Posted by Meg Soper, 04-04-2015

‘If I only had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.’

– Albert Einstein

While some debate whether Einstein actually said this, there is little doubt that he was a brilliant problem solver, who took the time to get absolutely clear about the nature of any problem he set out to solve. To which I say: if this approach was good enough for Einstein, well, then it is good enough for me!

Consider the following problem:

A ball and a bat cost $1.10

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball

How much does the ball cost?

This question was posed to thousands of university students at Harvard, MIT and Princeton. Incredibly more than 50% answered with the intuitive and incorrect answer of 10 cents. Other universities fared far worse! Reflecting on this finding in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’Nobel winner Daniel Kahnemann observed that “…many people are overconfident, prone to place to much faith in their intuitions.”

While getting the ball and bat question wrong is no big deal, Kahneman’s finding has serious implications because the solution to life’s important problems is best not left to intuition or ‘gut feel’. His is a cautionary example of how easy it is for us to take mental short cuts when we ought to be taking the time to think things through.

But lets face it, we live in a world that rewards action and decisiveness. I guess that is why ‘Just Do It!’ ranks as the #2 best slogan of all time. But lets not forget that Nike is trying to sell us their stuff, and the last thing they want you to do is over think an impulse purchase. So go on…Be decisive! Get out the credit card! Just do it!

The takeaway from Kahneman’s study is that to be better problem solvers and decision makers we need to be more engaged, and intellectually active, and in so doing be somewhat skeptical about our intuitions.

The Power of ‘How Might We’

So why do I share this with you? Well, I recently completed an applied problem solving course offered by Basadur Applied Creativity. In the space of three days I was challenged to shift my perspective and learn new approaches to problem solving. The course pointed out how group dynamics can easily seduce us into making poor decisions because in our haste to find an answer we dont take the time to ask the questions that will lead to a better understanding of the problem we are trying to solve.

The course was taught by Dr. Min Basadur who worked in R&D with Proctor and Gamble over the course of many years. He told the fascinating story about how in the 1970’s P&G’s arch rival Colgate introduced a soap with double green stripes called Irish Spring. This product posed a big problem because the soaps claim to “…leave a man feeling clean and fresh” and win accolades from the ladies was threatening P&G’s dominance in the category.

P&G needed to come up with a competitive response – and fast. Min told us of how he arrived at P&G to find the research team team pulling their hair out in an effort to come up with their own striped soap. Sensing that the team had been too narrow in defining the problem (striped green soap, manly scent) Min got them to suspend judgement, have fun and adopt a new process for innovating, by framing the problem in terms of a question as simple as “How might we…develop a more refreshing soap?” It did not need to have stripes, or feature men bathing under an Irish waterfall. Through the power of “How might we…” the team was able to re-define the problem and imagine new possibilities leading to the successful launch of Coast soap, a worthy competitor to Irish Spring.

“How Might We…?” taught me a powerful new way to approach the problem solving process. How might you improve your skills as a problem solver? Tune in to my next blog to find out.

About Meg Soper

Meg Soper is a leading motivational humorist for organizations in North America. Her unique perspective combines the insights and experiences of her last thirty years spent as a Registered Nurse, stand-up comedian, and ultimately a motivational speaker. Meg has co-authored two books and appeared on the CBC Television network, Women’s Television network, and Prime TV as well as on radio and at comedy festivals.