Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Solving the right problem


Something that strikes me again and again: Most people are incapable of identifying the right problem to solve. This special kind of incompetence is responsible for much time being wasted and many problems remaining unsolved.

I would even argue that identifying the right problem is half the solution.


Some related issues are explored in a discussion of ideas and a discussion of patents.

Problem solving in TV series

TV series are full of examples of this, usually having the heroes chasing down the wrong problem for thirty minutes—only to have someone save the day by finally picking the right problem in the last five minutes of the episode. (Thereby preventing a character death, the destruction of the planet, or similar.)

To take a specific example: I recently watched the first season of Lostw, which includes an episode with an asthmatic girl developing severe breathing problems after her inhaler supplies run out. Through most of the episode, the other characters obsess with finding additional inhalers that were lost after the plane crash—even resorting to physically assaulting and torturing the suspected possessor. This behaviour extended to the groups one physician...

Even during the first few minutes after the problem was introduced, I grew annoyed that no-one was trying to find alternate solutions and treatments, most notably eucalyptus (which, considering that the show is set somewhere in the Australian region, would be an immediate association when an asthmatic problem occurs). Particularly fascinating was that they kept the girl close to a fire (the smoke of which could, depending on direction and spread, have aggravated the problems), yet failed to consider a steam treatment (although I have heard the effectiveness of this common treatment of breathing problems questioned). Alas, no, they kept searching, fighting, torturing, ...

I was further annoyed that no-one seemed to think towards the future: Even if the inhalers had been found, they would only have provided a temporary solution; and seeing that inhabitants of the island knew that it could be years before they had contact with civilization again, a permanent solution should have been on the agenda.

In the end, a Korean woman solved the problem—using eucalyptus. Regrettably, I had the impression that she did not come to this solution by being a problem solver: Her character repeatedly displayed knowledge of “herbal cures”, and it is implied that she has knowledge of alternate Korean medicine. Correspondingly, it is likely that she was simply more familiar with eucalyptus than with the typical Western solution.

What went wrong? Instead of attempting to solve the true problem (“girl has problems with her breathing”), they focused on a problem in one of the possible solutions: The superficial insight “If we had more inhalers, we could treat her.” lead to the incorrect conclusion “We must find more inhalers.”


The problem can be abstracted even further, e.g. to “girl needs more oxygen than she currently can access”—which could be quite appropriate in the right setting, and might well have provided other solutions. In this particular case, a further abstraction was not needed; but when no solution is forth-coming, it can pay to try to go yet one step further in abstracting the problem.

Apart from the many similar occurrences in real life, I would advice the reader to pay attention to TV shows: Is the brilliant masterstroke of thinking that solves the episode-long problem truly brilliant—or is it rather someone belatedly focusing on the right problem? Would not the same solution (often) have been obvious, had the right problem been attacked from the beginning? Was that problem really so hard to see? Applying these lessons to real life can make a major difference.

Patent-worthiness of vibrating cell-phones

Consider the example of vibrating cell-phones (which once was the subject of a patent controversy):

Problem: How to notify the user of a call, without making a noise (or otherwise disturbing others) with early nineties technology?


As above, it is almost always possible to find an even “righter” problem. If needed, we could have easily escalated e.g. by removing the need not to make a noise from the problem specification (however, this would have made the road to the solution more complicated). Based on this, other solutions would have been possibly, e.g. having the user wear a small in-ear headphone.

Obvious clue: Another sense (or means of perception) might be used. For simplicity, we use “the five” minus hearing.

Sight: Would not be reliable if phone is not visible; may be equally disturbing as sound. (But is often used by the deaf for telephone replacements.)

Smell: Ditto. Further, humans have a poor sense of smell.

Taste: There is no obvious, non-intrusive way to implement this.

Touch: Here some variations are available, e.g. a phone that changes shape, taps it user somehow,—or vibrates. Finding the best alternative may require some amount of thought, research, prototyping, testing, ...; but this is more leg-work than head-work. Ergo: once the problem was identified, finding the solution was easy, and the idea not patent-worthy (however, some details, e.g. concerning the exact implementation or components used could conceivably still be patentable).


There are some other factors that make a vibrating cell-phone a natural alternative; namely, that (at least older) phones tend to naturally vibrate when a ring tone comes and that sound is vibration (and, indeed, many vibrating phones have a very audible buzz, which reduces the gain).

Further, if any kind of movement was used, it would likely be rapidly repeated for some time anyway—which puts us very close to a vibration. Consider e.g. a phone that taps its user: Doing so once would result in many missed calls, and an actual implementation would likely include a rapid series of taps.