Problem Solving Using Word Analysis
This is a fun little problem solving technique based on analyzing
the language used to describe or define a problem. It is another
way to challenge your assumptions. Assumption-challenging usually
yields the most unexpected solutions. Use this one, then, when
you just aren't getting anywhere with more ordinary solutions.
Here's how word analysis works.
The first thing you'll do is to state the problem in writing.
You can do this in your mind if you are driving or for other
reasons can't write, but it is easier if you have it on paper.
In fact, you'll want to write the problem out several different
ways, and longer statements of the problem are preferable. Let's
look at a detailed example.
Solving a Problem
Suppose a scientist wants to find a way to stop the spread
of West Nile Fever. Since it is spread by mosquitoes, he quickly
surmises that the problem is how to reduce the population of
mosquitoes. He writes down "how to better kill mosquitoes."
This is too short, so he writes several longer descriptions of
We need to kill mosquitoes to stop the West Nile Fever.
I want to stop the spread of this disease so fewer people
will be ill or die.
There are too many mosquitoes carrying the disease, and they
need to be killed before they can transmit the disease to humans.
He might write down more descriptions of the problem, but
we'll start with these. First, of all, it is worth writing several
"problem statements" in any case, because it gives
you subtly different ways to look at a problem. It also gives
you the opportunity to challenge assumptions. "We need to
kill mosquitoes," for example, might be challenged, and
so lead to a solution that relies instead on making them unable
to transmit the disease.
With this technique though, we look at the individual words
and phrases, and:
1. Question the implicit assumptions.
2. Consider other words we could use, and what they suggest.
3. Ponder the word or phrase in general, looking for any connections.
4. Ask "why?"
Let's do this with the example, starting at the first word.
"We," implies that some group of scientists or society
needs to solve this problem. Is this assumption true? Could there
be some financial incentive for a company to solve the problem?
A vaccination comes to mind. Do public officials or scientists
need to solve the problem? When he asks this, our scientist recalls
how an educational campaign informing individuals to get rid
of anything in the yard with water in it (they breed in any bit
of water) reduced mosquitoes in the area by more than 50%.
He replaces "kill mosquitoes" with "kill some
mosquitoes." This implies killing the ones that have the
disease. Maybe the virus could be modified to kill the mosquito
before it has a chance to spread it?
He ponders the the word "spread." How is this really
is this spreading? If it's going from mosquito-to-animals, and
then from animals-to-mosquitoes and on to humans, perhaps it
would be cheaper and safer to break the train of transmission
by vaccinating animals rather than humans.
Other words for "spread of this disease," could
be "spread of these mosquitoes," which implies a different
view of the problem. If there were concentrated efforts in select
areas to reduce the mosquitoes, would this keep the infected
ones from bringing the virus to new areas? The idea of something
like a fire-break comes to mind.
When he gets to "transmit," he thinks for a moment
and realizes that if the mosquitoes were unable to transmit the
disease it wouldn't matter how many there were. Could a version
of the disease that humans aren't susceptible to be released
into the wild, to eventually replace the existing disease? Could
mosquitoes be genetically modified to avoid humans?
The basic idea is to chop up every statement of the problem
into words and sentence fragments, and then see what they suggest.
Look at the assumptions in a simple statement like "I need
to make more money," and what possibilities are suggested
when we attack each word.
Continued here: More Word Analysis