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Problem Solving: Baptism by Fire

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Stefan Mumaw discusses effective problem design, which teaches you to see the inherent stages existent in problems and provides context to solve them creatively.

Staging the Problem

Problem design is a broad topic to say the least. There is no universal process to properly design a problem; it is an act of individualization based on a goal. Your goal is to generate ideas in greater quantity and quality, so let me provide an analogy for problem design that will help you accomplish that goal: Dante’s Inferno will set the stage for a problem design process you can use to incite creative solutions, a process I call The Pickle.

The story of Dante’s Inferno starts in the late 13th century and takes place in Florence, Italy, which was a political mess at the time. Religious clerics and Roman rule were fighting for power. Like many wealthy Italians, poet Dante Alighieri took sides—and lost. During his exile and in his angst, he did what any person would have done in the same situation (tongue firmly placed in cheek): He penned a series of books that made an intellectual and artistic political allegory of hell. He called the writings The Comedy, not because they were funny, but because they had a tragic beginning and a happy ending. In the 16th century, the word Divine was added to the title to communicate the obvious religious implication of the work. The Divine Comedy became Dante’s masterpiece collection, illustrating his metaphorical journey through hell.

One book in particular details the underworld as a series of circles or stages, a tiered justice system for sinners. The more sinister the sinner (from Dante’s perspective), the deeper into the circles of hell the sinner was sent. Despite the horror he depicted within the circles, the story was actually one of hope as Dante traveled through these stages of hell to get to heaven. You may know the story as Dante’s Inferno.

Dante details multiple circles of hell, with each circle becoming increasingly severe as Dante matches the theoretical punishment with the perceived crime. You can imagine how deeply Dante had to go mentally and spiritually to detail such a place, dividing the Inferno into specific stages to tell the story of each one. Within this proverbial baptism by fire exists an analogy for problem design and creative growth.

Like the degree of specificity found in Dante’s circles, every problem you attempt to solve has stages of definition. As you dive deeper into Dante’s circles, the focus is more specific. He divided the concept of hell into stages with broad punishments occupying the outer circles and more specific punishments occupying the inner circles. Problem design can be thought of in the same way. You can divide a problem into stages and choose to solve the broad problem occupying the outer circles or the specific problem occupying the inner circles. These degrees provide a mechanism to discover the best opportunity for creative solutions. Although the initial problem you try to solve may be occupying the right stage, you may find that it is inherently flawed and you need to define and solve a problem occupying a different stage.

Recognizing Flawed Problems

If creativity is problem solving, then defining the problem is of the utmost importance to solving it creatively. Most problems with which you are confronted are posed to you, not by you. Someone or something gives you the problem, and you solve it—unless, of course, you want to apply a level of creativity to the solution and could benefit from redesigning the problem.

The following are all hyper-specific problems you could solve:

  • “I’d like bigger cabinets in the kitchen.”
  • “We need a brochure for our new product.”
  • “What kind of banner ads will get the most clicks?”

These problems have obvious if not singular solutions: install bigger cabinets, go with the tri-fold, and produce an animated ad, respectively. But are these solutions creative? Not terribly. The solutions are obvious because they are baked into the problem. However, the issue isn’t with the solutions; it’s with the problems. They are too acute to solve with much novelty despite the obvious relevance. To do that, you need to immerse yourself in the problem, define the various stages, and choose the stage that presents the most effective problem to solve. I call this process The Pickle.

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