Effective Problem Solving

By Dean L. Gano

After teaching a problem-solving class in a small town in Georgia, I was eating dinner one evening at a local restaurant. Sitting alone, I was busy watching people as I enjoyed my dinner. A young family and their friends were seated at the table next to me. They had a small, perhaps nine-month-old, daughter seated in a highchair near her father. As the adults talked, the child was experimenting with a spoon. She banged it on the top of her highchair, licked it, and banged some more. In time, she leaned over the side of her chair and, holding the spoon at arm’s length, let go of it. As it fell to the floor and bounced, she was immediately amazed. She looked around at the adults to see if they had seen this incredible event. They, of course, had missed it. In fact, she noticed they were paying no attention to her incredible discoveries. “What is the matter with them?” I read on her face. 

With an outstretched arm and a grimace on her face, she reached for the spoon to no avail. After she emitted a few grunts and wanting cries, her father noticed her, picked up the spoon, washed it off, and returned it to her tabletop. She smiled and returned to her play. 

After a few more bangs, she decided to try the spoon drop experiment again. Again, it dropped straight down. It did not float upward like those big round colored objects she sometimes played with; this thing went straight down and bounced on the floor. Again, her face said it all. “This is really cool! Did you see that?” Looking up for acknowledgment, she seemed amazed at their total disregard for the profundity of her experiments. Again, she motioned and cried for the return of her object so she could further test the limits of her understanding. As the evening continued, she pestered her parents for the fallen spoon and proved that solid objects when released at height will always fall to the floor — it didn’t matter if it was a spoon or mashed potatoes, stuff always went in the same direction and sometimes did amazing things. 

As I watched this simple event, I saw a child learn about the law of gravity — but there was much more going on here. She was practicing a more fundamental life strategy. She was using her ability to control things and people to advance her understanding of the world. 

And isn’t this what we all do? We control things and we control people to accomplish our goals. In a moment of clarity, I realized that understanding and controlling causes is one of our most basic operating strategies. In the process of learning, we identify causal relationships (such as: things always fall down) and by controlling certain causes we are able to accomplish our goals. We learn that to obtain a desired effect we can act upon an object or person, and the effect will result. Like the little girl, we may learn that if we whine enough, somebody will fill our need. The more specific knowledge we have about cause-and-effect relationships, coupled with our ability to act upon the causes within the relationships, the better our problem- solving skills. 

No matter how complex the causal relationships, be they mere feelings or hard scientific facts, the problem-solving process is always the same — understand the causal relationships as best you can, determine which ones you have control of, and act on them in a manner that meets your goals. But be careful here — a correlation does not a cause make. Only by knowing the evidence-based causal relationships can you be assured of finding effective solutions to the problem at hand.

In the past, scholars tried to understand causation by labeling and categorizing different kinds of causes. Attorneys use proximate cause and probable cause. Safety engineers use surface causes, causal factors, apparent causes, and root causes. Aristotle had his four causes — efficient, material, formal, and final — which make no sense at all in today’s world. By categorizing, we create boundaries or boxes that define the category based on our own belief system. Because we all have different belief systems, categorization models immediately set up a quarrelsome environment. To avoid this, it is my goal here to discuss the principles of cause and effect without categorizing different types other than what is required to understand the principles of causation. 

So what is a cause and what is an effect, but more importantly, what is their relationship to reality? This simple notion of cause and effect is easy enough to grasp, as the child did in the spoon drop experiment. However, as we will discover, there is much more to this fundamental idea than has ever been explained by our education system. 

Because every creature on this planet perceives the world differently, each holds a different understanding and uses different strategies to interact with the world. Therefore, there cannot be a single Reality or Truth. The best we can hope for is to create a common reality that we can all agree on. But how do we do this? 

Why do we have such a problem communicating what we think we know? Where is the “common sense?” 

First of all, we have never been taught the structure of causation; instead we tell stories, categorize, place blame, and claim victim status, just to mention a few failed strategies. Next, we all perceive the world differently and therefore there is no such thing as common sense. But the good news is that we can create a common reality if we stop using our old ways of thinking and communicating and follow some simple principles. 

We first have to understand the structure of reality, and we need to use principles to do so. As previously discussed, a principle is a rule that works the same way every time for everyone and is at the core of effective thinking. 

Reality can be understood best by using the principles of cause and effect. Everything that happens is caused to happen, so by understanding the evidence-based causal relationships that define our perception we can create a common reality if we can get evidenced-based causes from all players. 

Reality Defined 

Any reality is defined by four principles of causation, which we call the principium of causation, and they are as follows: 

  1. Cause and effect are the same thing, only observed at a different point in time. 
  2. Each effect has at least two causes in the form of actions and conditions. 
  3. Causes and effects are part of an infinite continuum of causes. 
  4. An effect exists only if its causes exist in the same space and time frame. 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles. 

Causation Principle 1 of 4: Cause and Effect Are the Same Thing 

When we look closely at causes and effects, we see that a “cause” and an “effect” are the same thing, or as others have stated, a single thing may be both a cause and an effect. They differ only by how we perceive them in time. When we start with an effect and ask why it occurred, we find a cause; but if we ask why again, what was just now a cause becomes an effect. For example, if I have an injury and ask why, the answer might be because I fell. When I ask why I fell, “fall” has to change from a cause to an effect because you can’t ask why of a cause. If I continue asking why and find the fall was caused by slipping on ice, this pattern of causes changing to effects continues as long as I continue to ask why and get answers.

When asking why of any given effect, we may not always agree on the answer because everyone has their own perspective. Others may perceive a cause or effect differently or more deeply if they have a greater understanding of the causal relationships. For example, we know we have a cold when we ache and cough, whereas a doctor knows we have a cold when he or she can observe a virus on a microscope slide. The effect is the same, but the depth of knowledge of the causes is significantly different depending on perception and knowledge. 

Knowing that cause and effect are the same thing, only viewed from a different perspective in time, helps us understand one reason why people can look at the same situation and see different problems. They actually perceive different time segments of the same event. If we treat each perspective as a different piece of a jigsaw puzzle, we can stop the usual arguing and work on putting the different pieces together. 

When I was a kid, I thought the trees caused the wind. And as I grew to understand more causal relationships of weather, I learned the ‘common truth,’ and what I thought was a cause was actually an effect. 

By understanding that a cause and an effect are the same thing, only from a different perspective, we get a glimpse of the next principle. 

Causation Principle 2 of 4: Each Effect Has at Least Two Causes in the Form of Actions and Conditions 

Contrary to conventional wisdom that asks why, why, why, causes are not found in a linear chain, but more like a fishnet observed from the corner (See Figure 1.1). Because of this principle, we begin to see that each effect has two or more causes and the causes come in the form of conditions and actions. That is, some causes (conditions) exist as a condition prior to the effect, while other causes (actions) seem to be in motion or otherwise active and may bring conditional causes together to cause the effect.

Figure 1.1: Structure of Causal Relationships 


Actions are causes that interact with conditions to cause an effect. 

Conditions are causes that exist in time prior to an action bringing them together to cause an effect. 

It should be noted that conditions, while generally static or passive, may be in a state of motion and very short-lived, such as a knee being at high speed. Or, for example, the condition of a knee at high speed, when combined with an action of impacting the floor, results in the effect of kneecap broken. 

By understanding the second principle of causation, we know we should always look for two or more causes each time we ask why; something we rarely do! Actions are the causes we most easily recognize, while conditions are often ignored. If we are able to see the conditions, we often find that several conditions come together with an action to cause some effect. For example, if I drop a ball from height and it hits a table below my hand, then the ball hit the table because of the action cause of letting go, and the conditional causes of: the ball is at some height above table, ball is in my hand, ball exists, my hand exists, table exists, table is below my hand, and gravity exists. The ball could not have hit the desk unless all of these causes existed. So there was one action cause and seven conditional causes. Everything that happens in our world follows this simple principle, yet we are not taught this in our schools, nor do we use it to help us understand reality. Instead we tell stories, ignore the many conditions needed and categorize the actions.

Causation Principle 3 of 4: Causes and Effects Are Part of an Infinite Continuum of Causes 

When evaluating a problem such as global climate change, we always start with an effect of consequence that we want to keep from recurring and end at our point of ignorance. Our point of ignorance is where we can honestly admit we don’t know why and some people find this very hard to do. 

A reality that has a never-ending set of causes is something we have great difficulty accepting and probably explains why we stop asking why at an early age and pursue simpler strategies like categorization and storytelling. Designed to find the “right answer,” the human mind simply cannot deal with not knowing, so we sometimes create answers when there are none. This is particularly true in group settings because we don’t want to be embarrassed. 

Knowing that causes and effects are part of an infinite continuum of causes helps us understand that, no matter where we start our problem analysis, we are always in the middle of a chain of causes. This helps us understand that there is no right place to start. And like a jigsaw puzzle, we can start the problem-solving process anywhere and still end up with a complete picture. This avoids the usual arguments over who is right and allows us to focus on finding causes. Instead of arguing over what the problem is, like we normally do, we can know that all causes are connected somehow in time and we just need to reconcile everyone’s perspective and figure out how they are connected. 

But as we learned from the second principle, causes are not linear. They branch into at least two causes each time we ask why of an effect. As we explore this principle more, we begin to see that causes are part of an ever-expanding infinite set. Figure 1.2 shows what happens each time we ask why. If a fire has four causes and if each of those causes has four causes, then we can see that the total number of causes very quickly grows exponentially to infinite proportions. 

Figure 1.2. Infinite Set of Causes 

As we look at this ever-expanding, increasing number of causes, we are immediately overwhelmed with too much information and the mind cannot handle it. 

So, the big question is why don’t we see this infinite number of causes? 

The reason we don’t see the infinite set of causes in our world is because we have learned to filter out most of the causes. We do this quite naturally by assigning priorities and focusing on certain cause paths. We discriminate by allowing only certain causes to be recognized in our conscious mind. The infinite set is there nonetheless. In fact, you could say that it defines reality, but we only see parts of it because we are limited by our knowledge, lack of interest, available time, and favorite solutions. And, the natural limitations of our minds and our language do not allow us to see it. And all these filters stifle the questioning attitude we were born with and thus contribute to our ineffective thinking skills. 

If we examine each of these limitations, we see that our level of knowledge limits our ability to know many causes. For example, if we were to ask “why gravity,” our ignorance prevents an answer and therefore we cannot continue down this cause path. We must stop and say, “I don’t know.” 

Our level of interest also determines our ability to know causes. If we asked why fire, where oxygen was listed as a cause, we could ask “why oxygen,” but we don’t because we are met with the immediate response of “who cares?” We know that this condition cannot be controlled in most situations so it has no value to us. 

Lack of time keeps us from exploring every causal path in day-to-day problems, so we limit our time according to our sense of value or our desire to pursue the problem. This leads to a strategy of checking past experiences to see if we have encountered the same problem before. If we have, we tend to search for the solutions that worked before and implement them. Quite often, we do not clearly identify the problem or spend time understanding the causes. We simply identify the problem categorically, such as human error, and impose our favorite solution, such as punishment or retraining. 

Physical limitations of the mind also restrict our ability to hold very many thoughts or ideas at the same time. George Miller, in a 1956 article in Psychological Review, first showed that adults could only hold about seven pieces of information (data) in the conscious mind at the same time. The variability of this number is plus or minus two. For example, we can usually add a few numbers together in our minds without resorting to pencil and paper: 46 + 54 = 100. Likewise, it is fairly easy to remember a seven-digit phone number, but a ten- digit long-distance number or adding several three-digit numbers usually brings out the pencil or calculator. Our conscious mental capacity is limited to a small number of thoughts, and yet we attempt to solve incredibly complex issues without writing them down. In the process we fail to express details and key pieces of information. 

Although we have incredible storage capacity, our working memory and current conscious thinking are very limited. 

It is important to remember that while our minds naturally filter out or never know many of the causes of a problem, the causes are there nonetheless. Perhaps the single biggest lesson I have learned from all my studies of human thinking is that we must be humble above all things, because the only thing I am sure of is that in the face of the infinite set of causes, we seldom know all the causes of a given effect. 

This principle helps us understand the old saying that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. As you can see from this basic causal structure, every time we ask why we get at least two answers, and at some point along each cause path, we come to our point of ignorance, where we no longer have answers, but because of this principle, we know there must be at least two more causes – we just don’t know what they are. And that is what defines humility.

Causation Principle 4 of 4: An Effect Exists Only if It’s Causes Exist in the Same Space and Time Frame 

Cause-and-effect relationships exist with or without the human mind, but we perceive them relative to time and the space in which we find them. From observation we see that an effect exists only if its causes exist in the same space and time frame. For example, the little girl’s spoon hit the floor because of at least eight causes: the one action cause of letting go, and the seven conditional causes of: the spoon was at some height above floor, the spoon was in her hand, the spoon existed, her hand existed, the floor existed, the floor was below her hand, and gravity exists. If these causes did not exist at the same time frame and space, the spoon would not fall. If the spoon is on the floor, it is in a different space and cannot fall; or if the girl never let go that night, the spoon would not have fallen at that time and place, and I would not have experienced my great aha! 

Every effect we observe in the physical world is caused by at least one action cause coming together with existing conditional causes in the same relative space. A causal relationship is made up of conditional causes with a history of existence over time combining with another cause in some defined time frame to create an effect. If we were able to see the world in stop-action, we could see, for example, a nail held in place by a hand and a hammer’s head striking the nail to cause the effect of two boards being nailed together. The nail, hand, hammer, carpenter, strong arm, and wood all exist as conditional causes at the same relative place and in the same time frame of the swinging hammer striking the nail and driving it through the two boards.

In the world of industrial safety, a common question is: What is the difference between a near miss and a lost time accident? Answer: Timing and location. For example: a wrecking ball swinging, crossing a walking path and a person walking on that same path. If the person and wrecking ball cross the path at the same time and space and the ball strikes the person in the head a lost time accident occurs. If the timing or space/location changes by a few seconds or moves a few inches a near miss or less serious accident occurs.

One of the greatest difficulties in understanding this time-space relationship is the fact that we do not see our world in stop-action. The world we perceive is one continuous linear set of causes, all acting one after another, like the frames of a motion picture, rather than the reality of several causes occurring in the same space and time frame. Our language even prevents us from expressing our thoughts in anything other than a linear time-based sequence. And this causes us to see stories not causal relationships.

What makes the causes valid for a given causal relationship is that all the causes in the event exist in the same time frame, where the time frame is relative to the stated causes. It is not easy to communicate these simple concepts because everything is relative, and our minds have difficulty processing more than one relative concept at a time, which in turn is reflected in our language. All modern languages propel us along a linear time line from past to present. They do not allow for branches of conditions and actions as defined by reality. I suspect that if we thought this way, language would have developed to allow discussion of the infinite set of causes, but we are really very primitive creatures and like to keep things simple. Even the notion of infinity is difficult for most people, so it is understandable that our language reflects a simple linear causal-thinking pattern without conditional and action branches occurring at the same space and time frame. 

By understanding the cause-and-effect principles, we now know the basic structure that reality must follow. Knowing this allows us to represent any situation using causal relationships — all we have to do is fill in the blanks and make sure we have sensed evidence to support the existence of every cause. By knowing that causes are part of an infinite continuum, we know that no matter where we start working on a problem we are always in the middle. Since cause and effect are the same thing, we can move forward or backward along the cause continuum as we learn more about the causal relationships of our problem. By understanding this flexibility we eliminate the typical bickering about what the problem really is. All ideas are accepted and aligned causally in time from present to past. 

By looking for an action cause and conditional causes of each effect, we gain a much clearer picture of the event or problem and its causes. By understanding the notion of an infinite set of causes, we are no longer restricted by our own paradigms. We know that each cause is like a piece of a puzzle and each person’s perspective provides insight into the causes. With this understanding, the task becomes one of assembling all perspectives to create a common reality, rather than bickering over who has the correct ones. 

The best way to create this common reality is to use 3M Post-it® notes on a board or wall, placing all known causes in order by using the term “Caused By” in between each of the effects/causes. Look for at least one action cause and one conditional cause for every effect and then ask why of those cause/effects. Pretty soon you have a large branched set of causal relationships that defines your common reality. Verify that you have sensed evidence for each cause and make note of it. Iterate several times until you are happy with your common understanding of the causal relationships. 

For more detailed information on the art of problem-solving check out RealityCharting – Seven Steps to Effective Problem-Solving And Strategies For Personal Success.

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