Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is by Donald Gause and Gerald Weinberg cover

Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is by Donald Gause and Gerald Weinberg

Date read: 2015-11-17.
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A problem is a difference between things as desired and things as perceived. It's not enough to solve it logically. We have to put it into a social context. Don't solve problems for people who don't want them solved, don't know they have a problem, they can easily solve them themselves or don't have a sense of humour.


Consider the question, “Whose problem is it?”. It attempts to:

  1. determine who is the client—that is, who must be made happy
  2. establish some clues that may lead to appropriate solutions

What Is The Problem?

The fledgling problem solver invariably rushes in with solutions before taking time to define the problem being solved.

For the would-be problem solver, whose problem is to solve the problems of others, the best way to begin is mentally to shift gears from singular to plural —from Problem Solver to Problems Solver, or, if you find that hard to pronounce, to Solver of Problems. To practice this mental shift, the Solver should, early in the game, try to answer the question: “who has a problem?” and then, for each unique answering party, to ask “what is the essence of your problem?

What would you do if you were in the moccasins of the other person?

A problem is a difference between things as desired and things as perceived.

Phantom problem - a discomfort primarily attributable to perceptions. But don’t be misled: phantom problems are real problems.

Don’t bother trying to solve problems for people who don’t have a sense of humor.

If you solve their problem too readily, they’ll never believe you’ve solved their real problem.

Moral issues tend to melt in the heat of a juicy problem to solve.

Don’t mistake a solution method for a problem definition—especially if it’s your own solution method.

You can never be sure you have a correct definition, even after the problem is solved.

Don’t leap to conclusions, but don’t ignore your first impression.

Where others had gone wrong was in thinking that if the question was important, then the answer had to be important, too. That’s not it at all. The really important thing in dealing with problems is to know that the question is never answered, but that it doesn’t matter, as long as you keep asking. It’s only when you fool yourself into thinking you have the final problem definition—the final, true answer—that you can be fooled into thinking you have the final solution. And if you think that, you’re always wrong, because there is no such thing as a ‘final solution.’”

Each solution is the source of the next problem.

  • We never get rid of problems. Problems, solutions, and new problems weave an endless chain. The best we can hope for is that the problems we substitute are less troublesome than the ones we “solve.”
  • Problem displacement - sometimes, we make the problems less troublesome by putting them in someone else’s back yard (consciously or unconsciously).
    • But new problems—more often than not—are created unconsciously. This lack of consciousness is pervasive. We frequently observe that the trickiest part of certain problems is just recognizing their existence.

One of the most important rules for the would-be problem solver is this:

If you can’t think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don’t understand the problem.

Designers seldom if ever experience the consequences of their actions. In consequence, designers continually produce misfits. A misfit is a solution that produces a mismatch with the human beings who have to live with the solution.

  • Most misfits are easy to solve , once they are recognized . Some require action by “the proper authorities,” but most can be successfully dispatched by those who have to live with them. Human beings are so adaptable, they’ll put up with almost any sort of misfit—until it comes to their consciousness that it doesn’t have to be that way. Then comes trouble.
  • How to proceed when trying to perceive misfits: test your definition on a foreigner, someone blind, or a child, or make yourself foreign, blind, or childlike. Take some object that you handle every day—a shoe, a shirt, a fork, a car door, a toothbrush, or any one of a thousand others. Set yourself the exercise of “seeing” it from the point of view of someone from another country who has never seen one before.
  • Each new point of view will produce a new misfit.

How could we change the problem statement to make the solution different?

  • As you wander along the weary path of problem definition, check back home once in a while to see if you haven’t lost your way.
  • Time and again we’ve seen well- intentioned problem resolvers trip over words like “nothing,” “may,” “all,” and “or” in what seemed a perfectly clear written statement of a problem.
  • Once you have a problem statement in words, play with the words until the statement is in everyone’s head.
  • Or try the dictionary approach. For each word in the sentence, make a list of the dictionary’s meanings, then try to apply each of those meanings to the original sentence. Most often, in the dictionary game, it’s the little words that make the difference.

Don’t solve other people’s problems when they can solve them perfectly well themselves.

  • If it’s their problem, make it their problem.
  • If a person is in a position to do something about a problem, but doesn’t have the problem, then do something so he does.

“MY problem” is not at all the opposite of “OUR problem.” Like that approach, it reminds us of possibilities we might otherwise overlook in our haste to establish blame in some other quarter.

But if we can swallow our pride for just an instant and view the problem as though it were ours alone, we might actually get something done about “pollution.”

Try blaming yourself for a change—even for a moment.

If people really have their lights on, a little reminder may be more effective than your complicated solution.

Problems that come from “Nature” are the worst kind, for two reasons. First, we feel helpless to do anything about a problem that seems to come from so remote a source. Indeed, we often ascribe a problem to Nature so as to evade responsibility for doing anything about it. “It’s only human nature to overeat, to crave what you can’t have, and to pad your expense account.” The second reason is Nature’s indifference. Whenever we can impute a problem to a human source, or to a real object or action, we have a toehold on a possible solution. By getting at the source, or understanding the source’s motivation for creating the problem, we may obliterate the problem or see what will alleviate it. But Nature, by her very nature, has no motivation.

She’d removed the problem from the realm of the “natural” and placed it in the realm of constructive thought, and possible decisive action.

Where does the discourtesy come from?

  • The source of the problem is most often within you.
  • Whenever we find a vast circulation of bureaucratic activity, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, we may be facing a problem that comes from nowhere. Or, more precisely, that comes from the problem itself.
  • We merely wish to indicate the bare possibility of the problem-solving process , person , or institution becoming the problem itself.
  • If you’re part of today’s solution, then you’re part of tomorrow’s problem.
  • In the valley of the problem solvers, the problem creator is king.
  • There’s two kinds of people in the world, those that do work and those that make work for others to do.

The source of a problem often contains some key element in its resolution.

  • “Who sent this problem? What’s he trying to do to me?”
  • Much of what has traditionally been called “problem-solving” is, in reality, puzzle solving. A puzzle is difficult by design —but that difficulty implies a designer. But we know that the designer wouldn’t have selected this puzzle for presentation if it didn’t have some unusual difficulty.
  • To one immersed in a puzzle-solving frame of mind, the obvious solution is a blow on the head.

Each of us, and many of you, have had our fun spoiled by some eager young problem solver disturbing our peaceful equilibrium.

At first, these hatchlings will decide that people are no darned good at communicating—and, at times, this pessimistic assessment will be correct. But more often than not, communication won’t be the source of the difficulty. We can’t communicate what we don’t know—or don’t want to know.

In spite of appearances, people seldom know what they want until you give them what they ask for.

People value computers not for what they do, but for the amount of time they take doing it. Any problem that takes but a few minutes can’t be very important.

Not too many people. In the final analysis, really want their problems solved.

  • every would-be problem resolver should ask before seriously embarking on any problem: “do I really want a solution?”
  • We are trapped, quite often, because we’ve worked on a problem so long and so hard that we never really thought we’d solve it—so why worry about whether we want it or not? Conversely, the problem comes upon us too fast for us to consider much of anything about the problem, let alone whether we want the solution.

We never have enough time to do it right, but we always have enough time to do it over. But because we don’t always have the opportunity to do it over, we must do better. Put another way, we never have enough time to consider whether we want it, but we always have enough time to regret it.

Yet we tend to regard “side effects” as the result of particular solutions. “They might not arise at all, and if they do, we can always refine the solution to eliminate them.” How often does this naive attitude lead us into disaster?

When we contemplate problems, items to which we are habituated tend to be omitted from consideration. Only when the “solution” causes the removal of the habituated element do we become startled.

“The fish is always the last to see the water.”

  • Like the filmmaker, the problem resolver is an artist dealing with imaginary worlds. Very early on—really from the very beginning—the problem resolver must strive to see the “water” in which the other participants unconsciously swim—the water which will be transmuted to sand when the “problem” is “solved”.
  • By becoming immersed in the problem, you, the resolver, risk yet another oversight. Fascinated with the problem-solving aspects, you may neglect to consider whether you would morally approve of a solution. One person’s sin is another’s virtue.
  • To be true to yourself, in this problem-resolving business, you must consider moral questions before you get close to a solution, or even a definition, and thereby begin to lose your sensibility. Such consideration will never waste your time, for problem-resolving can never be a morally neutral activity—no matter how much it fascinates its practitioners.

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