Thinking and Acting in Problem-Solving
by C.S. Clarke,Ph.D.
Do you let habit, custom or mindset narrow your vision and prevent you from seeing otherwise obvious solutions to problems?
Let me share a story some friends told me. The couple had just walked out their front door and closed it behind them when they realized neither of them had brought along their keys. So they were locked out. They couldn't just go about their business and deal with the house later, because the keys to their cars were also with the keys to the house.
Fortunately, they made a habit of concealing a key to the house in the back yard. Unfortunately, there were two gated fences between them and the back yard. The first gate -- wooden in a wood fence -- was bolted from the inside and the second -- chain link in a chain link fence --was padlocked. One of the couple was going to have to climb over two fences to get the key. Both were sufficiently fit and athletic, but the wife was lighter and was dressed in jeans and sneakers, so she volunteered for the job. Returning, she climbed atop the chain link fence, and to save the trouble of climbing the wood fence, she tossed the key to her husband. Being female, she naturally "threw like a girl." (That is a direct quote from her.) The key went awry and fell into a bank of ivy to be lost forever. They eventually were able to get into the house by borrowing some tools from a neighbor and breaking in through a window.
In retrospect they made some realizations that revealed how simple the solution should have been if it were not for their fixating on the problem of having two fences to climb. Remember, the wood fence was merely bolted and the bolt unreachable from the front. All the woman needed to do was climb the first fence and unbolt the gate to let her husband through. Then, after climbing the chain link fence, she could have passed the key to him through the links and he could have gone through the front and let her in through the back door. Yikes!
All they could see, however, was two fences looming between them and their goal: the key. So the fences became a single permanent barrier rather than two separate issues with different characteristics.
A lot of training has been done on "critical thinking," "thinking outside the box," "lateral thinking" and other methods of analysis and problem-solving. And, indeed, those are all valuable in breaking through mindsets, habits and biases. But what about simply stopping and thinking in the first place.
More problems would be solved quickly and easily if we stopped acting without thinking first. In the case I just described, the couple had an action plan in place for their current circumstances. And they felt a sense of urgency to solve their problem and get on with their other immediate objectives. However, their plan was faulty because something had changed since they made it -- there were now two fences instead of the one that was there when they first envisioned the solution to a future lockout. In addition, there was a keyed padlock rather than the original combination lock. But they were stuck in the mindset that this was the suitable pre-planned solution and didn't think it through. They just did it.
It's a common expression that the plans for battle don't survive the first encounter. It's the same for all action plans. You have to have them as a base, but you need to constantly refine them in accordance with the reality of the circumstances. You have to stop and think before acting. Check your assumptions. Logic only works on accurate premises.
Don't just do something -- stand there. And think about it.