The Onion (2): a model for solving interesting problems

My first post about The Onion looked at interesting problems as systems of networked sub-problems, and suggested that our solutions will mirror this structure.

The Onion is also a good metaphor for the process of finding practical solutions: we work from solving the smallest problems in theory, outwards to technical solutions, before we finally build a (networked system of) practical solution that works consistently and at the scale we need.

1) Theoretical problem – theoretical solution

First we work out how – in theory – the problem might be solved. This might be a simple case of gathering information, because the theoretical problem has already been solved – as in the case for all the three problems above.

If the problem doesn’t yet have a theoretical solution, we’ll need to break the problem into smaller pieces, work out what’s missing, and treat the smallest unsolved piece as a new interesting problem. (see the example above: family health)

2) Technical problem – technical solution

Once we have a theoretical solution, the problem becomes a technical one: how do we apply the theoretical solution in the world, in this context, to make the solution actually work? The old saying about the difference between theory and practice holds true here. When we attempt to put our theory to work in practice we uncover buried assumptions and dependencies that make our theory impractical without major revision or lots of additional work to create the conditions in which it will work. So we have a choice: modify the context enough to make the theory work, or modify the theory to better suit the context. Often we do both.

Example technical problems:
Yikes, how to do I reduce the number of horrifically-bad-for-you things that my family eats on a regular basis?
In our context, what does a healthy diet look like?
Given that I can’t source organic kale in my neighbourhood, what are the alternatives?
How do I make kale-alternatives delicious?
Which components of a healthy diet are easiest to add to what we already do?
What habits can I encourage that will make it easier for my family to eat healthily?

3) Practical or scaleable solution

This is often the most overlooked part in solving an interesting problem: what is the ‘wrapper‘ of infrastructure and activity necessary to make the technical solution workable on an ongoing basis.

This is usually about the collection and coordination of scarce resources (time, money, people, other inputs) that are needed to solve the problem reliably.

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