What’s the Problem?

Helen and I enjoy our walks around the neighborhood whenever we can.  One day last summer we found our neighbor, John, and his granddaughter, Mable, intensely engaged in a project in John’s garage.  We found that John and Mable had been struggling for quite some time working on a car top cargo carrier.  One of the clamps that hold the carrier to the top of the car had been over-loosened and separated.  John’s frustration was evident and I’m sure both he and Mable had not expected the project would turn out to be so much work. 

Helen asked John if he wanted me to take a look at the carrier to see what I could do.  John was reluctant at first but showed me the carrier.  The clamp goes together by screwing the hand knob into the clamp arm.  The design resembles an upside down “T”.  The cross bar of the “T” rotates in the clamp arm so that the hand knob can remain straight as the clamp tightens.  John and Mable had been trying to figure out how they could get enough light on the parts to see how to get them aligned so the threads would catch.  Part of their problem was the fact the cargo carrier was too big to move around for easier access to the parts.

Since I don’t see, I just assessed the situation by feeling the clamp assembly.  After getting a better understanding of how the parts needed to fit together, I asked John for a nail.  By sticking the nail through the threads in the crossbar I could rotate the crossbar so that the hand knob and the nail formed a straight line.  By default, the threads in the crossbar aligned with the threads on the hand knob.  A couple minutes later the problem was solved.

Lessons learned:

John and Mable got caught up in the expectation that a great deal of value would be added by being able to see the pieces they were trying to connect.  While this may very well have been true, their efforts to find a way to see what they wanted to see proved to be unproductive.  In fact, they both got themselves pretty frustrated in the process.  In their frustration, seeing the work area became the problem they were trying, and failing, to solve. 

I brought three things to the situation:

  1. The problem was new to me so I had no preconceived notions of how to solve it.
  2. Since I don’t see, I made no attempt to see the clamp assembly.
  3. It wasn’t my problem.  Worst case scenario for me? – “Sorry I couldn’t help.  Good luck.” 

I only considered the problem of connecting the parts.  Seeing the work area wasn’t an option so I didn’t consume any energy to do so.  I assessed the problem to be one of aligning parts.  Thanks to the availability of a nail, I had all the tools I needed to solve the problem.
Applying the lessons:

John & Mable thought the path to solving their problem led through being able to see the work area.  They spent a frustrating amount of time pursuing this approach.  Unfortunately, the size of the cargo carrier became a part of the problem.   

Helen and I walking past John’s driveway while he and his granddaughter were working was just a coincidence.  There was no expectation that I’d be able to solve the problem they were having so I didn’t feel I was under any pressure to provide a solution.  At the same time, I had nothing invested in the approach John and Mable had taken so I had an open mind as I assessed the situation.


  • The problem to be solved and the approach to solving a problem are two different things.
  • At some point, the approach to solving a problem may prove to be infeasible.  This is always a judgment call but something to be aware of.
  • Sometimes it may be beneficial to just let “some guy passing by” take a look at the problem.  They may provide a fresh perspective that turns out to lead to a solution.


This post was first published as part of the Affinity News””,” a monthly newsletter I share with my mailing list subscribers.  If you would like to add your name to the mailing list, clik here.

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