Imagine this: An imminent disaster threatens the planet, and you only have one hour to save it. How would you spend your time?
Einstein was asked that very question.
“I would spend the first 55 minutes identifying the problem,” Einstein said, “and the last five minutes solving it.” He went on to say that rediscovering the problem is more urgent than finding the solution. “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle,” Einstein continued, “requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”
Before a problem can be solved, a problem must be identified and verified. That’s the formula. It’s a surefire way to get to a solution faster, and it’s the basis of my latest book, Solve the Real Problem. Years after Einstein spoke those words about identifying the problem, researchers are replicating his advice in the laboratory.
While studying the importance of “problem construction,” researchers divided participants into two groups. Half were instructed to restate the problem in a variety of ways before starting to work. The other half of the participants were instructed to read the problem presented and immediately solve it.
You guessed it: The group that restated the problem in a variety of ways produced more original and higher quality solutions than the participants who went straight to work.
The participants were not being timed or assisted. They were instructed, “Take your time. There are no time limits.” When observed, the group generating restatements of the problem finished in about five to six minutes. From there, they selected their problem and began to produce solutions.
The subjects in the group that took the time to generate problem restatements had no structured training on how to formulate problems. But with only the encouragement from the researchers and a few minutes of talking, the group yielded superior results.
Don’t waste your time trying to solve the wrong problem. Can you afford to spend 5 minutes to find the real problem? Can you afford not to?