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Problem Solving Technique: Challenging Assumptions

My favorite problem solving technique is one that points out the solutions that are normally missed. It is the technique of simply challenging one's assumptions. We are often trapped into a certain approach by the assumptions we are making, and when we challenge these "hidden" assumptions, we find that there are many creative solutions that we often would miss.

An Example

Have you ever been in Los Angeles freeway traffic? We were once in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to get to the airport at 10:30 at night. I didn't know that there were traffic jams until late in the evening. In any case, if you have had a similar experience, you can relate to the following problem, which will show us how challenging assumptions leads to more creative solutions.

Mike had an audition for a movie role at eight the next morning. But it was in Hollywood, and he lived on the other side of Los Angeles. He was notified of the audition late, and now it was one in the morning. This was a problem, because it could take as much as four hours to get through the morning traffic, and he needed time to shower and get ready. He would have to get up by a little after three that morning.

He thought about this. Just two hours of sleep, followed by hours on the freeway - this might affect his performance. This would be his first important role if he was hired, so his mind started scrambling for solutions. Taking the bus might be faster than driving his van, but he didn't know the bus schedules, and it was too late to find out. He looked at a map of the city, hoping for a better route, and he might have found one, but it seemed dangerous to guess about routes he wasn't familiar with at this point.

He suddenly recalled a problem solving technique his friend Steve had told him about, and decided to try it. He did the assumption-challenging exercise, starting with a pen and piece of paper and writing: "I have to drive there," and "I have to take freeways." Challenging each of these, he had a few ideas, but nothing that seemed to help enough.

He wrote down the assumption, "I have to leave early in the morning," and "I have to deal with heavy freeway traffic." Reconsidering these two assumptions, an idea came to mind. Perhaps he didn't have to deal with heavy traffic. He could leave now, instead of early in the morning.

Mike quickly prepared himself and drove to the audition site, arriving at 2:30 a.m., because traffic was always light in the middle of the night. In a dark corner of the parking lot he parked his van and crawled into the back. He set his watch-alarm for 7:40 a.m., and got five hours of sleep instead of two. He freshened up in the bathroom just before the audition was to start.

The Essence of This Technique

As you can see in the story, the point is to identify all the assumptions that are already being made, and ask if they are true, or have to be true in all cases. Using a written list helps, because otherwise you'll tend to forget some of the assumptions. Just list them and challenge them, and look for alternative approaches.

For example, you might start by writing down a problem like "How to generate more income with our business." One obvious assumption is in the description of the problem itself: is more income so important, or is more profits a better goal? Some companies have millions in income with no profits, after all.

Once you challenge the idea, ask the obvious questions, like, "How would we increase profits if we don't increase income?" That could lead to many ideas on ways to reduce expenses, or pay less in taxes, since both of these would mean more profit. What about the assumption that the business needs more income or profits? Challenge this and could realize that you actually just want more for yourself personally. That might suggest the idea of borrowing money to buy out a partner, resulting in more of the existing profits going to yourself.

Problem solving like this is so powerful and creative because it gets you "out of the box," meaning out of the usual way of looking at problems. You get a look beyond the normal solutions when you challenge assumptions. Often you'll even identify a deeper or more fundamental problem, like when a man who thinks he needs a better apartment to rent challenges this assumption and ends up buying a new house. You can see how this can be a powerful technique for real-life problems.

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