How to Solve a Problem as Would Einstein
Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would
spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.
This quote does illustrate an important point: before jumping right into solving a problem,
we should step back and invest time and effort to improve our understanding of it. Here
are strategies you can use to see problems from many different perspectives and master
what is the most important step in problem solving: clearly defining the problem in the
1. Rephrase the Problem. When a Toyota executive asked employees to brainstorm
"ways to increase their productivity", all he got back were blank stares. When he rephrased
his request as "ways to make their jobs easier", he could barely keep up with the amount of
suggestions. Words carry strong implicit meaning and, as such, play a major role in how we
perceive a problem.
In the example above, "be productive" might seem like a sacrifice you’re doing for the
company, while "make your job easier" may be more like something you’re doing for your own
benefit, but from which the company also benefits. In the end, the problem is still the same,
but the feelings — and the points of view — associated with each of them are vastly different.
• Play freely with the problem statement, rewording it several times.
For a methodical approach, take single words and substitute variations.
• "Increase sales"? Try replacing "increase" with "attract",
"develop", "extend", "repeat" and see how your perception of the problem changes. A rich
vocabulary plays an important role here, so you may want to use a thesaurus or develop
2. Expose and Challenge Assumptions. Every problem - no matter how apparently
simple it may be - comes with a long list of assumptions attached. Many of these assumptions
may be inaccurate and could make your problem statement inadequate or even misguided.
• The first step to get rid of bad assumptions is to make them
explicit. Write a list and expose as many assumptions as you can - especially those that
may seem the most obvious and "untouchable". That, in itself, brings more clarity to the
problem at hand. Essentially, you need to learn how to think like a philosopher.