Solving Problems by Separating the ‘What’ from the ‘How’
As engineers, we live and thrive by solving problems, because that’s what engineers do. As simple as it may seem, it’s useful to think about three distinct phases of identifying and solving a problem. First there’s the ‘why.’ Then there’s the ‘what.’ Finally, the ‘how.’
The ‘why’ is the justification for whether you should progress to the ‘what.’ ‘Why’ tries to answer whether it is worthwhile to solve this problem. Is the gain worthy of the effort to solve the problem?
Next is the ‘what.’ Often the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are combined together in the discussion with statements such as “We could solve it by using x, but that’s expensive.” It’s counter-productive to include ‘how’ language at this point. Why try to solve two poorly defined problems at the same time when you don’t have to?
What I’ve found over the years is that it’s much easier to solve a problem if the ‘what’ can be separated from the ‘how.’ By this I mean, figure out what the solution should be and then (and only then!) figure out separately how to deliver the solution. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in trying to both work out the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ at the same time, making the situation more complicated than it needs to be.
To help with this, I’ll often say, “If you could wave your magic wand, what would you do?” as this removes the ‘how’ from the equation initially to help with focusing on the ‘what.’ It’s amazing how discarding the ‘how’ at this point can clarify and focus the thinking.
I think the ‘how’ is the easy part once you have a well-defined ‘what.’ So once you justify the ‘why,’ focus on getting the ‘what’ right, and then the ‘how’ will be much easier.
I’m sure your next problem will be easier to solve by separating the ‘what’ from the ‘how.’ Since the ‘how’ is really a function of ‘what’ and if you do it right, you’ve exceeded the ‘why,’ I defined the inequality of How(What) ≥ Why to help make it easy to remember.
(Just in case that’s not enough to help remember the formula, the three words are also in alphabetical order!)
Give it a try next time you have a problem to solve.