Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about problems and solutions. Not specific ones, more in general, and the shortcomings that go with them in particular. And it seems to depend on the kind of problem how effective a solution can be. To make my point, I’ll start with an outline of problem degrees.

First, there are simple problems. Hanging a picture on the wall.
Abstract solution requires: Knowing how to make some protrusion.
Practical solutions: Drive in a nail./Bore a hole, insert a plug./Bore a hole, insert a plug, insert a screw./Glue a plug or hook to the wall./Chisel out an alcove./Build a pedestal.
These are “whatever works” problems, and they are characterized by a low level of complexity, their solution rarely requires more than 2 or 3 steps (though Yak shaving is possible), and there is little at stake, both financially and emotionally. You don’t need a plan, and it’s easy to sell someone on the solution you prefer.

Next, there’s complex single-subject problems like Measuring the efficiency of your production process.
This requires you to break the problem down to simple problems/questions. What are the single processes the whole thing is made up of? Who’s involved at what stage? This doesn’t mean you have to analyse each and every single process itself, since this is about the overall thing.
These problems are characterized by an intermediate level of complexity and their solution requires several steps, often over a certain period of time. In that sense they don’t have to be actual problems, but questions to determine if you have a problem, and where. With this kind of problems, there is not necessarily something at stake financially (though it might be), yet they’re easily being perceived as a threat with a lot of downside (e.g. feeling scrutinised) and little upside (not seeing one’s own personal benefit from the solution proposed). Hence the (pragmatic) solution is facing opposition very easily, combined with the escape question whether the present system should better be replaced with an entirely different one (the one you switched from last time). And the solution might need to be readjusted itself because, for instance, you realize you’re focusing on the wrong issues. Yak shaving is a welcome distraction to avoid cutting to the core.

Next, there are complex multi-subject problems such as running a project, for example building a website. This requires a set of different skills and the ability to tackle the seemingly big lump from various sides, then drilling down each approach to find out how much substance there is. For a website this might be design (which again can be split up into colour scheme, typography, imagery), legal issues (possible copyright infringements), technical issues (programming) and providing content.
Whatever the solution is, when you’re trying to sell someone on it, the standard reply is often whether your approach was the right one to choose at all. Depending on the project, there can be a high financial risk. On the emotional side, it’s more likely to be dealing with primal behaviour, determining who is the strongest. Also here the solution might need to be readjusted because after a certain amount of time it’s been shown not to fulfil its purpose as it should have. Yak shaving is common.

And finally, there are complicated problems: Having a business. Causes. Political campaigning and lobbying.
The complication results from various factors: Solutions will need to be constantly readjusted because decision parameters change. Decision criteria themselves change. People involved in the process change their minds. High financial risk. Circumstances assumed and results expected are permanently subject to change. It’s like a theme park on a raft, somewhat chaotic. The main skill required for this kind of problem is knowing when to stick to a decision and when to quit. There’s an upside too: At any given point in time, the problem is only a complex multi-subject one. It’s only in the long perspective that it’s complicated. Yak shaving is compulsory.

Special case: Vanity problems. This is Yak shaving. These are solutions for one of the four previous degrees, but there’s no problem.
This ranges from believing you need a new hairstyle (simple) to building an underground railway station when you have one on the ground (complicated).

So what’s the point? Am I shaving the Yak? No, it’s just the setup for the next post: Solutions. That’s what I really want to talk about.


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