10 Questions That Turn An Insurmountable Problem Into An Inconsequential Event

…there are no big jobs, only small machines….R.G. LeTourneau

R.G. LeTourneau was the inventor of most massive, mechanized things with blades, wheels or tracks. You will find his DNA embedded in everything from bulldozers, earthmovers and mining equipment to feller bunchers, offshore jack-up drilling platforms and intermodal cranes. Whenever he ran into a problem that was too big for his machines, he would simply build a bigger machine.

His view of the world was pretty basic. There are problems in this world that need to be overcome and with enough thought, brainpower and brute force, these problems can be conquered.

Quite a few years ago when I was still doing real engineering work, I got a call from a customer who was having problems with an engineering company that they had hired. This company was retained to program a control system for a new petrochemical facility that the customer was building. After about twelve months of work, the engineering company was not even close to completing the scope they were hired to do and there was a very short window left to finish and prepare for the start-up of the new facility.

Unlike the embattled engineering company, I was able to come at the “insurmountable” problem with a fresh set of eyes. I realized that if I could do some database programming and data manipulation that I would be able to get this work done quite quickly. I talked with a few peers, got some ideas, did some database work and some programming, built a tool that automated a lot of the work and within about four weeks had the control system programmed. Granted there were a lot of tweaks left to take place before the system was completely ready but the bulk of the work was completed and an insurmountable problem had now become an inconsequential event because I “increased the size of the machine.”

So, how do you turn an insurmountable problem into an inconsequential event?

It really is a matter of reframing the problem from a different point of view. Instead of viewing the problem as impossibly large, you need to focus on increasing the size and power of your solution or the “machine”. You can do this by asking yourself questions like;

  1. What is the true root cause of the problem? Am I even addressing the correct thing?
  2. Do I need to reframe the problem correctly so I am addressing the actual issue and not a side issue or symptom?
  3. If this problem was solvable, how would I do it?
  4. What is wrong with the tools that I have typically used to solve this problem?
  5. Has technology changed to where the old tools no longer work?
  6. Has technology changed so that I can improve the “machine” and see a step change in the results?
  7. What can I do to improve the “machine” or create a new one so that I can see a step change in the results?
  8. Do I need to throw away the old “machine” and create a completely new one?
  9. Who in my network may have solved a problem similar to this that I can consult with?
  10. Are there other industries that may have faced a similar problem that they solved successfully? How did they do this and who can I talk with about their solution?

I understand that there are some problems that will still take decades or perhaps centuries to solve (e.g., world peace or traveling at warp speed) but many of the insurmountable problems we face today can be solved elegantly by following the approach outlined above. When we look back on these insurmountable problems after we have conquered them, most of them will seem like inconsequential events!

What problem have you been struggling with recently? What big “machine” are you going to build to solve the problem?


No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.Voltaire


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