April 2, 2009 by Guest Blogger

Albert Einstein once quipped that “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” I can recall few of the specifics that I was taught when I earned my business degree in the early 1990s, but some important concepts made a lasting impression on me. At the time, studying Japanese management techniques was all the rage, and one of the most intriguing claims I remember was that Western companies—and their managers—frequently fell into the trap of focusing on the solution instead of the problem.

What does this mean? Simply that most of us in the U.S. and other Western countries tend to be in such a hurry to resolve issues that we rush into fixing a problem before we have completely analyzed it. We naturally want to deal with difficult situations as quickly as possible; it seems like a waste of time to pause to spend time reviewing the problem. But without taking that step, we can easily choose a suboptimal solution—or even worse, a solution that only addresses a symptom instead of the problem’s root cause.

This danger is exacerbated when there is a discrepancy between the skill sets of the individual with the problem and the individual with the solution. Employers often turn to hiring freelancers because they need an expert to solve a particular problem, but rather than spelling out the problem and letting freelancers suggest the best solution, they put forth a proposed solution themselves. It is understandable why this happens; in most cases, the employer is (wisely) trying to be clear and specific about job requirements. But the end result this can still constrain potential proposals, and cause the employer to miss out on potentially superior ideas.

One of my main lines of work is automated data extraction and processing, and I encounter this dilemma on a daily basis. Using my custom data extraction engine, I am able to “scrape” data from websites and perform menial data entry tasks in a way that is often more accurate, faster and cheaper than using data entry clerks. Yet I often find my service a tough sell, because employers have decided what they think is the best solution, rather than focusing on the problem and seeing what solutions are available. They will say they “need a data entry person” (a solution) rather than saying they have “data they need to be entered” (a problem). I’ve even completed automated projects that were specifically labeled as “manual data entry jobs”—in some cases, I had to send several messages to convince the employer that yes, I really could do it automatically!

Of course, there are many freelancing disciplines where an employer can easily and correctly ascertain the specific service or product that he or she requires. But it is still worthwhile to concentrate on what the problem is that needs to be fixed, not on potential individual solutions. So ask yourself: Do you need a coder to install a particular package of software for your website, or would you be better off describing what you want your website to do, and seeing what software packages are recommended? Is it specifically a typist you require, or is the real objective to get that data from your hard-copy manuscript into Word format, in whatever is the most efficient way? Does that script have to be written in Perl, or could another language get the job done just as well?

Avoiding the temptation to jump to the solution ensures that you stay focused on the most important goal: solving your business’s problem. It allows you to keep an open mind to alternatives that you may not have considered. You may end up spending a little more time sorting through proposals than you would have if you were specific up front, but you could just find yourself very pleasantly surprised by a superior solution you didn’t even know existed.

Charles Kozierok obtained master’s degrees in Management and Engineering from MIT in 1993. He is a freelance programmer who specializes in automated data entry and processing, as well as an author, editor and photographer.