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Three Rules for Providing Expected Solutions


There is a line in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, “No, it wasn’t an accident, I didn’t say that. It was carefully planned, down to the tiniest mechanical and emotional detail. But it was a mistake,” that I often think of as emPHAsising the wrong sylLAble and it can kill you in business. This is another of those “Things Semanticists Know and So Should You” posts, this one about making sure you’re solving the problem clients want you to solve. Let me explain.

Math Problems

I spent part of my recent vacation time helping a student solve some logic problems (I solve math and logic problems for pleasure). In one case the student presented a solution that was different from mine and I asked him to lead me through his logic. He did, it worked, it solved the problem, was a legitimate and valid solution. Completely different from mine, though.

He read the same problem I did and had a completely different understanding of the initial conditions than I did. By his reading his solution was correct so I congratulated him, laughed, patted him on the back and went onto the next problem.

A few problems later we encountered one that we worked on together. We walked each other through our logic defending steps along the way and came up with a solution that worked.

It was also incorrect (according to the posted solutions).

So, taking the previous learning with us, we put emPHAsis on different sylLAbles in the initial conditions. We continued getting the same (supposedly) incorrect result.

“Mind if I call your professor, Ollie? This one’s got me beat and now I’m curious where the logic hole is.”

Long story short, I walked the prof through our solution. He couldn’t find a flaw in our logic and our take on the initial conditions was the same as his. We just managed to prove an unknown solution. The prof’s final statement floored me, though. “But your answer is wrong.”

Well, it wasn’t incorrect and he admitted it. But it also wasn’t the given solution so it was wrong as far as he was concerned even though it satisfied all parameters and provided a valid and logical solution to the problem given.

Three Simple Rules

Lots of times (as demonstrated here) you can correctly solve a problem and provide a solution that doesn’t make the grade (literally). Fortunately there are three simple rules to make sure you’re EMphasing the correct SYLlable:

  1. Assume nothing.
    Even if you and your client come from the same discipline, assume no shared knowledge about base conditions and beliefs. Take five minutes to make sure you’re both talking feet and inches (anybody remember the Mars Climate Orbiter?).
  2. Explain your solution path and get buy in.
    No matter what your resume says and how much faith the client has in you, make sure the client knows what you plan to do, how you plan to do it and understands enough of your plan to let you know if they think there’ll be problems. You were hired to solve their problem, not give them another one, so listen to their advice just as much as you want them to listen to yours.
  3. Agree on the look and feel of the solution before creating one.
    This is probably the most important of the three because by following this one rule you’ve incorporated the other two. It forces you and the client to specify how big, wide, tall, long and so on the solution is going to be. It covers color, shape, material and please recognize this applies to technologies, processes, methodologies, restructurings, transitions and not just manufactured objects. Any changes to look and feel issues follow the same rule.

These rules may cause you to be a pain to college professors and they can save your professional life in the real world.

PS) you read a sister piece to this at Determining Solution Costs.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. emculturate permalink
    2009/08/12 9:23 pm

    Just getting back to your interesting set of posts.

    This one is interesting but based on the description, I can’t quite make out what was different enough between your solution and the professor’s that you could reach different end points. Did he use extra information at some point? Or just reach a point where different decisions would split the logical trail (and you took one path and he another)? If the latter, what was it about the decision, do you think, that led you one direction and he another?

    One of the things I always look for is a subtle difference in background information or context whenever there’s a conflict like this. This gets to your first rule directly about making assumptions. Just because we use the same terms and agree on the starting facts, if we don’t share the same worldview, we may tend to “emphasize different syllables” because that’s what our differences in internal context suggests works best.

  2. 2009/08/13 12:57 pm

    Hello again,
    Thanks for reading and commenting, as always.
    This truly was a semantics issue. The initial conditions had commas and “and”s. When I read “a, b, c and d” I parse them as “a + b + c + d” rather than “a + b + (c + d)”. This causes some problems when logicians write in a language other than mathematical logic.
    Did the professor use different/extra information? Not quite. The prof hadn’t even worked the problem, only looked in his solutions manual to see what the correct answer was. If the student’s solution was different from that offered in the manual then (sarcasm alert) obviously the student was wrong and graded thus.
    In this case, it didn’t matter that the prof couldn’t find any flaws with our solution and admitted it was a valid solution based on his understandings of the initial conditions, all that mattered was that it wasn’t the one offered in the book (all hail the American Education System!).

    Thus an unexpected solution, no matter how valid, isn’t going to get you a good grade in most situations. This is my take on it, I’ll admit. I’ve been in situations where an excellent solution wasn’t an expected solution and therefore failed to satisfy the client.

    And sometimes even mutual agreement on the initial conditions, proving your steps, defending your logic and having case studies won’t cause a client to accept a solution they’re not prepared for.

    That’s that “a, b, c and d <> e” thing again, I think.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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