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Problem Solving Using Word Analysis

This is a fun little problem solving technique based on analyzing the language used to describe or define a problem. It is another way to challenge your assumptions. Assumption-challenging usually yields the most unexpected solutions. Use this one, then, when you just aren't getting anywhere with more ordinary solutions. Here's how word analysis works.

The first thing you'll do is to state the problem in writing. You can do this in your mind if you are driving or for other reasons can't write, but it is easier if you have it on paper. In fact, you'll want to write the problem out several different ways, and longer statements of the problem are preferable. Let's look at a detailed example.

Solving a Problem

Suppose a scientist wants to find a way to stop the spread of West Nile Fever. Since it is spread by mosquitoes, he quickly surmises that the problem is how to reduce the population of mosquitoes. He writes down "how to better kill mosquitoes." This is too short, so he writes several longer descriptions of the problem:

We need to kill mosquitoes to stop the West Nile Fever.

I want to stop the spread of this disease so fewer people will be ill or die.

There are too many mosquitoes carrying the disease, and they need to be killed before they can transmit the disease to humans.

He might write down more descriptions of the problem, but we'll start with these. First, of all, it is worth writing several "problem statements" in any case, because it gives you subtly different ways to look at a problem. It also gives you the opportunity to challenge assumptions. "We need to kill mosquitoes," for example, might be challenged, and so lead to a solution that relies instead on making them unable to transmit the disease.

With this technique though, we look at the individual words and phrases, and:

1. Question the implicit assumptions.

2. Consider other words we could use, and what they suggest.

3. Ponder the word or phrase in general, looking for any connections.

4. Ask "why?"

Let's do this with the example, starting at the first word.

"We," implies that some group of scientists or society needs to solve this problem. Is this assumption true? Could there be some financial incentive for a company to solve the problem? A vaccination comes to mind. Do public officials or scientists need to solve the problem? When he asks this, our scientist recalls how an educational campaign informing individuals to get rid of anything in the yard with water in it (they breed in any bit of water) reduced mosquitoes in the area by more than 50%.

He replaces "kill mosquitoes" with "kill some mosquitoes." This implies killing the ones that have the disease. Maybe the virus could be modified to kill the mosquito before it has a chance to spread it?

He ponders the the word "spread." How is this really is this spreading? If it's going from mosquito-to-animals, and then from animals-to-mosquitoes and on to humans, perhaps it would be cheaper and safer to break the train of transmission by vaccinating animals rather than humans.

Other words for "spread of this disease," could be "spread of these mosquitoes," which implies a different view of the problem. If there were concentrated efforts in select areas to reduce the mosquitoes, would this keep the infected ones from bringing the virus to new areas? The idea of something like a fire-break comes to mind.

When he gets to "transmit," he thinks for a moment and realizes that if the mosquitoes were unable to transmit the disease it wouldn't matter how many there were. Could a version of the disease that humans aren't susceptible to be released into the wild, to eventually replace the existing disease? Could mosquitoes be genetically modified to avoid humans?

The basic idea is to chop up every statement of the problem into words and sentence fragments, and then see what they suggest. Look at the assumptions in a simple statement like "I need to make more money," and what possibilities are suggested when we attack each word.

Continued here: More Word Analysis

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