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Problems and the Petri dish

GoldfishWhy do we persistently transform simple issues into complex problems? Most of us agree that the world becomes more complicated as we move through the terrible teens into adulthood, but just ask anyone over 70 how complicated the world really is. To our elders, the world is not as complicated as we experience it for their perspective – as is that of a child – is different: it is detached.

Complication arises from our inability to fully concentrate on a given subject. No external distractions are necessary; we are fully capable of generating them as we go along. The greatest enemy of focused thought and clarity are choices and this is why:

  • We may know what we want, but acquiring it may mean we cannot get something else later. Once we commit, other options close. Options trading literally means we can commit without really committing; it just costs us a premium.
  • We are taught that few options are unfavorable, so we automatically resist committing. We fear that we may make the wrong choice and therefore postpone making one. This is why deadlines were invented; without them, we would get nowhere.
  • Once we limit our options and commit, we begin to dread that we may have made the wrong choice and do everything in our power to find escape routes in case everything comes tumbling down. Hedging is exactly that; if you lose on the left hand, you (supposedly) gain on the right which usually results in no gains at all over time.

To put this in perspective, who has not experienced the dread of a multiple choice exam? These infernal inventions force us to commit against a tight deadline and there are no hedging of bets or alternative options available; once that choice is made it is fixed! Fortunately, the standard use of pencils in these tests allows us to change our answers before turning them in, else most of us would probably run out of time resulting in a considerable failure rate.

Fewer choices accelerates our decision-making process. Ford built his entire empire on that concept: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” On May 26, 1927, he watched the 15 millionth Model T Ford roll off the assembly line. More colors would have slowed down the sales process as potential customers would have been bogged down with choices. Ford was obviously aware that people wanted choices of color but decided against meeting that demand. Another fine example of limiting consumer choices is Gillette, which maintained a limited range of models of the safety razor until 1934. During World War I, the U.S. government ordered 3.5 million razors and 36 million blades to supply all its troops. Pretty good results for limiting consumer choices.

When we face a problem, we immediately over-complicate it by dragging choices and contingency plans to the table. That is not the way to solve a problem; it only makes the problem more difficult to see. When dealing with a problem, forget all contingencies and concentrate on the problem itself. Before long, the problem will shrink so that it fits nicely on a Petri dish. Everything not directly related to the problem is outside that dish and is to be ignored; smart as we may think we are, our brains simply cannot work with more data than is present on that small plate.

Once we have the problem confined, we can begin to examine why it is a problem. What makes it a problem and what variable has to be removed or changed in order for the problem to become an opportunity? Once we manage to identify that, we find ourselves staring the solution in the face and it is usually much simpler than we ever dared hope for. Usually, it is just a matter of rearranging the problem parts but we cannot do that if our heads are busy finding options and alternatives in case we are wrong. Contingency planning comes later; first we must pin down the problem itself and the component(s) that makes it a problem.

We humans keep complaining that the world is a complicated place. If that was true, how can an amoeba with no brain survive? And goldfish, who can only remember things for 3 seconds and operates on basic primal instincts? There are more amoebas and goldfish in the world that humans, so how complicated can it be?


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