Thursday, March 10, 2011


Motto: “I think- I exist. I decide- I live.”
(Peter Gluck)

Short introduction

I had to decide how to present my problem solving rules. Are my potential readers prepared to accept them? Or should I continue to explain first about negative discoveries ( a la Daniel Boorstin), negative definitions (sometimes more comprehensive than the positive ones), negative information (actually it means absent, not missing: in thinking details are critical) and about (n)negativity per se?
Then I decided to jump immediately in mediam res
In it is shown that the infinite, inherent, inexorable interestingness of the world creates myriads of situations not good for us humans- and we want to change them- i.e. is an inexhaustible source of problems.
In I have demonstrated the formidable power of the word
NO (NOT)- and the rules are all based on this word.
Ruth, the wife of Daniel Boorstin, the great American historian and thinker  has created a wonderful metaphor/word-play to illustrate the power of the negative: “Gordian Nots”. To be used together with her husband’s essay “The Age of Negative Discovery”

This is my offer of Gordian Nots for problem solving.


1. There are NO isolated problems, they always come in dynamic bunches

2. There are NO final solutions for the really great problems, these have to  be solved again and again.

3. NOT solving the problem, but defining it is the critical step .

4. NOT the unknown data, but those known and untrue  are the greatest obstacle to ths solution.

5. .NOT what we know, but what we don’t know is more important for solving the problem.

6. NOT the main desired positive effect, but those secondary negative and/or undesired effects decide in most cases if a solution is implemented.

7. NOT all problems have a complete, genuine solution.

8 .NOT the solutions that seem perfect from the start, but those which are very perfectible are the best in many cases.

9. NOT the bright, shiny, spectacular solutions but those elaborated, worked out with difficulty and effort and patience are more valuable and have a larger area of applicability.

10.NOT the solutions that are logical and perfectly rational, but those that are adequate for the feelings of the potential users, even if they are ilogical, have the greatest chances of fast implementation.

11. NOT the quality of the solution but the speed of its implementaion is the decisive factor in many cases. It can be better to have a partial solution applied fast than a slower almost perfect solution.

12. Do NOT accept the premises of the problem, change them as necessary and possible.

13. Do NOT stop at the first solution, seek for alternatives.

Just some remarks:

1)These rules do NOT refer to mathemathical problems but to real life, say, professional and personal, practical problems, asking for good solutioms

2) All these rules use the potential of NO (NOT) to generate natural approaches- in other words to fight existence in it’s own ways.
Rules No. 1 and 2  speak about absence- some evil or harmful issues or ideas must be absent if we want to find a solution.
Rules No. 3 to 11 are based on surprise something unexpected will
happen. Or, we have to make it happen, problems cannot be defeated by standard thinking.
The last two rules prohibit useless or erronated actions.
Only practice can demonstrate the value and usability of these rules..

3) The rules are not arranged in the order of their discovery- No. 3 is the most known- almost an proverb. They are not arranged according to importance- No. 12 by far the most important because it allows us to re-define pragmatically the very wicked, intractable or insoluble problems as: “problems that can be solved only after radically changing their premises.” This is the great difference between the mathematical and the real-life problems.
They are not arranged according to the degree of difficulty because this is problem-dependent.

4) The list of these rules is not closed- they are 13 now (I am not superstitious) but I will try new ones or accept your ideas- as soon as the magic word is present.

5) These Rules are not commandaments, they have to be used with flexibility and creativity, combined, alternatively or succesively
adjusted to the peculiarities of the problem that has to be solved.

6) These Rules do not pretend to be perfect or definitive. They can be in part redondant, the set is partially repetitive, they are even osme contradictions between some of the rules. But exactly so is our existence that delivers us the problems. Their openness and perfectibility are  advantages not weaknesses.

7) The Rules are based on my experience, thinking and a series of satori-like events. However, please believe me, they are NOT the work of an amateur I have studied books and papers re. Problem solving, applied problemology, and I have gathered all the wise sayings re problems and solutiom. What I have learned from all these is here- in this group of ideas, in a purified and condensed form.

8) These rules do NOT form a theory of problem solving. They serve for actual work. The philosophy of problem solving is a noble task of paramount importance- but a different one.

9) You cannot use my rules of problem solving. I am giving them to you with pleasure, wholeheartedly. When they will be your own rules, you will be surprised by their efficiency.


  1. Can I used them in my courses? Brilliant!

  2. Thank you, dear Gabriela,

    Surely you can use the Rules. They "go" well with the Modes of Thinking- in the frame of recognizing that NO is more important in the real world than YES.

  3. 4,5&6 can sometimes be applied consciously and immediately. Other times we are truly blind to our presumptions and to the faults in how we have picked, chosen and rejected various facts.

    All of these rules are excellent, but when all else fails, we must change our mindset. We must give ourselves "permission" to whimsically play with problems: By consciously allowing humorous or otherwise ridiculous solutions, we also open the door to relevant facts and approaches that we would otherwise discard as ridiculous.

    One doesn't start there, it is too time consuming to use on routine problems. This is for the really gnarly ones.

    In other words, realizing that you may have errantly discarded relevant facts or approaches is the only thing that gets you looking through the garbage to find the missing gold ring!

  4. Dear Anonymous.
    Thank you...I guess that you somehow suggest a new
    rule, No. 14 like this:

    NOT always long hours of hard work and great efforts, but (sometimes)relaxation and fun is the best way to obtain solutions for (awfully) difficult problems.
    True, or can you formulate it better?

  5. Excellent, thought provoking post. We could talk about each of them at length! To focus on your Rule #3, "NOT solving the problem, but defining it is the critical step," I wonder how you would react to the Rittel and Webber's description of a "wicked problem," which includes "There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem)." (See for an overview of "Wicked Problems.")

  6. Thank you, Sandy!
    Rule No 3 is the most popular of all, the oldest
    and if a problem has a fuzzy, proteic, slippery definition, it will have a similar solution- using the word largo sensu. In many cases this leads to a degree of chaos- many solutions, in part superposed, in part conflicting are tried sequentially or in the same time.

  7. Hey there Peter,

    Thanks for the making the effort and providing us the wonderful list !

  8. Thanks Dan,
    But it was relatively easy, it lasted only 73+ years,
    some 20000 problems- from these approx.2500 wicked and ~ 12 tragic.
    Please be very careful with the concept of "wicked problems."