Big 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.
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