Saturday, February 9, 2013

Problem Definition

The first step in solving a problem is the understanding and accepting that you have a problem. I have learned this does not require a deep knowledge of finance or even widely quoted rules of thumb. The hard part is calming the mind, looking deeply into the problem, and accepting the truth of your situation. If you are carrying a mortgage that is more than three times your annual salary, things are likely to be tight. If you still owe $40,000 on a car that is now worth $28,000 you probably made a mistake. If you are using future money (a credit card you can’t pay off every month) to cover current expenses (groceries) you are in deep trouble.

Albert Einstein Quote:
If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.

Once you accept that you have a problem begin to define the problem. Histrionics won’t help; reacting with learned helplessness is probably part of the problem. Accept the problem as it is, but don’t make it worse than it is.

Ask, “What is the problem?” How you frame this question is very important as it will likely lead you to a particular solution at the exclusion of other possibilities. The Harvard Business Review reports that the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup was difficult because the oil became extremely viscous in the low temperature sub-arctic Alaskan waters. In defining the problem, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute Request for Proposals put the question in terms of material viscosity rather than an oil cleanup problem. As a result they received proposals from many fields of study, not just from the petroleum industry. A chemist in the cement industry found an answer in a simple modification to existing commercial construction equipment. By vibrating the frozen oil, it stayed fluid. Now it could be pumped out of the ocean.

Is your problem too many bills? Perhaps you need to sell the car and buy a beater. Maybe you need to apply for Government assistance if you can’t pay for groceries. Those programs are there to help people who are really in serious need.

Is your problem not enough money? Perhaps you need to find a better job, or if unemployed, any job. That could include doing yard work or providing maid service for your neighbors until the crisis is past.

Rephrase the problem in various ways. See how that changes your answers.

Litemind suggests that you list and challenge your assumptions. For example: say a 50 year old man expects to fund his retirement by working until he is 78. By the way, I have heard this kind of reasoning in real conversations. One must ask, “Is it likely that you could still perform your job at 78?” Although there are exceptions, even if they are still alive, most 78 year old men can no longer perform their jobs at an acceptable level. There is also a problem with age discrimination. Why should an employer keep a sick old man on the job when he can hire a healthy young man for half the money?

Break the problem into many sub-problems. Listing and organizing the causes of a problem even has a name, an Ishikawa diagram. I didn’t know that. Study Guides and Strategies suggest this list could include other people or organizations. Again, consider every sub-problem from positive and negative viewpoints. If the credit card company won’t negotiate with you is there a third party counseling service that could represent your interests? Is stress part of your problem? What practices (meditation) or services (your pastor) could help control your stress?

Here is a link to some information that might help in the search for resources that can help.

One of the classic methods of problem definition divides a problem into three parts, challenges goals, and opportunities. So far we have focused on the challenges. The goals are implicit in the challenges, but they need to be stated with clarity and in detail. Here is a partial list from a 12 month goal list (author unknown). Write down an answer to each question. Be as specific as possible.

1.What will you be doing for work?

2.Who will be paying you?
a)What kind of clients are these?
b)Will you be drawing a regular pay check from employer?
c)What’s your boss like?

3)How much money are you making? 4)Where will you be working?
a)What does your office look like? (really)
b)What kind of commute do you want?

5) How many hours will you work?

As you unfold a problem, breaking it into manageable chunks, opportunities will begin to present themselves in your mind. The next step will be creating a frame of mind that will lead to action. As you implement even the smallest step, watch the problem redefine itself with greater clarity, leading you to better solutions, more opportunity, and greater action.

Begin this virtuous circle today.

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