Surprising Solutions to BIG Problems

Albert Einstein’s perspective on problem solving is often quoted: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Many managers immediately presume that thinking has to be elevated and expanded in order to solve the problem. However, sometimes the solutions are found by simplifying our thinking… exactly the opposite of what you’d expect.


Along the same line of thought, the biggest problems may often by conquered by surprisingly small solutions. In their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath share the story of Jerry Sternin, who, when working for Save the Children, was tasked to fight malnutrition in Vietnam. The foreign minister, unappreciative of his presence and effort, gave him six months.


The elevated thinking previously applied uncovered intertwined problems causing malnutrition: poor sanitation, extensive poverty, limited clean water, nutritional ignorance. Huge problems that seemed to require equally huge solutions. Problems that seemed insurmountable and unsolvable.


Instead, Sternin visited rural villages and sought out very poor kids who were bigger and healthier than typical children. Then he learned what those mothers were doing differently. They fed their children four times daily (instead of twice) although the quantity of food was the same. They hand fed their children to ensure they ate. They added shrimp and crabs to the kids’ rice (typically only considered appropriate diet for adults), and finally they added sweet potato greens to the diet, despite their reputation as a low-class food.


There was an obvious asymmetry between the problem (overwhelming malnutrition) and what turned out to be the solution (four small changes to eating habits and diet). Big problems are rarely solved with equally big solutions, as was the case for Sternin. He applied a sequence of small solutions instead. Solving poverty, sanitation, lack of water and ignorance would have been impossible; however, he didn’t solve those things. He solved the malnutrition problem.


When you have a sixty-inch diameter hole, the typical response is to look for a sixty-inch plug. That plug is probably either impossible to find or impossible to install. Your real directive is to stop the leak, not to find a sixty-inch plug. Many managers get too focused on finding the plug, exhausting resources and applying brain power to its installation, all the while overlooking the real problem. The real problem is the leak, not the hole. The problem to be solved in Vietnam was malnutrition, not poverty, sanitation, water and ignorance.


It’s easy to get wrapped up in some causation factors that make it impossible to implement a solution that matches the problem. Like Sternin in Vietnam, when you are faced with a huge problem, look for the bright spots and figure out what’s working. When you know what’s working, you are taking the necessary step to figuring out the small sequences that lead to a simpler solution, but a solution nonetheless.


It’s a bit like the space race of the ‘60s: Americans developed the famous astronaut pen – the pen that would write upside down in zero gravity. The Russians simply used pencils. The solution is often much simpler than you think.
Contact MPower, and we’ll work with you to uncover the simple solution that may be eluding you.