How Do Great Scientists, Creative Thinkers, and Problem Solvers Solve Hard Problems?



They don’t solve hard problems head on.

In The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird explian how smart people solve hard problems.

Surprisingly, they admit defeat.

Burger and Starbird write:

“Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head on.  When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately, and prudently admit defeat.   They realize that there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with simpler cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come.”

They bite off what they can chew.

Burger and Starbird write:

“When the going gets tough, creative problem solvers create an easier, simpler problem that they can solve.  They resolve that easier issue thoroughly and then study that simple scenario with laser focus.  Those insights often point the way to a resolution of the original difficult problem.”

Before you walk on the moon, just try to hit it.

Burger and Starbird write:

“Apply this mind-set to your work: when faced with a difficult issue or challenge, do something else. Focus entirely on solving a subproblem that you know you can successfully resolve.  Be completely confident that the extraordinarily thorough work that you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities of the larger issue.  But don’t jump to that more complex step while you’re at work on the subissue.  First just try to hit the moon … walking on its surface is for another day.”

The key to cracking complexity is first solve the simpler stuff.

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Image by @boetter.


  1. This reminds me of Why Analysis. However, with Why Analysis one tends to focus only on the root cause. Taking the insights from this article, I can see how it would be beneficial to solve the “simpler” issues leading to the root cause for a more comprehensive solution.

    • I think this approach builds confidence and momentum, as well as “building blocks” for more complex ideas.

      In addition to Why Analysis, the variation I’ve used at work is:

      “What do we know? … What don’t we know? … What do we need to know next?”

      Asking what do we know, builds a foundation.
      Asking what we don’t know, exposes assumptions and clarifies the “edge” of our knowledge.
      Asking what do we need to know next, turns it into action with focus and purpose.

  2. I loved the concept: focusing on manageable problems to develop the ability to address problems that are currently impossible. I needed that advice when it comes to some of my writing goals. Perhaps it’ll even work in the realm of parenting 🙂

    • On writing, there’s a “field stone” method. At least, that’s what Gerald Weinberg calls it.

      The idea is to write little nuggets, or “field stones”, and then assemble them. This way, you never get blocked. You just write another “stone” or “pebble”, even.

      If it helps, I was an impossible kid. I think my Mom learned over time, a day at a time, a “situation” at a time (I wrote a “Lessons Learned from Mom” post to share some of her insights.)

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