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Difficult Problems

Here is a fun problem.  Fill in the five missing numbers.

8, 18, 11, 15, 5, 4, 14, 9, 19, 1, 7, 17, 6, 16, ?, ?, ?, ?, ?

Statistically, this problem was solved by only 2% of the people attempting it in less than 60 seconds.  How did you do?

Difficult Problems

As Seth Godin says, problems are “difficult because they resist simple solutions.”  I’ve written about problem-solving before, but my focus in this blog is the particularly tenacious problems that fight and defy answers.

People tend to do three things when faced with a difficult problem:

  • they get afraid or uncomfortable and wish it would go away,
  • they feel that they have to come up with an answer and it has to be the right answer, or
  • they look for someone to blame.

Often, being faced with a problem becomes a problem of its own.  The reason a problem is a difficult problem is that often we’re not even sure how to start finding the best options let alone the final solution.


Fortunately, problem-solving is a skill that can be developed.  Here are eight steps that will help you find creative solutions to your most challenging problems both personally and professionally.

  1. Define the (right) problem

How a problem is framed significantly influences our decision making and behavior.  Never attempt to solve a problem without articulating the problem. In business, diagnosing the right problems can be harder than solving them once defined.

  1. Check your mindset

In addition to viewing the problem as an opportunity, try approaching it with curiosity. This means viewing it objectively, without judgment, in a state of mind that is prepared to be surprised and delighted by what novel solutions lie on the other side of this problem.

When viewing a problem from the perspective of an observer, the goal is not to judge the problem (“Oh this is a disaster!”), or solve it immediately (“I know what to do, and there is no time to waste!”), but rather see it as it is, not as you want it to be (“Huh, this is interesting. Let me explore the details and understand further.”).

  1. Connect with your purpose

It’s logical that we’d work harder to move through a challenge when we can meaningfully answer the question, “What’s the point?”

  1. Generate ideas

Complex problems demand agile game plans and strategies. Gather around a whiteboard or grab a giant sheet of paper and start jotting down potential solutions to the problem you defined.

  1. Make small bets

Create a small experiment that tests your theoretical solution. Make it just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money, or resources.  Choose 1-2 possible solutions from your brainstorm in step 4 to test in a way that stretches but doesn’t overwhelm you, your team, or your resources.

  1. Get feedback/evaluate outcomes

It’s important to have a way to qualitatively or quantitatively assess the impact of your small bets.

  1. Start again

For high functioning design teams, leaders, and peak performers, it’s all about consistent learning, and growth.

The Bible

Problems are frequently presented and solved in the Bible.  God wants us to know that problems are an inevitable part of our world and that we are to solve them and grow through the process.  In biblical terms, we are to persevere, so we mature and become complete (James 1:2-4).

More specifically, the Bible suggests the following.

  1. We get all the facts (Proverbs 18:13)

“What a shame—yes, how stupid!—to decide before knowing the facts!”

  1. We are open to new ideas (Proverbs 18:15).

“The intelligent man is always open to new ideas. In fact, he looks for them.

  1. We understand both sides of the issue (Proverbs 18:17).

“Any story sounds true until someone tells the other side and sets the record straight.”

Difficult problems are problems to be solved and not feared.  If you are stuck and unable to solve a problem, look for help, and remember, God is always there to help.

By the way, the answer to the problem at the beginning is:

8, 18, 11, 15, 5, 4, 14, 9, 19, 1, 7, 17, 6, 16, 10, 13, 3, 12, 2

The five missing numbers are two, three, 10, 12, and 13. And, the pattern is that the existing numbers are listed in alphabetical order.