Solving the Right Problem

Monday, October 5, 2015 - 07:15
A person attempting to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with an off colored piece.

When a doctor misdisagnosis a patient, a tremendous amount of effort can be spent trying to fix the wrong thing. Example: trying to apply an antiobitic treatment for a bacterial infection when the underlying issue is caused by a viral infection, thereby rendering the antibiotics useless. It's important to note this isn't a fictitious or uncommon example. Evidence points to "wrong diagnosis" being a leading cause of death in the US.

It turns out, solving the wrong problem is a real problem! So how do we change this?

Your mileage may vary, but here's what I've noticed in observing those around me as well as my own thoughts and behaviors. We're simply too quick to jump in and label something based on past experiences and observations. And while I'm not a psychologist or a neuroscientist, my research in this area has led me to the following conclusion. There are portions of our brain that are rapidly identifying information as it comes in and assigning meaning to it based on our past experiences. Often this entire process can and does occur at an unconscious level before our conscious mind is even aware that this happened (if the conscious portion of our mind ever becomes aware of it at all).

Two important parts to highlight:

  1. The meaning is assigned based on past experiences.
  2. The speed of our conscious awareness is slower than our unconscious processing.

Taken together, it's no surprise that we often get trapped in misdiagnosing "problems" in life. We're hard-wired to quickly identify problems based on known solutions so that we can solve them and move onto harder challenges!

To combat this, we need to slow down and really evaluate if this "problem" is really an exact copy of something we've dealt with in the past, or if there is new information or context that makes it different. There are numerous techniques to do this, ranging from The 5 Why's to The Creativity Switch. I highly recommend both as a way to challenge fundamental assumptions and change perspective when taking on a particularly difficult or recurring problem.

Yes, we all want to solve all of our problems yesterday, and that desire sometimes causes us to act before we know what we're up against. However, I would argue that taking the time to solve the right problem is far more important than solving the wrong problem quickly (just ask any doctor that has ever faced a malpractice suit).

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: Chief Product Officer of DRUD Tech. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.