16. Problem Solving

16.Problem Solving

Web Extra — Inversion Video

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Problem solving is a type of innovation. I prefer to use the term “solution finding” instead of problem solving. All the solutions can be described using Predictive Innovation. If all you need is one practical solution then you don’t need to use the entire method.

The key difference between solution finding and more general innovation work is the difference of Scale. For innovation you want many or all the solutions. For solution finding you only need one solution to be satisfied.

The same techniques used to find solutions are used to uncover innovations but your efforts are more focused and the process doesn’t take as long. All you need is a single change to solve the problem.

Solving the Unsolvable

Most unsolvable problems have the form that there are two desired results and it seems that the only way to improve one is to make the other worse. It’s a dilemma. Unsolvable dilemmas are the result of an incorrect assumptions. With this simple understanding the obvious solution is to correct the inaccurate assumption and then reapply problem solving techniques.

The five steps to solving dilemmas are:

  1. Describe dilemma
  2. Find assumptions
  3. Identify latent generalizations in the assumptions
  4. Invert each word
  5. Reveal opportunities matching the new understanding

DilemmaBalance Scale

All seemingly unsolvable problems are the result of some dilemma. You want to improve both X and Y but improving one makes the other worse. Unless the dilemma violates a fundamental law of physics, it is the result of a mistaken assumption or an excessive generalization.


Assumptions are beliefs that might not be true. So, you need to confirm that what you believe is actually true.

There are three types of assumptions:

  • Assumptions of Result
  • Assumptions of Approach
  • Emotional Assumptions

If any of these assumptions are incorrect it can result in a dilemma. Exposing an incorrect assumption is often all that is needed to reveal solutions.

Assumptions of Result are criteria we assume are needed to achieve the goal. A dilemma can occur when an unnecessary criteria is assumed. Unnecessary criteria could be totally unneeded or could be overly restrictive criteria. An example is requiring a tool be a specific color even though it will end up dirty and the color hidden.

Another Assumption of Result is an unstated assumption. These often happen when the real purpose is not properly defined. If your goal is to reduce the time spent traveling to work you might Assume the Result is finding a home closer to your job. You might be equally happy if you worked 4 days per week instead of five. It’s important to define the criteria properly.

Assumptions of Approach are the result of not considering Alternative ways of achieving the result. A common assumption of approach is trying to do something in a single step or with a single piece when it is possible to break it up into multiple steps or pieces.

 Gordian Knot

Illustration 55: Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot

The classic Assumption of Approach is the myth of Alexander and the Gordian knot. In the myth, whoever loosed the supposed impossible to untie Gordian knot would become ruler of the world. Everyone who attempted to untie the knot was unable. Alexander also tried and in frustration took out his sword and cut the knot in half. The criteria was to loosen the knot, there wasn’t any rule against cutting it. He overcame the Assumption of Approach, solved the problem, and went on to rule the known world.

Unstated assumptions frequently contribute to Assumptions of Approach. Make sure to ask your self “Why am I doing this?” and “What will this allow me to do?” If you say, “I must” or “I should” state the reason for that “must” and “should”, this will help you avoid unstated assumptions.

Emotional Assumptions are strong emotional reactions that are not relevant to achieving the actual goal. That causes people to overlook valid Alternatives or make other assumptions that interfere with achieving the stated result. Emotional Assumptions often appear as unstated assumptions. A person will object to solutions but not provide a valid reason.

Often the Emotional Assumptions can be resolved by correcting Assumptions of Result or Approach.

Deeply engrained Emotional Assumptions can be resolved using techniques like NLP, Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP is itself an Outcome Driven approach for altering emotional responses. NLP often requires only a single session to resolve even the most extreme cases such as phobias and Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recognizing and having techniques for dealing with Emotional Assumptions can be very helpful when facilitating innovation.

Following the Predictive Innovation model can help you avoid all of the assumptions by giving you an unemotional orderly structure to follow.


A generalization is a belief that is true for some Conditions but not for all the Conditions. Generalizations can cause you to miss seeing possible solutions. The Scales of the Alternatives grid is very useful for spotting generalizations.


Since we naturally tend to focus on the Direct solutions, a quick way to test assumptions is to find Indirect Alternatives. Inversion is a quick shortcut for finding Indirect Alternatives. To use inversion, state your assumption then reverse or invert each part.


I need a new suit to get a job; but,
I need a job to afford a new suit.

This dilemma has two parts or clauses that contradict each other. Both clauses have an Assumed Result and an Assumed Approach.

Start by inverting each word of the first clause.

I don’t need a new suit to get a job.

The assumption is that a suit is required. A suit might make it easier to get a job but is it really needed to get a job? That is also a generalization. Are there ways of getting jobs that don’t need a suit? There is a generalization that all jobs require a suit. Are there jobs that don’t need a new suit?

I don’t need a new suit to get a job.

The assumption is the suit must be new. Does the suit need to be new or do you just need a suit? Could you wear a used suit to get the job? There is a generalization that the entire suit be new. Could your suit be modified to make it new? Perhaps you can alter the collar width to make it look new.

I don’t need a new suit to get a job.

The assumption is that a suit is the only way to dress to get a job. Would a nice shirt and tie work? There is a generalization that you need a whole suit. Do you need the whole suit or just a new jacket or new pants or skirt?

I don’t need a new suit to get a job.

There is an assumption and generalization about the order of events. Do you only need the suit to get the job and not to do the work? Can you get the job before getting the suit? After you get the job do you still need the suit?

I don’t need a new suit to get a job.

The assumption is your end goal is the job. Do you need a job or do you need money? Do you need money or do you need something money can buy? The generalization is the goal can’t be broken up into steps. Could you get one job that doesn’t need the suit so you can get the suit to get the job that does require the suit?

I don’t need a new suit to get a job.

There is an assumption and generalization that you own the suit. Does the suit have to be yours? Could you borrow a suit? Could you rent the suit? Could you buy the suit then return it after the interview? Could you share the cost of a suit with a friend? The generalization is all the Resources available belong to you. Could you borrow the money to buy the suit? Could someone else get the job? Perhaps you could get a roommate to pay the bills.

We focused on the first clause but the inversions generated answers covered much of the other clause as well. If you get good answers by inverting only one clause you can stop. If you want more it’s quick and easy to invert both clauses to find the solution you want.

The inversion shortcut found Alternatives for the Object and the Action and hinted at some Tools. Since we were just trying to find one solution we didn’t go through all the steps of listing all the Outcomes, expanding into Elements and finding Alternatives.

This problem had several incorrect assumptions but it also had an Unstated Assumption. Why did the person need a job? Was there something they wanted to buy? Did they need a job to impress someone? Would having a job help them meet people? Did they need a job to fill out a credit application for renting an apartment? The Unstated Assumption could totally change the criteria and approaches.

Making sure you are solving the correct problem is another way to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problem you will have a hard time finding a solution that works. A special type of wrong problem is one that does not need to be solved. Does solving the problem really get you what you want? If it doesn’t satisfy your end goal then forget about it and move on to something more productive.

Does Assumption of Approach cause the dilemma? If you go about achieving your goal in a different way does the dilemma disappear? For example:

The battery of your portable electric refrigerator doesn’t last for the whole camping trip; but,
a bigger battery is too heavy to carry.

If you bring canned, or freeze dried food you don’t need any battery or the portable electric refrigerator. The goal is to have food for the trip. Assuming you will keep the food refrigerated caused an unnecessary dilemma.

Chapter 15 Chapter 17


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