There are four types of problems and it’s so much easier to address a problem when you understand the type of problem you face. Here’s a classification to help define the type of problem and some different approaches to solving each one:
The Puzzle: This type of problem always has a solution which in hindsight is very clear, obvious, and frequently factual in nature. It’s the easiest type of problem to solve as it’s caused by a lack of specific knowledge on your part.
The Uncertainty: It’s an unfortunate deficiency mankind has in that we cannot predict the future – which means we have to live in a perpetual world of partial uncertainty. As an example, when we have a need to take some pre-emptive action to shape the future (such as launching a new product) then we have a degree of control based on the nature of the action we are undertaking. If we are simply waiting to see the effect of a competitor’s new product on our customers, then we do not know whether our customers will love or hate it.
The Never-ending: This is a problem that you know will never be completely answered for as soon as you move to a new level there will be another problem to solve. An example is trying to meet customers’ needs. As a customer focused business, even if you find a brilliant solution to an issue, you have an obligation to identify the next new thing to delight your customers with.
The Complex: These are issues where it’s impossible to find the core cause of the issue. They may be broad-ranging in nature and all-encompassing in context – and there isn’t just one solution, as there could be any number of approaches that may start to move the situation forward in some way. The solutions themselves may be complex in nature as they involve the interaction of many different parties, sometimes with conflicting views and needs.
This is how I would try to answer these different types of problem.
The Puzzle: All that you need is to uncover the relevant knowledge or expertise. If you know where to find it then great – just go and get it. Sometimes the required expertise can come in the form of an inspired guess, or by some research you do. The best way is to ask someone else because if you lack knowledge in this area, you may not fully understand the situation and perhaps this isn’t a puzzle after all, it may be something more complicated. And you won’t know this unless you talk it through with someone else. Once you have the necessary expertise you’ll know the answer for sure.
The uncertainty: As you have no control over what will happen, all you can do is to make contingency plans to address different scenarios of outcome, which can be either offensive or defensive in nature.
The Never-ending: This type of problem may seem like there is no solution, but while there is no final solution, there are many intermediate solutions which actually help you advance the frontier of the problem. Find the pragmatic solutions that give you time before you need to reconsider this issue. Lesser solutions will need immediate follow-up while more significant solutions allow you to wait before needing to respond to the issue again.
The Complex: These are the devils of all problems. All we can aim to do is to move the system to a slightly more beneficial state and reconsider the issue again for the next move forward. Avoid trying to find the uber-solution that will eliminate this type of problem as it doesn’t exist. And the more complex the solution you aim for the more difficult it will be to execute, so keep it simple and aim for a number of lesser solutions that at least have a chance of being effective on some discreet aspect of the problem.
What about a dilemma?
If you are wondering why I haven’t included the dilemma on this list of problem types, it’s because you should never give yourself a dilemma to address. If you find yourself having to make a choice between two alternatives, then consider the fact that you have either posed the wrong question or that there are more than two alternatives to be considered. Good thinkers never end up with a dilemma!