How to find Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

Why don’t we stop painting the tanks?” This question was asked by a line worker when he learned that 800 pounds had to be removed from the space shuttle’s payload. His suggestion was made after a blue-ribbon engineering team tried unsuccessfully to find a lightweight material to accomplish the same goal.

Most of us have been hit squarely between the eyes by a similarly simple solution. That’s when we ask the obvious question, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Why, indeed?

Why we always look for complex solutions?

Education breeds complexity. With each level of education our mind was trained to deal with more complex issues. I can hear you asking, “And the problem is?

The problem is that once we’re exposed to complexity and we learn to deal with it, we ENJOY it. That’s right, finding the solution to complex problems is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding. It also affords us the opportunity to demonstrate how smart we are.

Human nature

A part of our human nature causes us to overlook simple solutions in favor of more complex solutions. The result is that we often slow our own progress and, occasionally, we completely miss our goals because we’re overlooking the obvious answers to our problems.

How can we avoid this natural tendency? We can train our minds to look for simple solutions first.

Low-hanging fruit

Any time you face a problem, go after the low-hanging fruit first. Ask yourself “What could I do today that would ease the problem?” This question allows you to focus your mind on simple solutions that are easy to implement. I’m not talking about Band-Aid fixes, something that masks the problem. Rather I’m suggesting that you seek permanent solutions that can be accomplished in a day or two.

Outside help

I’m sure some of you are wondering, “What if I can’t retrain my mind? What are my options?” If you find that retraining your mind doesn’t interest you, you can always bring in outside help. The key is to bring in someone who is intelligent, insightful, possesses good questioning skills and has very little, if any, familiarity with your problem. That’s right; you want someone who doesn’t share your expertise.

There are two reasons for this approach. First, the “outsider’s” inexperience forces you to become more precise in your language and more logical in your presentation of the problem. I can’t recall how many times I’ve discovered solutions while presenting problems to people with less experience.

The second reason for enlisting the inexperienced is that they ask the “dumb” questions that inevitably form the foundation of the solutions we seek. You know the questions I’m talking about, the ones that cause us to wonder “Why didn’t I think of that?

Working backward

Another approach that you can use is simply to go with your natural tendency. Begin with the complex solutions that your mind relishes, then work backward toward simpler solutions. To me, this approach is less effective than going after low-hanging fruit or bringing in outside help. Why?

First, you have to consider an array of complex solutions. Second, you need experience with a tool like process mapping to break each complex solution into smaller, more manageable components. Third, you are often so close to the situation that you tend to overlook steps in the process even when you are using process mapping. Finally, if you indulge your mind by allowing it to seek complex solutions, it’s likely to resist later attempts at simplification.

Seek simplicity

Seeking simplicity is counter-intuitive. It flies in the face of our human nature which desires recognition for our brilliance in dealing with complex issues.

Our education allows us to deal with complex issues. By retraining our minds to look for simple solutions, we gain the best of both worlds – the ability to deal with complexity and the recognition of others for crafting simple, easy-to-implement solutions.


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