3 Valuable Problem Solving Techniques I Learned From an Egg
6 min read | Posted Sep 12, 2018
I don’t know about you, but in my experience, working in small business means that every day is a new day full of solving business problems. Troubleshooting and resolving issues for this, that, and the other can be energizing for those who have the entrepreneurial spirit, namely ENTPs, ESTJs, ENTJs, INTJs, and ISTJs. I am an ENTJ and I definitely fit this bill.
As I observe everything from the current internal workflows and project development at the office to my sandwich order being made, I instinctively analyze, dissect, and troubleshoot the problems of inefficiency or error. Then, when I have the opportunity to propose changes for the better (or to try something new and see if it works), I feel energized, and oftentimes this moment becomes the highlight of my day.
But, I also have the tendency to over-complicate my problem solving.
The Story of the Egg
I vividly recall the results of one mini-project in a 7th grade natural science class. Our teams of four were instructed to build a parachuting device that would keep an egg from cracking when dropped from the heights of the football stadium seats. We had a 12 minute time limit and were confined to using 2 sheets of 8.5” x 11” paper, 5 paper clips, and a few pieces of tape.
You know that idiom, “Bird of a feather stick together?” Well, that is not always a good thing. In this instance, four of us “overachievers” decided to work together. (And by “overachievers,” what I really mean is, “over-complicators.”)
Our problem solving minds immediately took the direction of crafting our parachuting device to compensate for the physical forces of wind, gravity, and impact. We started by developing the egg holding portion of the device. We made it an open topped box and filled it with zig zag folded strips of paper, to absorb the forces of impact. Then we used the other sheet of paper and cut a circular parachute, using the remaining paper as tethers from the box to the chute.
The Flight of the Egg
Once all the teams created their egg saving devices, it was time to march up the stadium seats and release our egg to its death – or victory as my group assumed. And how did our parachuting device fair?
Well, we successfully remastered the tale of Humpty Dumpty, minus the part where he gets put back together again.
I remember stepping away from the crime scene and rethinking each step of the 12 minute design and development process, wondering, “What should we have done differently?” And when everyone was seated back in the classroom, our teacher had the only successful group explain how they built their parachuting device.
It was simple, clean, and effective.
They folded one sheet of paper into a downward-facing cone that held their egg to absorb the impact at its tip. Then they used the second sheet of paper and paper clips to create the parachute, not cutting the paper at all in order to maximize the surface area and better control the descent.
The design was brilliant! And simple.
It was easily reproducible! And simple.
And most importantly, it was successful! And so very simple.
This phenomenon of the simplest solution being the best solution is not a new revelation. It is Occam’s Razor.
What is Occam’s Razor?
William of Occam (or Ockham) was a 12th century philosopher and monk who encapsulated the already know concept that perfection equals simplicity (thank you, Aristotle) by reasoning that when given two explanations for the same thing, the simpler one is usually the correct one.
In other words, the best explanation is the simplest.
“Did the dog just fart or was there a sudden release of noxious vomit-inducing gas released on your couch. It was probably the dog.” – Sarah Perry
The premise of Occam’s Razor has been used to influence The Scientific Method and Albert Einstein’s explanation for fluctuations in the time-space continuum. Further, the implications that perfection equals simplicity reaches into almost any industry. From design, to engineering, from writing to healthcare, from operations management to business development, cutting the noise and distractions to focus on the main target is where success stories are born.
Applying Occam’s Razor Yourself
Because of the far reaching implications of this principle of the simple, creative problem solving in business can be done without over-complicating the issue at hand.
Now, I still struggle with my natural disposition to overcomplicate the solutions for day-to-day problems. But over the years, recalling this personal Story of the Egg, and reminding myself of the principles of Occam’s Razor, I have been able to keep the following three problem solving techniques top of mind.
1) Remain on Target:
I must constantly ask myself, “What is the main issue at hand?” Since I oftentimes let my problem solving wander towards fixing imperfections that aren’t really part of the main problem in the first place, I can easily get off track. To avoid losing course, assess each problem by answering the following:
- What is the main problem at hand?
- Does [main problem] need a short term fix, long term solution, or both?
- Does this problem directly impact the success of other key areas of focus for this project/business.
- If “Yes,” then keep those key areas priority in problem solving decisions.
- If “No,” then do not bog down the problem solving process with the unnecessary weight of indirectly related areas.
When I start to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the possible solution I am thinking of, I go back to these three questions. If the possible solution does not immediately address the main problem at hand, it becomes a null point.
This is especially important when evaluating new tools and softwares for the business. It is easy to solve business “problems” that didn’t even exist before because you see a list of cool product features. Do your best to ignore the bells and whistles and focus on what you need to solve the main problem at hand.
2) Reframe the Problem:
If you feel you are forced to continually solve the same problem over and over, it would be to your benefit to reframe the problem. This is necessary to expose the root issue, rather than continue solving mini-problems that are merely symptoms of the root issue.
Thomas Wedellsburg of the Harvard Business Review has written a eye-opening article that will help you evaluate whether you are solving the right problems. In it, he talks about the Slow Elevator Problem and America’s Dog Adoption Problem and what the implications were of “problem reframing” as opposed to mere “problem solving.” He also shares 7 practices for implementing reframing, which are to:
- Establish legitimacy.
- Bring outsiders into the discussion.
- Get people’s definitions in writing.
- Ask, “What’s missing?”
- Consider multiple categories.
- Analyze positive exceptions.
- Question the objective.
3) Keep. It. Stupid. Simple.
KISS the problem at hand. Stop trying to make things harder than they need to be. It is not going to help you to assign half of your team to folding paper into zig zag crinkles when all that is needed to absorb the shock is air confined by the point of a cone.
If in doubt, don’t add more. TAKE AWAY more. If you are able to strip away the excess, it does not mean that you are lazy. Rather, it shows that you are intentional and dedicated to actually accomplishing your key objectives. When it comes to problem solving in business (and life in general) it’s actually harder to make something simple.
What business problems can you apply these problem solving techniques to today?