How to Become a Better Problem Solver


Dan Markovitz shares a short but insightful post and an introduction to a workshop on the importance of word choice when problem framing to ensure a positive outcome. 

In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.”

In 2017, President Trump declared a “public health emergency” to battle the opioid crisis.

These two declarations were essentially about the same thing: dealing with the financial, emotional, and social scourge of drug abuse that was destroying individuals and communities. But the framing of the problem—a “war” versus a “health emergency” makes a huge difference in the countermeasures that citizens, politicians, and communities are ready to consider. 

If you’re fighting a war, you’re thinking about military action. You’re going to mobilize soldiers, deploy aircraft and other weaponry, and erect barbed wire barriers. If you’re responding to a health emergency, you’re thinking about hospitals, counselors and social workers, treatment centers, and medical interventions. The countermeasures are radically different. 

This is one of the exercises I’ve used with a corporate client that’s enrolled my Conclusion Trap workshop. Based on my latest book, this workshop helps participants become better problem solvers by improving their ability to frame problems. 

To the extent that anyone outside of General Motors remembers Charles Kettering, he’s most famous for saying, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” Which sounds great—except that he never defined what a well-stated problem is. As my students discovered (and you can see from the example above), the phrasing of the problem has enormous consequences for the kind of countermeasures you develop. This kind of exercise helped them move from weak problem statements such as, “The problem is that we’re too busy to meet the milestones set by the project manager,” or “The problem is that we don’t have enough time to write and test the necessary code.

Key points include:

  • The Conclusion Trap workshop 
  • Consideration of countermeasures
  • Defining a well-stated problem