This entry is part 1 in the series Problem-Solving

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In 1990 I was trained as a Safety Warden / OHAS representative for my then-employer. At the time, I was employed as a Computer Programmer and acting as a Systems Analyst for the commercial software systems for which my former department were responsible. Both aspects of this occupation taught me some key problem-solving tips and techniques that I continue to employ to this day in both everyday life and in gaming, both as a player and a GM. Today’s article will share some of the insights gleaned, and discuss how they apply to gameplay in an RPG. Some of my readers may weigh in with additional tips.

I’m going to try and impose some rationality to the sequence of presentation of these tips and techniques, but I expect that they might skip around a bit; this is my first attempt at trying to impose some structure on a fragmented and essentially disorganized confluence of training and experience.

Aim for the fire not the flame

When fighting a fire, the number one mistake that a lot of untrained people make is to aim for the visible flames. The problem is that this is not where the actual burning is taking place, so it does something between zero and squat. As a general rule of thumb (there are exceptions) you need to aim for whatever it is that is actually burning. Starting high makes it harder for the fire to spread, containing it; working your way lower uses material that’s already partially burned as a firebreak to prevent fresh breakouts.

There are analogies aplenty between this nugget of wisdom and every other problem you will ever face, and so you will find analogous pearls of wisdom scattered through any collection of worldly advice. Ultimately, when analyzed, they all boil down to “address the real problem and not the obvious consequences” – but I like the flavor of “Aim for the Fire, Not the Flame”, it makes this maxim easier to remember. While this is always excellent advice, it can also be a lot harder to put into practice than it first appears, because it assumes (a) that you can live with those obvious consequences long enough to actually address the real problem, (b) that you can identify the real problem, and (c) that there is something you can do about it. Nevertheless, it remains excellent advice in principle – and is the central starting point from which everything else in this article proceeds.

Understand your tools

Fire depends on a combination of three factors: Temperature, Fuel, and Oxygen. Take any one of these out of the situation and the fire goes out. Every extinguisher targets one or two of these elements. I mentioned exceptions in the preceding section; this is where these become important. A CO2 extinguisher does not work in the same way as a fire hose; the CO2 operates by smothering the fire and by slightly cooling whatever it hits, in other words targeting the Oxygen component primarily and the thermal component to a lesser extent. The fire hose fires water, which frequently never reaches the actual burning material, being converted into steam – but in the process it sucks a lot of the temperature out of the fire. The closer to the seat of the flame, the more temperature there is for the water to carry away, and the more effective the extinguisher. A fine spray dissipates this effect and renders the process ineffectual, you need to concentrate the water stream so that enough of it reaches the target to do the job. Chemical Powder Extinguishers generally operate by blanketing the burning material and preventing oxygen from reaching the flame – again, you need to aim for what’s actually burning rather than shooting the material through the visible flames and having it fall beyond the actual fire.

The basic lesson here is: in order to use them most effectively, you have to understand your tools.

The applicability of this lesson to other types of problems should also be obvious. Before you can decide what to do, you have to identify what you can do.

Understand your situation

The other type of exception stems from your situation. When dealing with a burning petrol spill, for example, hitting it with a lot of water just spreads it around – the oil-based petroleum floats on top. You need to attack the fire differently. The same thing goes for exotic fires involving compounds that react with water – you can make things worse by using the wrong tool for the job. Another obvious example involves fighting an electrical fire with water. It’s a well-known maxim that electricity and water don’t mix to anyone’s benefit!

Once you know what your tools are, and how they work, understanding your situation lets you choose the right tool for the job, and apply it in the right way.

The application of this principle to other sorts of problems should be fairly obvious.

Manage symptoms, cure causes

If it must be conceded that “Aim for the fire, not the flame” is all well and good in theory (when employed as an analogy), but is not always practical because of the significance of the possible “flames”, then something slightly more sophisticated needs to substituted for those occasions when the consequences are too urgent to be ignored. I’ve drawn this metaphor from first aid / medicine, and don’t remember where I first encountered it – but it fits the bill perfectly.

Don’t try to “solve” the problem of the consequences, look for a way to minimize and manage them – this will usually be quicker and easier than the former, anyway. The consequences will stop being getting worse once the real problem is dealt with, the initial objective is to gain the time to do so.

In game terms, I find this is useful advice in all sorts of situations – everything from relations with players, to rules problems, to social, economic, and political problems in-game.

Things can get more complicated when the “symptoms” function as “causes” of secondary problems, but the general principle remains.

What don’t you know?

Whenever confronted by a problem, asking yourself this question is rarely a waste of time. I want to say never, but I’m sure that someone will speak up with an exception if I do so! Having awareness of the boundaries of your ignorance means that you always know when you are extrapolating problems and solutions into the unknown, where that ignorance can subvert your intentions.

In general, to get to grips with the problem at hand, you often have to make assumptions about something that’s in your area of ignorance. If you know that this is occurring, you can at least watch for divergences between what you are expecting to occur and what actually occurs that help illuminate the validity of the assumptions and enable you to alter them before it becomes too late to alter your plan of attack.

Always, on the heels of this question, follow two others.

What do you need to know?

In firefighting terms, this may be anything from where the gas shut-off valves are in a building to what it is that is actually burning – and what sort of gasses are being given off as a result. Are there people inside? Where? What’s the shortest route to them? What’s the safest route to them? And so on and so forth. I always remember the scene from “The Towering Inferno” in which Steve McQueen is being questioned as to the tenants that have moved into the building and asks “What difference does that make?” – and cops an earful in response.

In more general terms, once you have identified your areas of ignorance, it is generally useful to identify any key pieces of information that you need to be sure of an effective solution to the problem. At the very least, this permits a search for clues to that information before you reach the point of no return. The more specific the answer is to this question, the better.

Still more important, this focuses any intelligence-gathering into the specific areas that are most significant.

What can you do in the meantime?

If it’s genuinely the case that you can’t commit to an actual solution to the problem because there is some key information needed (for example, “who is responsible?”), rather than simply sitting back and waiting for the starter’s whistle, try to identify something you can do in the meantime. This is especially important when public confidence is a key problem – sitting back and doing nothing is a sure recipe for people who know even less than you do to start improvising their own solutions and a degeneration into chaos and anarchy. Do something about the lack of information and, in the meantime, show the flag and been seen to be doing something about the situation (even if you know that it will ultimately be futile). It’s better to spin your wheels in public than to be conspicuously inactive.

What can be done right now?

An even more pointed form of the same lesson. But there’s a caveat when applying this to situations in which other people are involved – you must always acknowledge the possibility that whatever can be done right now is exactly what whoever is behind the real problem wants you to do. That doesn’t necessarily mean not doing it – but it can be a clue in itself as to what’s really going on.

The other caveat to be mentioned in this context is the misdirected action fallacy (I’m not sure of the exact name it’s been given), which reads “Something has to be done. This is something that can be done. Therefore we must do this.” As long as it is realized that the immediate activity is at best a band-aid on the real problem, and needs to actually work to alleviate the situation with which you are confronted rather than concealing it, there is no problem – anything else leaves one open to the trap of thinking that the real problem has been solved, at least for now, when in fact it has not.

A temporary ad-hoc solution sooner is better than a lasting fix delivered one week too late

After so many maxims emphasizing the value of a deliberate, intentional solution, it’s time to even the balance a little. There are time when it’s better to act in ignorance and pick up the pieces afterwards. The key questions are always

  • How long will this take?,
  • How long do we have?, and
  • How much of my/our time and resources have to be devoted to this to make it work?

If the lasting fix will require anything even close to the time available, there is a risk that delays and setbacks will prevent it being ready in time. Choose actions and responses accordingly.

Don’t rely on temporary fixes to solve the real problem

As is often the case, there is a caveat, or in this case, a lesson that can be learned from mistakes of the past, and it’s summed up in the headline above. A temporary fix buys you time and freedom to act – nothing more. A related trap is promoting the temporary fix as “the solution to the problem” in the minds of others – doing so means that public priorities will seize apon the problem next most in serious need of a quick fix, and demand that receive priority over a lasting solution to the first problem. In the long run, this malaise affects almost every government, especially as they approach the end of their natural terms in office and start looking tired and inflexible. Management, or government, becomes all about dancing from one emergency to another and one more quick-fix.

This doesn’t really cause serious trouble until one of those “quick fixes” doesn’t work, and what was an emergency blows up into a full crisis – and those responsible are out of ideas.

Ultimately, all this boils down to an awareness of the real effectiveness of the quick fix, and neither under- nor over-selling it.

A general solution modified to suit a specific situation

Past experience is priceless, but ignorance can be equally valuable. The more past experience you have, the greater the number of specific problems and solutions you have encountered in the past; and, if you have learned from these properly, the more general solutions you will have developed which can be used as outlines to the solution of new problems. I once heard the following statement in reference to Formula 1 engineering, though it has wider application: “Ignorance innovates, experience educates”. Robert A Heinlein was fond of describing “The Book” (in a military context) as “Largely a collection of crazy stunts that worked”. Experience enables you to arrive at a workable solution more quickly and accurately, but it is inherently conservative, focused on what worked in the past. When you don’t know something’s impossible, it becomes possible to innovate and uncover a new solution – regardless of the success or failure of that solution, it then gets added to the experience bank of the conservatives for future reference. I don’t know how often supervillains and would-be Evil Masterminds have moaned “Lord save me from gifted amateurs” or words to that effect, but I’m sure it would be more often than most people think!

Prioritizing

Life would be so simple if problems came at you one at a time, with sufficient intervals in between to permit lasting solutions. It’s never like that in reality. And that requires prioritization of the problems. Successful prioritization is an art form in and of itself – it’s too complex a subject, and too full of “fuzzy edges” to be considered a science. In fact, it’s so complex an issue that I’m going to devote the next part of this article to this subject specifically before returning to some more general problem-solving advice in part three….

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