Do You Know What Kind Of Problem You’re Solving?


Tuesday, 9.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants some magical solution to their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic. – Lewis Carroll

When I’m asked to describe what I do, I usually fumble for words and come out with something like “Um, I’m a sort of management consultant”.

Which, when it comes down to it, is not a very edifying explanation.

Not even to me, really…

I need something better.

What about “I’m a problem solver?”

That’s not much better either.

The issue here really is that we’re all trying to make a living being useful in some way.

And being useful usually means solving a problem someone else has.

But what exactly is a problem?

You know you’ve got one when you do… but is there anything more to it than that?

Now, one of the things I see often in the world of work is that there aren’t that many hard problems to work on.

That is, it might be hard work but it’s not a hard problem – in the sense of being difficult to solve.

For example, most people are hired to do something relatively simple.

Talking to clients, explaining products, maintaining spreadsheets and so on.

You probably need to be literate and numerate but not a huge amount more.

The professions are different – to be a doctor or lawyer you need years of experience and qualifications.

So is it possible to come up with a taxonomy – a classification of problem types?

Simple seems a good one to start with – like filing papers or administration.

Hard could be hard in the sense of physically or intellectually demanding – maybe something like labouring or being a drone pilot.

Complex could perhaps describe what a doctor does – diagnosing and fixing a problem.

And there are wicked problems – situations where we don’t know what the problem actually is or what we’re trying to do.

In business there are a surprising number of the last type of problem – wicked ones – where we don’t know what we don’t know.

Then again, what do we know?

How can we better approach problems, whatever type they are?

Maybe the Unix philosophy can help.


Trying to attack a big problem almost never succeeds.

Instead, we need to get smaller parts of the problem solved first.

If we have small, workable solutions we can combine them so solve larger, more complex problems.

And those problems can perhaps be classified in more general terms.

Then, as a management consultant with some expertise in building software solutions, we can look at the sorts of problems we can solve for clients.

For example, McKinsey mapped the kinds of problems that can be addressed with AI technology.

An adapted form of these is shown in the picture above and you can probably think of examples of each kind.

A classic problem is classification – is this image a tree, a car or a dog?

Or is this programmer good or bad?

Prediction is loved by many – which direction is a stock or index or fund going to go in next?

Segmenting and grouping is fundamental to any marketing we do – we want to find similar prospects.

And then there is finding the best or optimal solution to a problem – if there is one.

There’s a class of solutions that try to fix things before they go wrong by finding anomalies.

And ranking is all about figuring out what’s important and what to do first – like in project management.

Amazon tells you which books it thinks you’ll like based on what you’ve read already – it has a recommendation engine.

Which doesn’t always figure out what’s happening when you’ve got kid’s books and grown up books being bought through the same account.

And then, there is the ultimate problem – getting the computer to do being creative for you.

Like the programs that create books or write music by learning from what’s out there now.

Okay, so does any of this help us do anything better in the real world?

Got to be honest here – I don’t know.

But being aware of the kinds of problems you can work on is probably a good idea if “Problem Solver” is a term that describes what you do.



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