bawling and tantrum-throwing that got you a hug in kindergarten may not endear you to your company's board.

The best advice I've gleaned so far is to try and stay cognizant of diminishing returns. Just because I know how to do basic sysadmin work doesn't mean I'm the best person to work on it. And conversely, just because I loathe the idea of becoming a "manager" doesn't mean I can afford to put off learning the skills forever.

The Question to You

What’s your trick? How’d you learn to start fixing more interesting and unfamiliar problems? Can you think of any particular businesses or people who have (so far) aced the test?

adrian's picture

Problem solving - get to the essential problem

Kepner Tregoe will teach you, for a fee, a very good problem solving rationale - I heartily recommend it to everyone.

The essence of solving a problem is being able to ask the right questions and handle the answer.

Some things to consider...

1. What is a problem? One definition of a problem is that you have a deviation from what you expect (i.e. something isn't doing what it should), you don't know why, and you want to know why. If the answer to all those is yes, then you have a problem to solve. If not, then there's nothing to worry about.

2. Ask Why? until you get to an unknown. Sometimes called the 5 whys - if you ask why 5 times you will always get to an unknown.

I can't get my report into the boss
--> Why can't I get my report to the boss?
--> Because I can't print
---> Why can't I print?
---> Because the printer is offline
---> Why is the printer offline?
--- Dunno - this is the problem I must solve.

Ok, so that's a simplistic example, but it works for real problems too.


We're going to miss our sales targets

-- Because production is down
--- Production is down because we have a high reject rate
--- We have a high reject rate because our Oojits have grounding faults
--- We don't know why our Oojits have grounding faults

3. Look for closely related things that do work, and see what is different about the thing that actually has the problem. Then look for changes relating ONLY to those differences.

All problems come from change - it's just finding the RELEVANT change that you need to do. Hence looking for only the changes relating to the differences you find.

By closely related things, I mean comparing, say, 2 mobile phones (1 working, 1 broken) rather than a broken mobile phone and a landline phone.

I could go on for a long time!




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »