This post is going to talk about impediments to problem solving. Let’s begin.


Several studies have shown that ethical dilemmas are a big impediment to problem solving. There are two main schools of thought about overcoming such dilemmas. 

Haynes Model

This suggests a 3-step approach:

  1. Determine a solution.
  2. Evaluate the consequences of the solution.
  3. Do a weigh-up between benefits and harm from the solution. 

For example, suppose that both your children are upset, and you can only talk to one of them at a time. Each one will feel neglected as you attend to the other. This is a problem involving an ethical dilemma. According to Haynes Model, you first determine a solution, say, talk to one kid. 

Then, you evaluate the consequences: who will take the percieved neglect harder? 

Finally, you do a weigh-up between the benefits and harm: Am I benefiting anyone by going in first? Why cause the harm of percieved neglect? Perhaps, I should let them come to me, and do a turn-by-turn discussion if they both come to me at the same time? 

Hall’s model

Hall suggested 4 questions to resolve an ethical dilemma:

  1. What it is basic issue? 
  2. What principle is at risk?
  3. Who will benefit?
  4. Do the benefits outweigh the harm? 

Going back to the 2 upset kids example, the basic issue could be anything. It could be that one kid was bullied and the other kid was made to feel stupid.

The principle at risk, with the bullied kid, might be: is bullying okay? and with the other kid, it might be: is it okay to be aware of your weaknesses, even at that age? 

As for the who will benefit? the parent might think who benefits from my involvement? Me? Because I can sleep easier at night? Or the kids, because they have someone in their corner? 

Finally, in thinking whether the benefits outweigh the harm, the parent might ask: does it help if I get involved and fix it, or should I let them have these experiences and work it out for themselves? 


Einstellung effect

Basically, this effect states that humans tend to use one of 2 methods to solve problems:

  1. The method that they practice most routinely.
  2. The method that worked in their most recent experience. 

This effect is another big impediment to effective problem solving. 

This effect was demonstrated by Luchins in 1942 through the water jar experiment. Basically, you need to measure a certain quantity of water. You need to do this not using a measuring instrument, but using three jars of standard capacity. 

Let’s do an example. Say we have 3 jars, A, B and C with 23 ml, 49 ml and 3 ml capacities, respectively; and the quantity that we need to measure is 20 ml.

One way to do it is using the B-A-2C approach.

  1. First, you fill B to full capacity, giving you 49 ml.
  2. Then you pour from B into A. Since A can take only 23 ml, after pouring from B to A, you’re left with 26 ml of water in B.
  3. Finally, you pour from B into C twice. C has a capacity of 3 ml. So, the first time you pour from B to C, B is left with (26 – 3) 23 ml. You do this one more time and B is now left with (23 – 3) 20 ml of water. That’s what we wanted. 20 ml. That was the goal.

So, given 3 jars A, B and C with 23 ml, 49 ml and 3 ml capacities respectively, we can use the B-A-2C approach to end up with exactly 20 ml. 

But there’s an easier way to measure 20 ml. You could just fill up A to full capacity, and then pour once from A into C. So you’d be using the A-C approach. This gives you 20 ml too. 

Still, Luchins found that most people who did the experiment used the B-A-2C approach as a matter of routine or most recent experience. They didn’t even consider that there might be an easier solution in A-C. 

Thus, Luchins demonstrated the Einstellung effect. Breaking this default human tendency involves thinking outside of routine and most recent experience and actually considering all possible alternatives to the solution. 


Understanding the problem

  1. Identify the concept to be applied. 
  2. Play around with different configurations to see whether you lose the concept very easily when the configuration is switched. 
  3. Once you’ve made sure you won’t lose the concept, try to connect the concept to the broader goal.

To give you an example of this, consider the problem of getting to work. The concepts to be applied are distance and direction. One configuration is the route you usually take, and other configurations may be routes you don’t usually take. Do you lose your sense of distance and direction when you try an unsual route? If so, you might need to work on those concepts some more. Once you’re good at both distance and direction, you can connect it to the broader goal of finding your way to any given place using just your sense of distance and direction.  


We all know what goals are. Without a clear goal (or goals), the problem cannot even be attempted. 


Prerequisites for productive problem solving

  1. Express all ideas. 
  2. Do not disregard any idea at first, no matter how outlandish. 
  3. The more ideas the better. 
  4. Avoid criticism until all ideas are on the table and have been sufficiently developed. 

Impediments to productive problem solving

  1. A “Yes, but” attitude.
  2. Self image concerns.
  3. Emotional investment and bias. 
  4. Inexperience with spontaneous thinking. 
  5. Lack of creative thinking. 
  6. Expecting to be saved. 
  7. Getting so emotionally crippled that it leads to denial, running, mental blocks etc. 
  8. Bargaining with the problem. For example, at least reward one of my efforts. Maybe then I’ll consider some more effort.

Overcoming impediments to productive problem solving

  1. Tackle each impediment directly, preferably one at a time.
  2. Be gentle with yourself. Allow periods of pity and complaning. It’s human.
  3. Be patient. Expect dead ends before finding a solution. 
  4. Do not depend on others for your problems. 
  5. Practice thinking without leaving the situation and entering a more comfortable space.  


Lack of structure

Basically, this means that no departments have been assigned for different aspects of the problem. 

Poor communication

  1. Not pointing out a mistake.
  2. Pointing it out condescendingly. 
  3. Pointing it out harshly/aggressively.
  4. Only criticizing and not suggesting improvements/alternatives. 

Negative attitude

Basically, a “Yes, but” attitude. This may be affected by emotions, learning styles, cognitive barriers and other health barriers. 

Unclear goal or agenda

Nobody knows what it’s all for, or what each department is handling. The whole project feels mindless and chaotic.  

Lack of participation

A lack of participation shows that adequate efforts have not been made by the leader to value individual strengths and incorporate them. 


Implying that any particular subgroup is at a disadvantage for reasons outside of work output/efficiency.  


In this post, we mostly talked about impediments to problem solving. We went over several factors that contribute to these impediments, and discussed effective solutions in all cases. The next post in the series will be the last. It will be a continuation on the subject of problem solving impediments. Thank you for reading.