Problem Solving

Question: 

Would you agree that problem solvers are generally the people that make the world work?

Gary's Answer: 

This is a much more interesting question than most people realize. Any more, I only answer questions like this when the answers others provide seem to miss the point entirely.

  • This question forces us to confront what we mean by “problems.”
  • It also helps us clarify what we mean by “work.”
  • However, it challenges us to think more deeply how and why the modern world actually does work in terms of providing people with the means to survive.

The modern world is an extremely complex system. The system is distributed and so complex that no central authority can describe how it works in any meaningful way. To keep the system working, literally billions of people must make decisions about how to handle specific situations that were impossible to foresee.

“Work” was traditionally defined as physical labor. Historically, man power and animal power provided all the energy needed to get work done. However, over the last few hundred years, the use of physical energy has been gradually replaced with more and more mental energy in producing results. Work is increasingly defined as “decision-making” dealing with local problems. More about this evolution of work in this article.

So, what are “problems” and what is “problem solving?”

Over time, routine tasks that should handled according to well-defined protocols are being increasingly automated. If the proper methods for performing a task has been defined, it is only a matter of time until that task in performed by a machines. These task are essentially “mindless” because they require not decision making. People are used to perform them only because we have no yet developed machine’s with the proper ability to recognize these situations and to manipulate the objects or information to address them. However, over time as the abilities of machine improve, it will become be less expensive to automate these tasks rather than use people to perform them.

However, machine’s cannot ever “problem solve” in the sense of recognizing a unique or an extremely uncommon configuration of conditions and choosing the best possible course of action given a hierarchy of goals and a set of available resources. Giving the fact that billions of people are interacting all the time, these uncommon and unique situations occur billions of times every day.

Once extremely important class of such challenges are innovations. An innovation reduces the time, resources, or effort needed to produce a given result.

Machines can perform task according to a pre-defined routine, but, by definition, they cannot improve those routines. This form of problem solving is essentially creative. It requires imagining something that could exist but which doesn’t currently exist.

So, if we defined “making the world work” as increasing the prosperity of everyone by making work more efficient, problem solvers are necessary now and will always be necessary.