An Infinite Number of Solutions…

…may seem like a good thing. After all, the more solutions we have to any particular problem, the more likely we are to solve it right? In actual practice when we are properly constrained we are more likely to spend our time and resources more effectively in solving problems. An infinite number of solutions includes the bad ones, the ones that take spend our resources too freely, the ones that don’t consider risks and unintended consequences, and the ones that address symptoms but do not address the root causes.

As this quote placed mysteriously on the inside of a plastic bottle of green tea reminds us:

“An undefined problem has an infinite number of solutions.”

– Robert A. Humphrey

The discipline of deliberate and practical problem solving requires that we first clarify the problem, break the problem down into any smaller and discrete sub-problems, set agreed targets and conduct root causes analysis before we generate countermeasures. This is all done in the Plan phase of the PDCA cycle. We must follow the lean virtue to plan slowly and thoroughly, and only then act with decisive speed. The classic brainstorm can be the opposite of this, generating many good ideas through intuition and induction, but possibly many other ideas based on misunderstanding, prejudice or the ill effects of something you had for breakfast.

While it is recommended that we explore many countermeasures simultaneously, for any root cause there can only be one countermeasure that is simplest and most effective. The more time we spend in defining a problem, the less time we spend in testing unworthy ideas. This requires faith and patience. Understanding why we don’t to do this is an enduring topic of fascination for me.

4 Comments

  1. Kathleen

    April 30, 2010 - 6:54 pm

    Again, nothing to add. I’m still here, reading.
    This is another of your inspired entries. Thanks.

  2. Pete Schneider

    May 1, 2010 - 5:16 pm

    I’ve seen this in action many times. I’m a product owner for a team that uses Scrum. I present the team with a user story. They respond “Pete, this is way too vague, we can’t estimate how much work it is.” So we talk about different ways of breaking the problem up into smaller chunks. Eventually we have several smaller, more constrainted user stories that we can estimate.
    The possibilites are no longer infinite, but now we see ways to solve the problem.

  3. Jon

    May 2, 2010 - 8:01 pm

    Hi Kathleen. *waves* You’re too kind.

  4. sharma

    May 11, 2010 - 1:51 am

    Dear Jon,
    I agree with the phrase that “better defined problems are easier to solve”. Nice Post.
    Thanks!