The Real Challenge with Problem Solving

Hello again my friend. Hope things are well with you near the end of this year.

A couple of months ago I shared this observation on LinkedIn:

The real challenge with problem solving is rarely in coming up with the solution but rather:

  1. Communication: getting people to agree what the problem is
  2. Decision: which solution we will try
  3. Coordination: how to work together to solve it
  4. Commitment: keeping it solved

This framing seems to have struck a chord.

I think this reframe is a solid enough foundation to start exploring, thinking through, and articulating concepts I have learned so far in Problem Solving that will helpfully to manage, influence, and get better at them — and ultimately make our lives easier.


Problems solving is a hot topic. We hear how problem solving, decision making, and critical thinking are top soft skills that we need to thrive in society. But what is it exactly?

All we do in life is solve problems. Or put in a different way: our lives are manifestation of specific solutions we implemented for our problems. Businesses are solutions to the customer’s problems — needs or wants, vitamins or painkillers.

You can solve hard problems or simple problems. You can solve small problems or big problems. You can solve problems you personally care about or you can solve problems other people tell you to care about.

I’d go so far to say that the purpose of life is about finding those interesting problems and dedicate significant portions of your life to it.

You know that feeling where you see certain problem, you think you have the solution for it, but somehow you can’t have it solved, once and for all. It’s demotivating to say the least. You feel stuck, powerless, and frustrated — especially if you are personally invested in the vision of what the world could look like if the problem is solved.

It is indeed not that simple.

Problems are simpler to solve the least number of people it affects. Your’re hungry? Eat. Problem solved. You’re hungry when you are with friends? You now need to decide what to eat, who will drive, who got what allergies, etc.

All problems are people problems.

More people, more complex. Incentives, communication, alignment, inertia, non linear interdependent systems.

More people more problems. More problems more opportunities. More opportunities more problems. Isn’t it fun? And no, I am not being sarcastic here.

Speaking in the context of business, after 13 years working in 6 organisations of different sizes, cultures, and industries in ~4 roles classification in different levels from contributing, middle management, and senior leadership roles, here are my observations:

  • No one has it easier than the other. Everyone has their own very real and valid frustration and stress.
  • No one has a lossless view of the “system”. You will always see certain abstracted slice of it.
  • No one has full control over all the variables.
  • Anyone has certain influence and impact over their circle, which can in turn nudge the other circles it is in contact with. Think chain reaction.
  • It always takes longer and more effort than expected to reach that critical mass and momentum for lasting change (solution).
  • Most of the times solutions are not guaranteed. Experimentation-mindset is a mandatory foundation to problem solving.
  • Problems without decided solution is worse than problems with temporary solutions.
  • Temporary solutions are OK as long as they are revisited. This is how “this is just the way we have always done it” when people forget the history of how things came to be. Preserving this context and institutionalised knowledge is one of the reasons why strong organisations have Knowledge Management as part of the core culture.

That’s all for now. We’ll have a deeper look at each aspect — Communication, Decision, Coordination, and Commitment in upcoming posts. Consider these as the four branches to a trunk of Problem Solving that I will start drawing and sticking some leaves to.

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