Problem Solving: Deconstruction Methodologies

You look at your watch nervously and then the paper. You have read the question, scribbled in the rough sheet, but the answer does not match any of the options. You are revisiting, re-reading the question trying to think harder. Think!

Some scenarios push you to think slow and carefully, about a problem.

You are on a call with a perplexed friend who has been talking continuously for the past 15 minutes describing this extremely tricky situation she is facing in her office. Almost as she utters the word, your mind is ready with a solution. You try to wait till she finishes but you have a range of solutions ready already.

In other scenarios, you come up with a solution too quickly. It’s almost as if you did not even have to think.

Daniel Kahneman has described this wonderful phenomenon and its relevance in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

People who are used to solving problems regularly often have pre-created constructs where the problems fit perfectly. Such people, unless careful, spontaneously tend to come up with solutions before they understand and analyze problems.

Fast Solutions tend to be more accurate and reliable when the solver is experienced and has built problem/domain sense over the years. But the tradeoffs are lack of innovation and monotonous solutions.

I have especially been, in my early career, very prone to what my mentor used to call “Jumping too soon”. I had to keep a note that I was jumping too quickly, be conscious of the fact that by jumping too quickly I wasn’t considering all the facets and hence not coming up with the best possible solutions. The first step to solving problems well is to mentally separate the Problem space and Solution space and making sure one does not creep into the other.

Once you have mentally separated the two-out, it is crucial to reach from the multitude of problems that your user talks about to the chosen few. These chosen few could be:

1. A Selection of the problems that are most critical to be solved

2. Root causes of multiple problems

The following part of the article is meant to help you navigate the Problem space. The one answer you should be expecting as you reach the end of the article is — How to look at problems from different lenses.


The Article currently documents 4 different methodologies to help explore the Problem space. I intend this to be a living document which I hope to update as I add to my repertoire.

For this article, I will take just one problem and try to illustrate how different lenses show us a different picture and provide different key insights.

Every day, well almost every day, Shireen thought that she must go out and exercise. She had been cooped up in the lockdown for so long. Every day was a new day. She woke up, thought she should go to the Gym, but never did. Shireen has a problem!


Problem Framing/Reframing

A well-framed problem is key to solving it.

Frame a problem, then reframe it, and reframe it further. Do this till you run out of ideas. If your problem is big, break it down, and frame- reframe.

As your frame of Reference changes, so does your reality.

I am currently reading a book that I highly recommend — SuperThinking by Lauren McCann and Gabriel Weinberg. The book quotes a nice problem that had Disney World had been facing — Long Lines!

The most intuitive framing of the problem would be something like this:

  • How do I reduce the length of the line?

  • How can we get people to move faster?

  • How do we reduce the crowd at the popular rides?

But, there is a space constraint, and you still have to manage the crowd.

Disney reframed the problem to — How do we make people happy while they wait in line? Now that’s something one could solve innovatively.

So, coming back to our problem with Shireen.

How does Shireen maintain her promise to exercise every day? Feel more motivated to exercise? Enroll in an expensive Gym which she goes to avoid sunk cost?

Can Shireen get her daily quota of exercise through her existing routine? Shireen is a Software developer. She barely needs to get up from her chair to work.

What would Shireen need to change in her routine to get her daily quota of exercise? Do all the household chores herself? Buy a Treadmill for home and exercise as she watches TV?

How could Shireen get fitter? Eat healthily? Track calories? Avoid eating outside food? Take interest in healthy cooking?

If you noticed, framing and reframing of the problem statement helped us: - Draw boundaries of constraints (What is possible vs impossible for Shireen’s lifestyle) - Identify the statement which appears easier to solve than the others. - In broadening our thought process

Some questions, by the very way they are framed, provide a resistance to be answered. In those instances, the answers seem just No! It cant be solved.

Move the line faster, maintain her promise to exercise, just feel like dead-end questions.

The WHYs method

Being that annoying kid who continues to ask Why till he’s satisfied helps!

The WHYs (more commonly known as 5 WHYs) is one of the most powerful and versatile tools in your repertoire.

As you must already know, treating the symptoms rather than the root cause is temporary, but unfortunately common.

The WHYs method helps you reach that root cause. It helps you identify the critical problem that you need to solve.

Let’s illustrate with our example problem.

Why is it so difficult for Shireen to meet her exercise commitment? Shireen is very busy. Why is Shireen so busy? Doing office chores, and household chores during Work from home take a lot of time. Why does Office work and chores take so much time? Because Shireen does everything by herself Why does Shireen do all the work by herself? Because she lives by herself.

Here in 4 WHYs, we were able to establish that if Shireen gets a roommate, probably she would be able to share the workload. She, then, could get time to exercise.

The WHYs method is highly personalized and will help come up with different answers for the individual problem and individual situation.

Reasoning from the First Principles

Although First Principles has existed in Philosophy for a while, Elon Musk popularized the concept in the Tech world.

Reasoning from First Principles involves breaking down an item of interest — an object, a problem, into its most basic part that you know exists.

If you want to read more on First Principles, here are a few good Articles:

  • A Framework for First Principles Thinking

  • What is First Principle Thinking?

Let’s continue dissecting our problem using First Principles.

Breaking down a problem into its basic components often helps solve them more nimbly.

The act of exercising for Shireen meant that she had to: - Wake up in the morning early - Decide upon the Gym clothes - Get dressed up - Check if her headphone is charged - Pick up her wireless earphones - Wait for the lift — The alternative is climbing 20 stories down. - Walk to the Gym

Once we breakdown all the activities involved, they do not seem to be a big deal. But if you look at them together, which is what happens in our mind, it leads to inertia.

A person not motivated enough is likely to give up. Can we solve some of these problems independently?

Let’s consider- Waking up early.

Sleeping early is the most obvious solution that comes to mind. Hey, but if it were this easy

Shireen would not have been struggling.

Using the WHYs methodology, and reframing the problem to “Why do I need to wake up early” Shireen decides that she could probably go to the gym any time.

If there is the sun, she could take a cab. It could also fit in into her evening break.

Deciding upon and keeping her clothes ready was another way to eliminate two of the seemingly small problems.

Reasoning by analogy

There are a lot of problems in the world. Many have already been solved. Many are similar to yours.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, sometimes thinking of an analogous problem helps you solve it better.

A good way to do it is, find the variables in your problems which could have an analogous solution. Then think of scenarios for different values of these variables.

Let’s learn by applying this method to our problem.

How can we get Shireen to exercise regularly?

Extract the variables in the problem statement and find a suitable analogy:

  1. Shireen — Others

  2. Exercise — Other regular chores

The analogous questions you could be asking are:

  1. Why do others manage to exercise regularly?

  2. How does Shireen manage to perform other chores regularly?

Asking the Analogous questions sometimes gives great insights and help jog that brilliant brain of yours.


— — — — — —— - Key Takeaways — — — — — —

If you just skimmed through, let me reiterate some key takeaways.

  1. Before we begin to solutional any problem, analyzing it is essential. - Separate the Problem space and Solution space. - Use different methodologies to identify/deduce the key problems that need solving.

  2. This article focuses on only the Problem space.

3. The key methodologies identified in the article are: - Problem Framing/Reframing - The WHYs method - Reasoning from the First Principles - Reasoning by analogy For details of how each methodology can be used, with examples, please look up each of the topics.


If you have any more ideas on Problem Deconstruction, I would love to hear about it. Reach out to me on @aditipreeya or LinkedIn.

This article was originally published on Medium.

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