Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Humans » Thinking | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Solving the right problem


Something that strikes me again and again: Most humans 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 supply runs 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 group’s 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 alternative 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 possible, 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; might 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 might 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.

Three magic wishes

A similar issue of solving the right problem applies to the common fairy-tale scenario of picking three magic wishes—and the wishes picked in fairy-tales are often far from ideal, as they focus on some too immediate obstacle or a too superficial issue. (I recommend that the reader, concurrent to reading the below, considers some potential own wishes and how they might be improved in a similar manner.)

For instance, for long stretches of my life, the horrifying lack of punctuality (and general customer hostility) of Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) has been a bane, not just increasing the time needed for the daily commute, on top of a long working day, but leading to additional stress and frustration and making it that much harder to relax and recuperate in the evening. (German punctuality and competence is largely a myth.)

Now, had I been given three magic wishes, it might have seemed natural to use one of them to ensure that the Deutsche Bahn was punctual from now on—as this would have made my life much better. However, this would only have solved a superficial problem and not in an optimal manner. For instance, what if I had wished for trains that were ten times as fast instead? That way, I would get to work even faster and with less hassle.


Here and elsewhere, I assume that the wish-granter is benevolent, takes care of various implementation details, and does not introduce unwanted side-effects. (Much unlike many wish-granters in stories.) For example, the ten-times-as-fast train is supposed to not fly off the rails and the tickets are supposed be priced the same as before.

In a more realistic scenario, the wish might need to be supplemented with a very long list of stipulations to ensure that it achieves what the wisher intended.

Better yet, why not wish for the ability to teleport and get to work that much faster? (And give me major benefits in my spare time.)

But: Is the purpose truly to get to work? Do I want to work or do I want to earn money, merely working for the purpose of earning money? Well, if so, I should wish for money in order to achieve what I want without having to work at all and, as a side-benefit, still being free from the punctuality issues.

Then again, money is not an end in it self, so I might be better off focusing on the actual ends, like somewhere to live, food on my table, access to books and movies, whatnot. (Here the chain is a little weak, as money is often the best way to ensure this-and-that in today’s world.)

Even now, we are not at the end of the chain, as food and books are also a means to an end. If we do follow the chain to its conclusion, we might end up with a wish for a long, happy, and healthy life—a much worthier wish than “Make the Deutsche Bahn punctual!”.


Here, I focus on my personal well-being for purposes of illustration. In an actual wish-granting scenario, I would likely have chosen a more global perspective. The same principle applies, however, if with the caveat that differences in preferences and priorities have to be considered when making decisions for others (even be it implicitly).

Excursion: Finding the right problem for a solution

An interesting twist on the above is that there are many instances of a solution being discovered that has to be matched to the right problem. This is the core behind the misconception that most great inventions were accidental: Even if the claim is superficially true (of which I am far from certain), it fails on a deeper level—it was not a matter of someone stumbling on a great solution, but of someone matching that solution to an existing problem. Consider e.g. Fleming and penicillin: It is extremely unlikely that Fleming was the first to see mould killing bacteria in a Petri dish. What sets him apart is that he did not just throw out the result—instead he drew the right conclusions, saw the right possibilities, and then put in a few years of research to create a viable antibiotic.


As I have gathered over time, there might be more mythology than merit to Fleming. The story is good, but it appears that he was not very successful in his pursuit of results, that he might not have pursued the issue with the vigor that it deserved, and that the true work on the issue was performed by others and years later. (In this, both the above and some claims from an earlier version of this page might be/have been misguided and more adhering to the mythology than to the true history.)

Further, it appears that use of mould to combat infections has a very long history and even specific scientific investigations into Penicillium (the family of moulds of which Fleming’s mould is a member) pre-dated Fleming.

Nevertheless, the story, even if distorted, well illustrates the point at hand: There is a world of difference between making an observation and actually achieving something based on that observation, which requires the ability to see the true potential of the observation. Likewise, it might require hard work and perseverance in the face of early failures. Likewise, going from a bright idea for a book to a great actual book takes more than just having the bright idea. Etc.

(Also see e.g. Wikipedia on the history of penicillinw.)

In such cases, it is important to have the right person at the right place at the right time: Someone must learn of the solution who already knows an appropriate problem (or vice versa). Indeed, there are many problems that can be solved quite easily by the right person, with the right knowledge in a sufficiently bright mind, but where that right person simply has never been exposed to that particular problem, e.g. because he works in a different field.

There are even “problems” that arise through use of inferior technology or inferior knowledge that the more expert will simply not see as problems at all. My discussion of ignorant solutions in software development contains related material.