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Problem Finders vs. Problem Solvers

Many comedians begin their routine by stating the obvious differences between two groups of people. Perhaps it’s men and women, or white and black, or whatever. We humans love to categorize other people into groups. Pessimists and optimists, liberals and conservatives, the list goes on and on. Well, I’m not going to buck tradition that much; I am convinced that there are two basic types of people as well: problem solvers and problem finders.

The definition for these two groups is fairly self-evident. A problem finder is someone who excels at finding problems. That’s a pretty large scope, to be sure. These are the types of people that are never satisfied. They find something to complain about in every situation. When you ask how they’re doing, they say things like, “Well, I could be better.” They are experts in identifying the nearly-invisible cracks in the glass, the slight imbalance in the supposedly symmetrical piece of machinery.

You may be saying to yourself that this type of person is a pessimist, but I maintain that an important distinction between a problem finder and a pessimist is that a problem finder can be very specific about exactly what in a given situation or event is bad, while a pessimist is less able to do this in general. A pessimist can tell you how bad he thinks it is, but getting down to specifics is difficult because it’s not about specific issues or problems he sees, it’s about the way he perceives his environment and the events surrounding him. Hope that distinction makes sense.

Obviously a problem solver is someone who solves problems. These aren’t particularly complex definitions, are they? This is the type of person that is constantly trying to save the world. You have a problem? They have a solution! Well, they believe they do. There is nothing they can’t help you with. If they’re self-aware enough to realize they don’t know the answer, then they’ll happily redirect you to someone who does. After all, they have a pathological need to solve your problem, whether that’s what you want or not. Sometimes, you just want someone to listen to your story about your horrible experience or situation, and simply agree with you. “Yeah, that does suck!” “Yeah, that pisses me off too!” You’re looking for a friendly acknowledgement of the suckiness of your situation, and it can be frustrating when a problem solver patronizes you by offering what they think is a simple solution for your problem. “What are you complaining about? Take action!” they say.

I think it’s clear that everyone has a bit of both of these quirks in their personalities. We all are proactive about solving problems on some occasions, and sometimes we’re very good about finding the problems, the holes, the cracks. However, since I am an engineer, and I work with engineers, I have concluded that engineers are predominately problem solvers.

This makes sense. What is engineering? At its core, it’s finding elegant solutions to complex problems while maintaining an awareness of the needs and constraints of the solution (such as cost). It’s problem solving, pure and simple, so it is not unusual that good engineers are good problem solvers. However, I maintain that problem finders are equally, if not more important than problem solvers, if only because good ones are harder to find.

I know plenty of engineers who can solve problems in fantastic, elegant ways, but can’t easily identify the problems in their solutions, or even potential problems outside of the original problem description that was given to them. They need someone who can do that for them. The best teams at Microsoft in my opinion have a cynic, a guy who takes everything and tears it apart. It’s never good enough. And the best problem solvers I know are able to take that information and make a better solution.

So I guess my conclusion is that it’s OK if you’re not the best problem solver or problem finder. Just know that you aren’t. Self-awareness is the key, you know. In my own case, I have realized that I am a much better problem finder. I’m a natural cynic, and a bit of a perfectionist. And hey, I’m OK with that.