Engineers need to make problems broad to find good solutions


Sometimes It Pays to Make a Problem Bigger to Solve It

I have become more and more enamored of the quote from Dwight David Eisenhower:

Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.”

I think this is a very important mindset for engineers. As I approach a new academic year with a number of seniors seeking to do senior design projects, I think this is a most important maxim. Unfortunately, too much engineering practice forestalls the ability to take this type of broader view.

Consider the following three problem statements:

  • A. I need to have a bigger bridge between point A and point B.
  • B. I need to have greater capacity for transport of people and things between point A and point B.
  • C. I need to have a better way for people who live in point A and whose employers are in B to work (and vice versa); I also need better supply routes of material to point A and point B.

Note the difference! Problem statement A admits only one type of solution (a bridge or bridge expansion or renovation). Problem statement B allows for other solutions (rail, an alternative routing, a tunnel, etc.). Problem statement C is the broadest (of the three) and allows for even further options (electronic transmission of work assignments and finished work, 3D printing, alternative suppliers and supply routes).

It may be that by over specifying a problem we do not allow ourselves to see what might be (particularly when multiple objectives are present) the entire robust set of alternative solutions.

Engineers should, in my opinion, be alert to such over specification of a problem and be sure that they express a problem in a broad fashion so as to see a larger set of alternative solutions.