When Is the Right Time to Solve This Problem?

As I write this newsletter, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s a crisis because we can’t maintain the old ways of living and working—unless we’re willing to tolerate significant disease and death. And, we don’t know the way forward yet.

We can’t solve the big problem of COVID-19—how to keep people healthy and achieve some level of normalcy in our lives. We’re optimizing for health.

However, we can manage—maybe not solve—many other smaller problems:

  • Work from home. (Not everyone, but many people.)
  • Home-school our children. (And, we’ll have much more empathy for teachers.)
  • Slow the spread of the disease with hand washing and social distancing.

I would love to solve the whole COVID-19 problem now. (Right now!) That’s not possible. We don’t know enough to solve the entire problem now. We need to know more about how the virus works, how it affects different people, how possible vaccines might work, and much, much more.

We need to adapt our problem-solving. We can choose when to solve which pieces of the problem when.

How I Think About When

Consider these questions:

  1. What’s the first immediate problem we need to solve? I often ask these other questions:
    1. Is there a way to reduce the magnitude of the entire problem? (This is the breaking apart of the huge problem.)
    2. How many options do we need to solve that problem? I start with risks to life and work and then consider other issues.
  2. How early or late do I need to decide, so I don’t optimize prematurely? (If we optimize prematurely, we prune alternatives we might need later.)
  3. What can I postpone considering, for now? If I don’t have to consider some parts of the problem, I might be able to make more progress on some parts of the problem. This question helps me create options for now and for later. I can stay focused on the now.

You might have other questions. And, there are no Right Answers. We trust our governments (local and national) to answer these questions for all of us. And, we need to answer many of these questions for ourselves. That’s why we’re washing hands, social distancing, and limiting our exposure to other people.

I’m optimistic. We might not know how to fix these big hairy problems right now, but we have tons of practice solving problems.

And, because I’m such an optimist, I hope that our governments and organizations use this time to Optimize for Resilience Over Anything Else and adaptability (future-proof or mistake-proof). We can learn to balance the short-term with the long term. Especially when it comes to balancing health against the economy. (To me, that’s a false choice. If we’re not healthy, we can’t keep the economy going.)

If we can break this crazy-big problem into smaller pieces, we can solve some problems. And, we buy ourselves time to think about the bigger problems.

That’s the question for this newsletter: When is the right time to solve this problem?

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