Life: Problem Solving

Of course, I’m the analytical type, so with regard to the following: YMMV.

But not by very much.

In my final year of college, I was about eight years older than most of my fellow students. And it showed.

In one class, we were to set up a fictional corporate communications strategic plan for a selected company. This would include budgeting for everything—equipment, staffing, salaries, the lot.

My colleagues were so ignorant they had no idea what to pay the clerk/ secretary they would need to hire. They didn’t even know where to look. So they ballparked a very, very nice salary out of thin air.

I knew they could stop in the library, open the US Labor Department’s “Occupational Outlook Handbook” and find out everything there was to know about clerks and secretaries—including their salaries. (Yes, Virginia, even in those days.) And these people were going to be journalists—in other words, professional researchers. The mind reels.

But I digress.

I was in another class called “Industrial Marketing” that was excellent. There again, I had more experience than the other students who knew relatively little about the world and even less about the world of business.

But that was no excuse.

This course took the “case study” approach: For each class, we were given an assignment from the textbook. Each book chapter was a business problem. Each problem (or case) had been written by some grad student or assistant or other fledgling as part of their course of study.

Well, once again, when Dr. Brody took up the analyses we had handed in and read them in class, it quickly became apparent that many of the students had missed the boat. In a few cases they lucked out on experience (“My dad owns a Porsche dealership, so I know from learning about his business….) but many of the rest couldn’t buy a clue. Yet it always turned out there was a single best “right” course of action that would save the company from going belly-up.

Naturally, It was easy for me to get it right. But that wasn’t the smart part. The smart part was always contained in the case we were handed to analyze. Without that, none of us could have been half as smart.

Because those case-writers had done the hard work of reading, defining, categorizing, arranging, sorting, discarding, and presenting the current situation: Where things stood, how the company got there, what assets it had to work with, etc., etc., etc. This could include everything from changes in management or corporate strategy to competitive pressure from other companies in the field.

As the old saying goes: The kernel of the solution was always contained in the problem. “Aha! The switch from importing fine grade gypsum to extra-fine grade affected quantities delivered per load and quality control. The best course now would be to make an offer on the competitor’s domestic plant—since they are moving away from the industry and we have a good track record with acquisitions.” On and on, something like that.

How does this work in real life? (Or: Why Doesn’t This Work In Real Life?!)

Because we seldom have that comprehensive, dispassionate, detailed picture drawn up so well by that geeky Harvard kid for us.

In Other Words: We don’t have a good idea of the problem.

Meanwhile, all our friends know exactly what we should do. The big problem with their solutions is that they have The View From 20,000 feet. It’s that, or else they’re sitting right next to us looking through the same microscope as we are. Either way, not so good help.

So I learned that writing isn’t just for writers. And it isn’t simply, magically, cathartic. I learned that properly describing and defining the problem is the single most important part of finding the best solution.

That is something that’s seldom taught in school.

Thank you, Dr. Brody.

And thank you, nameless case-study writers everywhere.

== PT

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