Solving Big Problems by Solving Little Problems

Dollar Bill Cut into PiecesBig problems are nothing more than a collection of little problems. The faster you can break those big problems down into solvable component problems, the faster you can generate ideas that will resolve your biggest issues.

One of the first steps in any good critical thinking process is taking a big problem and breaking it down into smaller ones that you can actually solve. The time you invest thinking through what the components of the problem are is going to pay dividends on the back end when you look at the possible solutions. You’ll have a better sense for what recommendations and solutions to pursue, and how those solutions help you solve the bigger problem.

Let me illustrate. Let’s imagine we have a problem where our profits are down. That’s a huge issue to solve. We can’t solve that in and of itself. We have to look at smaller components of it. If we have a profit problem, we have two components: either our revenues are down, or our costs are up, or some combination of the two. But those are still very big problems to try to solve.

Let’s break down revenues, and what could be causing our revenue shortfall. Revenue issues are caused by either volumes being down or realized prices being down. On volumes, that’s still a big issue. We may have a smaller issue of current customers are buying less, or we’re selling less to prospective customers.

Now on the cost side, the reason that costs could be up are either prices are up, or we’re buying more stuff. If prices are up in terms of the stuff we’re buying, that could be a function of base prices are up, or we’re getting less of a discount.

Let’s look at the issues we can now try to solve for. We can work on:

– increasing the volume we sell to existing customers

– increasing the volume we sell to new customers

– increasing our realized pricing

– pay lower prices on inputs we’re buying or

– buy fewer inputs

When you look at that list of opportunities, I’ll bet you already have some ideas brewing. These smaller problems are much easier to solve. If we solve all these problems, they’ll add up to higher revenues and lower costs. Those two dynamics then lead to higher profits. Simple! Big problem solved by breaking it down and solving the smaller ones.

When you take these big problems and spend time breaking them into smaller and smaller ones, those smaller problems are much easier to solve. There’s this whole notion of the path of a thousand miles begins with one step. This applies to your problem solving as well. Have a bias to action. Spend the critical thinking time breaking the big problem down into smaller and smaller ones. This enables you to take those first smaller steps at solving the big problem.

What I’d encourage you to do is take a big problem you’re currently facing. Go find a whiteboard somewhere, and ask yourself, what’s that big problem composed of? What are the smaller issues that are driving the big problem? Once you have those smaller issues, break them down again, and continue breaking those big problems down into smaller and smaller ones until you say, “Oh, I know how I might solve that component of it.” When you can start seeing the solutions emerge, you’re moving from the problem identification stage to a problem solving stage. The time you invest in dimensionalizing this problem solving space is going to help you solve problems more quickly and more effectively.

Want to learn more about critical thinking and problem solving?  How about taking an entire course on it?  You can take the video-based course at in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Go directly to the course now and start learning how to break down and solve your biggest problems.  Here’s a quick intro to that course:

If you want to hear me speak live about how to solve your biggest business problems, join me at Executive Insight 16. It’s a two day conference in New York where you’ll attend sessions on problem solving, leadership, communications, and a bunch of other critical skills. All the sessions are led by real-world executives. CLICK HERE to learn more about the event. Register before September 8th and save $300.

Executive Insight 16

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

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Photo: Torn & Cut One Dollar Note Floating Away in Small $ Pieces by photosteve101

One Response to “Solving Big Problems by Solving Little Problems”

  1. Duane Penzien says:

    You might also add that Disasters are always caused by several small problems that combine to create a BIG problem.

    I’ve used critical thinking skills as a part of what I do for years – but even I sometimes struggle when the thinking is needed on a subject I’m not familiar with. It seems to me that these skills grow as you work with them.

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