Problem Management — the questions
1.5 What problems were perceived in the current situation?

Far too often people will invent wonderful solutions and then search for problems that would justify implementing them. While there may be some spectacular exceptions, in general this is not a good way to operate.

It is essential to have a thorough understanding of exactly what specific problems need to be solved. Without that, there can be no reliable way of determining whether or not the proposed solutions will actually do any good.

The most difficult aspect is that the obvious problems are often only symptoms of deeper underlying problems, and it can be very difficult to realize the difference.

Consider the various solutions that have been used against the problem of racial inequality in the United States. Things like employment equity and race-based scholarships not only treat the symptoms rather than the real causes, they actually add to the problem.

Is the real problem that too few blacks are top business leaders? It should be obvious that having a large number of blacks in high positions would have virtually no effect on the vast majority of poor blacks. It might provide more role models, but would generally provide no significant benefit. It really doesn't matter who is in charge, the poor and uneducated would still be poor and uneducated. Providing special scholarships for blacks helps a very small percentage of the population yet generates bias against those blacks that would have made it without this racist assistance. That poverty and illiteracy affect blacks more than whites is an historical fact, but it is not intrinsically race-related. A real solution would attack poor education in general, without consideration of race or historical causes. This would help the poor and uneducated of all races, without prejudice, and would incidentally and not intentionally provide proportionally more help to blacks. A good indication that this would be a good solution is that this initial racial imbalance in help would eventually self-correct.

Both Adolph Hitler and Martin Luther King understood how racism works, and both attacked the real causes of the problem, though in radically different ways. Hitler chose to simply eliminate the races he saw as the problem, while King strove to eliminate the perception and significance of artificial or trivial racial differences. Hitler's solution was, with good reason, seen as unacceptable, and he was stopped. Others realized that King's solution might actually work, and he too was stopped. Most people that talk of King's dream don't actually understand what that dream was about. Those that celebrate the new Kwanzaa festival and say that they rever Dr. King obviously don't understand his message at all.

Equal rights and equal opportunity should not be confused with equal results. Yes, all people should be allowed to play NFL football, regardless of such irrelevant attributes as race or eye colour, but that doesn't mean that 50% of players must be female or that 5% must be in wheel-chairs. That would be silly. But that's exactly what well-meaning schemes, such as affirmative action, that treat symptoms rather than causes, require.

Treating symptoms usually appears to be beneficial, but often doing so can actually make the situation worse. Widening highways to reduce traffic jams, taking Aspirin® to reduce minor fevers, and starting food banks to feed the poor, are all examples of solutions to the wrong problem. They all temporarily reduce symptoms in a way that actually worsens the underlying problem. In many cases the underlying problem actually can be alleviated by artificially increasing the symptoms, rather than by decreasing them. (The alternative medical practice Homeopathy is based on this principle, though its followers have taken it to an unjustifiable extreme.)

When analyzing a problem, one must repeatedly ask why something is a problem, what has caused it, and is the problem actually a symptom of something else?

Another difficulty is that people often ask for solutions to a problem that isn't their real problem. They had a completely different problem, devised a solution for it, ran into difficulties with some part of their solution, and finally presented this difficulty as their problem. In such situations (and one should initially always assume that any request for help is such a situation, especially when from well-educated professionals), one must determine not only what their presented problem is, but why they think it's a problem, and what they were really trying to accomplish. Typically once their original problem has been revealed one can provide a much simpler solution to that, rather than wasting time trying to repair their given failed solution.

A traditional example of this is the elevator waiting time problem. The obvious solution, of installing more elevators in the building is prohibitively expensive. Analyzing the usage patterns and programming the elevators to adjust themselves throughout the day is feasible, but will only slightly alleviate the situation. What's needed is an understanding of the real problem: people don't like waiting for elevators, no matter how short or long the delay. The real solution, of making the wait less obvious, will eliminate most of the complaints, and that can be achieved by very inexpensive means, such as installing mirrors and interesting and frequently changing posters in the waiting area.