Our ability to solve problems partly depends on our attitudes and partly on whether we break problem solving down into steps and tackle those steps in a reasonable order.  The following is a series of steps one might take.

  1. Identify the problem.
    1. Problems often can be broken into subproblems. What are the subproblems?
  2. Identify possible approaches to solving the problem?
    1. Try and recall approaches one has used for the same or similar problems in the past.
    2. Research approaches that others have taken to solve the same problem or similar problems.
    3. Try and come up with one's own original approaches.
  3. Evaluate the approaches. 
    1. Write out the steps involved for each approach.  What could go wrong at each step?
    2. What are their advantages and disadvantages of each approach?
  4. Seek expert advice regarding the problem. (Be careful, many people love to give advice and act like they know what they are talking about when they don't.)

 Sometimes running through on paper everything that is supposed to happen can help solve a problem.  For example if one's problem was that a mechanical contraption didn't work, running through in one's mind that pushing lever A should cause gear B to turn which should pull on tread C may lead one to discover that tread C has fallen off gear B.  We can call this written simulation. Lets say something worked yesterday but didn't work today.   There has to be a difference between the conditions yesterday and today.  We might not realize what that difference is but if we write down exactly what we did yesterday and exactly what we did today and compare them we might find out.    Written  simulations are good for planning projects as well.  If one writes down everything that should happen when one implements each step of one's plan one may discover unanticipated problems before wasting a lot of time.

   The first step in in the list of steps for solving problems (Identifying it) may seem like an obvious one yet often it is not done or it is done too late.  A tragic example of the consequences of not identifying the problem (or addressing it) was the enormous loss of life of U.S. troops in Vietnam.  Eventually the United States did address and identified one of the important problems which was not being able to find the enemy and started using Agent Orange to defoliate the forests but not until many lives were lost.   Unfortunately there was another problem with Agent Orange which was that it was contaminated with dioxin and caused many health problems.

   Inspite of overwhelming technical superiority the United States was defeated by the Vietcong.  Moshe Dayan, one of the great Israeli generals went to Vietnam as part of an effort to keep up to date with the technology of modern warfare.  He described the imbalance of firepower as follows:

What the Americans had at their disposal was a commander's dream: helicopters to rush his men to any location; well-trained troops with aggressive spirit and ready for action; air and artillery support; equipment, ammunition, and fuel in virtually unlimited supply...The heaviest weapon in a Vietcong unit, a medium mortar, could be carried on a man's back.

   Dayan described how the American's did not know where the Vietcong were.   They knew the general area and would land nearby and then march around looking for them.  Dayan describes one such engagement.

The southern company had landed, as we had, without interference.  The company commander had then decided to advance to a hill on the other side of a stream.  The unit had moved off in single file across the narrow path leading to the stream, one platoon after the other. Even though the scouts had proceeded with great caution, stopping every so often to listen, they had failed to detect the presence of theVietcong until they found themselves under fire.  The Vietcong battalion positions were dug in a little way from the path and were covered by branches supporting the dug-up earth with its grass.   Only narrow firing slits were left open, and these, too, were skillfully camouflaged.

   The Vietcong commander let the first American section go through and then opened up with all the unit's machine guns and rifles on the platoons along the path.   Within minutes, the company was put out of action, sustaining more than 70 casualties-25 killed and about 50 wounded. 

Dayan explained to an American General Norton what the problem was.

the Air Cavalry was the perfect, though expensive, answer of the problem of mobility in the jungle.  There was no place they could not reach.  But there was one thing they seemed unable to do--land their units quietly, secretly, without detection.   The helicopters announced themselves every inch of the way and advertised every landing in the jungle.  The Vietcong, on the other hand, might take three months to walk from the north, but neither en route nor before their engagements did they give themselves away.

   Here the American attitude got in the way.  Instead of thinking about what General Dayan said and trying to come up with an approach to this problem General Norton said to Dayan "Don't worry, mon general, we'll get 'em!".  History proved Norton wrong and Vietnam fell to the Vietcong.  If the American's had identified and addressed their main problem earlier they might have won the war and many lives might have been spared.

c o p y r i g h t   ( c )   1 9 9 9 -2004 Karl Ericson Enterprises.  All rights reserved

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