I want problems, not solutions!

James Fisher
Oct 6, 2014 · 4 min read

We live in a world obsessed with solutions. Every article or paper claims to be a solution to something. We award merit to an idea to the extent that it solves a problem. Sometimes we even call something a ‘solution’ without ever stating what the problem is that it is a solution to. Even in an intensely entrepreneurial space like Hacker News, where the phrase ‘pain point’ is common, almost every post is a proposed solution. We tell people they are creating ‘solutions in search of problems,’ but how are they to know what the problems are? Where are they listed?

The problem is not that we don’t talk about problems. In Pólya’s How to Solve It, the first principle is devoted to ‘understanding the problem.’ We know that ‘problem statements’ are important, and they’re a standard section of any academic paper. The real problem, I think, is that problems are second-class citizens when compared to solutions. We reify solutions. Solutions have names and logos and homepages and GitHub stars. Solutions have academic papers and authors and references. On a solution website or in a paper you’ll get a problem statement, short and probably biased; followed by vastly more about the proposed solution. We do not reify problems. Any problem must be chaperoned by a proposed solution. We only learn about a problem by the time someone has claimed to have solved it. We do not publish papers which put great effort into identifying a problem unless they put much more effort into selling a solution. We ‘star’ issues on GitHub, but they’re only issues with a solution to an unstarred problem.

Why are problems second-class? Is this a cultural issue, or is it fundamental to the nature of problem-solving? Perhaps the boat came before the problem of how to get from here to that place over the water, and it has always been that way. If solutions always just appear in flashes of divine inspiration, our models of the thought process need some adjustment. But at least in some circles, problems are first-class: the mathematics community is explicit about the things they don’t know, and about which of those they really want to know; and at the other end of the scale we have the clichéd human problems such as cancer, famine, and global warming. But these are all exceptions to the rule. Where was the discussion about the problems with traditional taxicab companies before we heard about Uber?

Why don’t we praise problems? Why do we remember inventors of solutions, but not the people that identified the problems they solved? Perhaps because finding problems is easy, but finding solutions is hard. But if this is the case, why don’t we hear about the problem long before the solution? Or perhaps we don’t praise problems because all problem statements in fact contain an implicit solution, just as all solutions (should) contain an explicit problem. For example, we might say that the World Wide Web solves the problem of creating a global decentralized hyperlinked document network, but this problem statement just describes the solution. And so finding the right problem is hard, but finding the solution to it is easy — famous inventors are really just the first people to get the problem statement right. But if this is the case, why do we usually have so many solutions to any given problem?

Is it just that we don’t reify problems publicly? After identifying a problem, are there strong motivations to not advertise it? Does fear of looking stupid impel us not to reveal the problem statement in case we are the only one with the problem, or in case the solution is obvious, or in case the problem is obviously unsolvable, or in case it will force us to admit we have the problem? Does ‘first-mover advantage’ impel us to not reveal the problem statement until we have a solution to it? (Perhaps the uniqueness of the Millennium Prize is because the solutions to its problems cannot be sold.) Is the difference between problems and solutions that we can’t sell problems? (Or can we?)

Why do we solve non-problems? Why do so many of us think ‘what can I make today?’, instead of ‘what can I solve today?’ Why do so many think ‘what can I solve today?’ instead of ‘what problems can I identify today?’ Is it because of the value placed on solutions instead of problems? Or is it because we’re not the problem-solvers we think we are, but just builders?

What would a world look like where problems are praised? Where the top post on Hacker News is my CSS sucks and I don’t know what to do about it? Where we had a Millennium Prize for problems like my family doesn’t talk to me, or my test suite is stopping me refactoring, or I am on West 73rd Street and I need some paracetamol ASAP? If our discussions started with problems rather than solutions, would we be in a world with less problems?

If such a world is desirable, can we achieve it? If so, how? Would the solution require cultural change or technological change?

In dogfooding style, I don’t offer answers to these questions, or solutions to the problem, I just offer the problem statement: problems are second-class citizens, but the world might be better if they were first-class.


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