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The hardest part of problem solving is knowing where to start.

It's also the most important part.

A problem is any activity that sometimes works well and sometimes doesn't. Problem solving is finding out what's causing this inconsistency and eliminating it. When asked what one thing they would like to change or improve about problem solving, most people give one of these two responses.

Both these issues are the direct result of not knowing where to start. Sherlock Holmes provides clear guidance on how to correct this situation. Holmes identifies two opposite strategies for problem solving that he calls Reasoning Forward and Reasoning Backward, as described in the following quotation from The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Synthetic thought, the way we live life everyday, uses divergent thinking. It flows forward from cause to effect. We consider a variety of possible options, and then decide which one or ones to pursue. However, synthetic thinking is appropriate during problem solving only when developing possible solutions to implement, after the root causes have been identified. Holmes finds reasoning forward inappropriate when searching for root causes because the causes already exist and simply need to be discovered. Reasoning forward is ineffective because it guesses what the root causes might be rather than systematically searching for them.

Every problem has dozens or hundreds of possible factors that could be root causes, but no more than 3 actually are critical. The probability of initially pursuing one of the critical factors when reasoning forward is a few percent at best. Problem solvers who reason forward usually choose incorrectly, learn something, and choose again. Eventually they find one critical factor, but the other 1 or 2 critical factors remain active. If these problem solvers stop after finding the first critical factor, they generate a partial solution that achieves 20-50% improvement, usually after several months of work.

Holmes' preferred approach, reasoning backward, is convergent thinking. It proceeds backward from the effect to its causes by directly comparing an activity when it works well and when it doesn't. It uses Holmes' process of Observation followed by Deduction to look for patterns and consistent differences, which are the clues that quickly identify all the critical factors. Reasoning backward eliminates 90-100% of a problem, usually in just days to weeks. It has historically been 4X more effective than reasoning forward, but it is not well known or widely used, as indicated in the Holmes quotation.

The impact of changing from reasoning forward to reasoning backward is large, but the change is easy. It only affects the first step in any problem solving process. Holmes' counsel is to simply stop brainstorming possible causes and start observing the activity looking for clues. Then, pursue the clues within the existing process. This one small change achieves both the desired improvements - faster and more complete solutions - and it has the added benefit of increasing the motivation and commitment of the problem solvers.

In education, American students don't learn problem solving; Since 2008, Japanese students do.

Traditionally, no students anywhere have been taught how to solve problems, but this changed in 2008, when Japan's official education policy shifted from Memorization to Problem Solving. Luckily for America, the Japanese use the Reasoning Forward approach. The Reasoning Backward methodology is almost unknown in education - until now.

Click below to hear Gregg Young discuss the role of Sherlock Holmes in Effective Problem Solving and introduce a tool based on Holmes methods.

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Gregg Young, President and Founder of Young Associates, spent over 30 years solving problems, leading problem solving, and training others to solve problems using the Reasoning Forward approach before he discovered the Reasoning Backward methodology. Young Associates is now dedicated to spreading the superior Reasoning Backward techniques throughout business and education by delivering speeches, interviews, training workshops, and coaching, and through distribution of the book Reasoning Backward: How Sherlock Holmes Can Make You a Better Problem Solver. (ISBN 978-0-9830113-0-9) The book is available directly from the author for $24.95. Contact Gregg Young at (989) 492-2029 or by email at

The author, Gregg Young is committed to doing good while doing well by forming partnerships with corporations, foundations, schools, and non-profit organizations where everyone benefits.

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