The 3 Noes of Problem-Solving: No Limits

Which do you think is worse: having bias or having limits?


Bias is about what you think should be. Limits are about what you think cannot be. There are people who immediately think how a problem cannot be solved, such as no budget, no manpower, no capacity, and so on.


Given that logic, I would rather be saddled with bias because, at least, I would still try to solve a problem, although imperfectly. If I were obsessed with limits, I would probably shut down.


Therefore, the third “no” is: no limits.


The technique is to ask, “What needs to be done to solve this problem?” Notice the possibility language presupposes no limits. For example, if I have a machine problem, I don’t say, “What’s the use? Chances are the machine needs a new part and I don’t have the budget for it.” The correct thinking is, “I will pretend money is no object. Now, what needs to be done with the machine?” It may be or may not be to buy that new part.


Of course, there are limits in the real world. Money is one of them. But I always tell my technical people, “Don’t be afraid of issuing purchase requisitions because you think the item is expensive and higher management won’t approve it. Get the PR out if you think that leads to the solution. Let higher management worry about where they will get the money.” Then after they issue the PR, we work together on a business case to persuade that very higher management to release the money.


Time is another obvious limit. I once asked a problem-solving trainer, “When can you say that a problem is unsolvable? You’re doing your very best to solve a problem. But how would you know if the problem really has no solution at all, versus there is indeed a solution but you just have to persevere until you discover it?” The trainer said something like, “When there is a deadline and you just missed it.”


Hmmm. Actually, it depends whether the deadline can be negotiated or not. If it’s a government mandate – “file your taxes by April 30” or “observe the curfew of 8 pm to 5 am” – then I suppose there’s not much you can do about it. But if, say, I am to finish something by October 1 and I’m behind by September 28, I may ask for an extension.


My take is that a problem is unsolvable when it calls for violating the laws of chemistry and physics. For example, if I have a machine already running 24/7 and I want it to produce more, I can’t feed it with 100 tons of raw material and expect 150 tons of output. That’s creating something out of nothing. I have to find some other ways, such as increase machine speed or reduce rejection rates.


So there you have it. To be an excellent problem-solver, remember the Three Noes: no fear, no bias, no limits. Pretty soon, you’ll say, “No problem!”


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