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.

3 thoughts on “Engineers need to make problems broad to find good solutions

  1. My approach to this issue is to emphasize the importance of the fall term of Senior Design as the one in which we “Define the Problem”. It’s the time to ask “what is the problem?”. Broadening the view is one aspect of defining the problem. Another is to look at the issue from the position of each of the (typically) many stakeholders. Another, too often forgotten, is to define the constraints applicable to any solution.

  2. I forget if it was Einstein or someone else who said “Given an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes trying to understand the problem better and 5 minutes solving it.”

  3. Very good. I did environmental impact analysis for many years in my career. The most important steps in the process were to establish the purpose and need of the action to be analyzed (in your terms, the problem), and the alternative ways to meet the purpose and need (solve the problem). The inherent nature of bureaucracy and budgeting for project managers created pressure to narrowly define the problem to be solved so that it fit within their program, which meant the alternatives were limited to types of solutions that fit within that program. Builders of bridges don’t usually get to think about distributed networks of 3-D printers.

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