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The Third Critical Step In Problem Solving That Einstein Missed

Problem Solving is something that we learn from a young age. Or is it? Sometimes it is good to be reminded of the process and steps involved in problem solving. It's also about the 3rd stage, "Harvesting" or the learnings from the process of problem-solving.

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Source: Nell Derick Debevoise

Problem Solving is something that we learn from a young age. Or is it? Sometimes it is good to be reminded of the process and steps involved in problem solving. More importantly as this article details it’s also about the “Harvesting” or the learnings from the process of problem-solving. 

Einstein is quoted as having said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” The point he makes is important: preparation has great value to problem solving. And what is any task worth doing but a problem to be solved. We would do well to heed Einstein’s advice as we move through our days, and ensure that we’re spending enough time getting ready to solve the next problem at hand, whether addressing a colleague’s costly error, drafting a project scope, or cooking dinner.
What Einstein missed, though, is the final critical stage of any problem-solving process. Once one has solved a problem, there is huge opportunity to harvest that solution. The solution may apply to other challenges or tasks in one’s own life, or that of colleagues. There may be a generalizable learning that emerges, an opportunity to recognize a person involved in the solution, or a story to tell publicly for broader benefit.

Well-run meetings usually take this approach, seeing before, during, and after as three equally important phases of the meeting to be intentionally designed and delivered. Of course, many meetings are not well-run, and fall short of their potential effectiveness by neglecting or under-estimating the before or after. And when it comes to our individual efforts to solve problems and get things done, very few professionals take this approach.

A Lesson From Pro Athletes
Any competitive athlete knows these three phases well. Training is critical preparation for any contest, made up of a host of complementary activities to whatever the competition consists of. Then comes the event, whether formally competitive or not. Next, critically, recovery must follow. Stretching, off-days, reloading with nutrients, and sleep, are among many professionals’ ‘secrets’ to success, as much as their record-breaking sprints or deadlifts.

Our minds – and bodies – need these same steps to perform effectively as thinking beings.

The Three Stages of Problem Solving
Next time you go to solve a problem, whether large or small, personal or professional, allot time to all three stages and see what happens.

1. Set the Stage
First, prepare yourself, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Before you even get to Einstein’s 55 minutes to understand the problem, are you in the best position possible to address it? Particularly for high-stakes problems that you really care about solving effectively, it’s worth spending some time readying yourself, through adequate rest, healthy nutrition, mindfulness practices, and a comfortable setting in which to do the work.

Next come Einstein’s 55 minutes. Do you understand what you are tasked with doing? And do you know what’s required to do it, or who you can ask to find out? In the example of cooking, do you have a recipe listing the ingredients and tools you need, and are those gathered and/or prepared? If you’re writing a report, do you have the data and insights from relevant stakeholders to get it done? To design a product, you need an understanding of your target user.

Finally, do you know why you’re trying to solve this problem? Does it inherently matter to you or someone you care about? Or does it play a part in a larger problem that matters to you and/or your organization?

This preparation phase can lead to a “5 Ws” description of any task, to help yourself or a colleague understand what is to be done. Specifying what, who, when, how, and why a problem is to be solved can significantly improve the focus and effectiveness with which it is done.

2. Do the Thing
Doing is what we have least trouble imagining. Without proper preparation, though, it can be the hardest stage to actually begin. It’s easy to let problems become monsters in our minds, casting a shadow far longer than their actual size. Of course, the preparation practices of mindfulness, physical needs, and focus on why we’re doing a certain thing can and should be maintained in the ‘doing’ phase too.

3. Harvest
Finally, when we’ve solved the problem or done the task, we come to the harvesting stage, which can be hugely productive if given its proper due. But all too often, we’re so thrilled to check something off our list, Asana board, or other project management tool that we race on to the next problem to be solved. That’s like not cashing dividend checks from your investments, or claiming the 10th free coffee at your local café.

Once you’ve done the work, why wouldn’t you take a minute to see what else the work could accomplish for you? Very few problems in the world are actual one-offs, with no implications for other challenges you or people around you are solving. These connections are not of course always obvious, though, so we must spend some time and attention looking for them, or sharing our solutions with other people who might see the connection to a problem they’re working to solve.

Why We Don’t Do This
One of the best points in Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, isn’t about imperfection at all, but rather about the process of behaviour change. She points out that for most things worth doing, we know ‘How To,’ or can google it in microseconds. What separates people who do it from those who don’t manage is addressing what’s in the way. Why don’t we do the things we know are required to solve whatever problem we’re facing? Is it habit, fear, social pressure, or otherwise? So let’s consider why we aren’t in the habit of making time to harvest the fruits of our labours solving one problem before moving on to the next.

Most teams are still operating in an industrial revolution conception of work, focused on maximizing output. Many of us have adopted this task-oriented approach to evaluate our individual performance, and tend to prioritize doing more things over reflecting on the lessons learned from the doing and how they might apply to other things we care about doing. Finally, truly collaborative, trusting teams in which we can openly share our struggles, learnings, and successes without fear of judgment, are still rare.

Do any of these blocks apply to you? If so, what can you do about it? Just recognizing barriers is helpful even if you can’t do anything immediately to remove them.

Once you’ve recognized why you don’t complete the third stage of problem solving, go ahead and schedule a 30-minute Harvesting slot after your next task. Jot down some learnings, call a colleague and share your process to see if they pull any insights, or Tweet something you learned with a strategic hashtag or two to enter your wisdom into the Twitverse.

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