Developing Problem Solving Skills Over Lunch

Written By: Dan Williams

Most of the time, lunch is an easy decision, but it provides an excellent example of how simple problems can quickly become complex. Good problem solving skills include knowing when it’s OK to trust your gut.

problem solving skills over lunchRecently, I went out to grab lunch and realized I was in the middle of an insanely difficult problem, and it was impossible to find the ideal solution. I had complex and wide ranging goals I wanted to achieve with a large number of variables from which to choose. All of this while having to operate on a budget, and make a quick decision. But then again, the core problem was that I’m hungry and need lunch, so honestly, how complex is it? Yeah, I was starting to suffer from over complicating a simple problem, mistake number one when it comes to problem solving skills.

Everybody suffers from trying too hard to find the best answer, making the problem a bigger deal than it really is sometimes. On a regular basis, I see a problem being looked at with no decision being made for too long a time. Sometimes a problem is truly a big problem and needs to be looked at in great detail and have all the variables and goals thoroughly analyzed until the best solution is found. Often though, you don’t have unlimited time, resources or all the information available to find the best solution, and truly any solution is still just that–a solution. It solves your problem. A quick, well-reasoned solution is often the best solution.

Go back to my example of grabbing lunch and take the 5,000 foot view of my problem: I am hungry and need food. I could drive to Wendy’s and get a Quadruple Patty Baconator with 10 slices of cheese, a jumbo fry, and jumbo frosty. That would surely solve the high level problem of my hunger. I would, however, be left with something like 80,000 calories, a $20 lunch, and a massive stomachache. Keep in mind through all this, just because it is a solution doesn’t make it a good solution.

A slightly more detailed look at my problem reveals all of my goals: tastes good, filling, a halfhearted attempt at being healthy, and cost effective. That was why I headed to the grocery store’s make-your-own-salad bar for the first time ever. They charge $5.99/lb for anything at the salad bar, and you make your own salad, while putting as much as you want into it.

This is what makes it a perfect problem to overanalyze and try to optimize. Think of the endless possibilities of salad combinations you can make with 4 lettuce choices, 5 meat options, 4 cheese options, 14 veggie options, about 8 random seed and dried fruit options–I guess people put on salads–and a dozen dressing options. (That is a good math problem right there if you’re looking for some homework.) That’s a lot of variables to choose from.

I could set up some insane matrix of all my variables and assign a ranking from 1-10 for each of my goals (tasty, filling, healthy, and cost effective). Set a final goal price of $6, while achieving an overall average score of 9, and end with a final product resembling a traditional salad (lots of lettuce, a little meat, some toppings and some dressing). Mix and match how much of each variable and solve for the optimal solution. Do you see where I am going with this? It’s just lunch. It’s not worth that much effort.

So I just went through the line quickly while still applying some logic to my decision making:

  • Lettuce options: Spinach, romaine, iceberg, field greens — I selected mostly spinach with some field greens. I figured spinach and field greens cost more per weight pound normally so better deal along with the fact I like them, but not too much lettuce because $6/lb for lettuce is a rip off.
  • Meat options: Grilled Chicken, Taco Meat, Fried Chicken, Bacon — I selected a ton of grilled chicken and some bacon. I felt both had a decent value per pound: Chicken was healthy and filling, and well, bacon is bacon. How could I say no?
  • Veggie options: too many to remember and list — I selected some cucumbers and some marinated peppers. I didn’t get carrots even though I really like them. I knew cucumbers had bad pricing per pound, but they are healthy. I really like them, so in they went. Marinated peppers sound fancy, expensive, and tasty so in they go. Carrots scored high on taste and health but not good value per pound, so I had to sacrifice them.
  • Cheese options: Feta, Parmesan, shredded cheddar, shredded mozzarella — Feta and Parmesan made it in for me since I like both, and they have decent value per pound.
  • Dressing options: 12 variations — I selected balsamic vinaigrette as it was healthy and not overly dense for a decent value per pound. I liked it some, but didn’t put a lot on to keep the meal healthy and not too heavy.

So in the end my “salad” was probably closer to a custom burrito bowl then a salad, cost me about a $1.50 more than I ideally wanted to spend, but it was delicious, filled me up, and was what I would like to believe was semi-healthy. In the end, I was happy enough with my quick choices to write a blog article about it, so you could call Project Salad a success.

Sometimes it is worth the time and effort to really dive into the details and figure out the best solution, and sometimes, it’s worth it to just to trust your gut. When time is of the essence, making no decision can be the worse solution.

Dan Williams is the Systems Operations Manager at Bastian Solutions.

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1 comment

  1. Bradley Irwin says:

    I’ve always been a fan of the mantrra “Trust your instincts.” You’re right, going into detail comes with advantages. However, your gut feeling has its own charm. Most of the time, it’s right .:)

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