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Reframing the Problem: Paperwork & Working Paper

This is the second in a series about the importance of correctly framing a problem. Generally, at least in formal American education, the teacher gives you a problem. Not only that, if you are in Algebra class, you know the answer will be an answer based in Algebra. If you are in art class, you’re expected to paint a picture. If you painted a picture in Algebra class, or wrote down a formula in Art Class, they would send you to the principal for punishment. But in real life, how a problem is presented may actually be far from the most elegant solution to the real problem.

Doing a google search on “problem solving” just now yielded 208 million results. Entering “problem framing” only had 182 thousand. A thousand times as much emphasis on problem solving as there was on problem framing. Yet, let’s think about that for a moment. If you have wrongly framed the problem, you not only will not have solved the real problem; what’s worse, you will have convinced yourself that you have solved the problem. This will make it much more difficult to recognize and solve the real problem even for a solitary thinker. And to make a political change required to redirect hundreds or thousands will be incalculably more difficult. 

All of that brings us to today’s story. For about a decade, I worked as executive director of an AI lab for a company in the computers & communication industry. At one point, in the late 1980’s, all employees were all supposed to sign some new paperwork. An office manager called from a building several miles away asking me to have my admin work with his admin to sign up a schedule for all 45 people in my AI lab to go over to his office and sign this paperwork as soon as possible. That would be a mildly interesting logistics problem, and I might even be tempted to step in and help solve it. More likely, if I tried to solve it, some much brighter & more competent colleague would have done it much faster. 

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But why?

Why would I ask each of 45 people to interrupt their work; walk to their cars; drive in traffic; park in a new location; find this guy’s office; walk up there; sign some paper; walk out; find their car; drive back; park again; walk back to their office and try to remember where the heck they were? Instead, I told him that wasn’t happening but he’d be welcome to come over here and have people sign the paperwork. 

You could make an argument that that was 4500% improvement in productivity, but I think that understates the case. The administrator’s work, at least in this regard, was to get this paperwork signed. He didn’t need to do mental calculations to tie these signings together. On the other hand, a lot of the work that the AI folks did was hard mental work. That means that interrupting them would be much more destructive than it would to interrupt the administrator in his watching someone sign their name. Even that understates the case because many of the people in AI worked collaboratively and (perhaps you remember those days) people were working face to face. Software tools to coordinate work were not as sophisticated as they are now. Often, having one team member disappear for a half hour would not only impact their own work, it would impact the work of everyone on the team. 

Quantitatively comparing apples and oranges is always tricky. Of course, I am also biased because my colleagues were people I greatly admire. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the way the problem was presented was a non-optimal “framing.” It may or may not have been presented that way because of a purely selfish standpoint; that is, wanting to do what’s most convenient for oneself rather than what’s best for the company as a whole. I suspect that it was  more likely just the first idea that occurred to him. But in your own life, beware. Sometimes, you will mis-frame a problem because of “natural causes.” But sometimes, people may intentionally hand you a bad framing because they view it as being in their interest to lead you to solve the wrong problem. 

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