55/5 Rule of Problem-Solving

55/5 rule of problem-solving suggests that often it is preferable to spend more time on identifying and properly framing the problem before trying to solve it. The proportion 55/5 comes from a quote attributed to Albert Einstein (but most likely apocryphal). Einstein supposedly said that if he had only one hour to save the world he would spend 55 minutes identifying and formulating the problem and only 5 minutes solving it. (Another saying attributed to him is that “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution”.)

This, however, may be slightly more than just a catchy quote—it also contains a kernel of truth. Research suggests that one difference between experts and novices is that experts spend more time on framing and reframing of the problem.

55/5 Rule and Research on Expert Problem-Solving

Research suggests that generally experts start slower but find the correct solution faster than novices do. [1][2] Novices, on the other hand, spend noticeably less time on formulating the problem and more time on trying to find the solution; while this approach may seem speedier, it usually means that they end up spending more time overall because they often have to start over.

  • Science. Studies of expert physicists, among others, show that experts spend more time building a representation of the problem in terms of basic physics principles; only after they understand the problem thoroughly, they construct the solution plan.[3] Novices, on the other hand, start by trying to find an equation that would give them an answer.
  • Medicine. Studies of expert radiologists also found that experts spend proportionately more time building a thorough representation of the patient’s anatomy.[4]
  • Arts. Problem finding and formulation is also important for creativity in arts. In a classic study by Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the experimenters observed how art students produced their drawings.[5] Some students spent more time on problem finding, as evidenced for example from handling more objects before settling on which to use in their drawing; those students, the researchers found, produced more original drawings.
    Yet, other studies of creativity in arts came to different conclusions. Stéphanie Dudek and Rémi Côté studied creativity of first year arts students who had to produce a collage.[6] They found that what mattered was not the time spent in the preparatory stage but rather all the labor and energy focused on the solution. Yet, as they pointed out, their findings could be reconciled with Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s study if we think about problem finding as trial and error that continues beyond the preparatory phase into the problem-solving phase.[7] Furthermore, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi themselves pointed out that problem finding is not be limited to a preparatory stage, but is continued throughout the entire process, and what counts is the ability to make changes, to keep the mind open, and defer the closure.

While research shows that the problem-formulation phase is critical, a word of caution is appropriate because it is easy here to mistake the effect for the cause. There is no guarantee that you’ll become an expert problem-solver by merely spending more time on the problem formulation. It is likely that spending more time on problem-identification comes as a by-product of being an expert, but it doesn’t mean that a novice will achieve expert’s level by merely spending more time on problem formulation. It may be that simply having more knowledge leads you to spend more time on framing the problem from more varied angles. Still, in most cases it is a safe heuristic to spend more time analyzing the situation and reframing it from a few different angles before narrowly focusing on solutions.

Notes

[1] Susan Merrill Rostan, “Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and Cognitive Controls: An Empirical Investigation of Critically Acclaimed Productivity.” Creativity Research Journal 7, 97–110 (1994). DOI: 10.1080/10400419409534517

[2] Alan Lesgold, Problem Solving, in The Psychology of Human Thought (Robert J. Sternberg and Edward E. Smith eds.) (Cambridge University Press, 1988) pp. 188-213.

[3] Ibid, at 201-202.

[4] Ibid, at 202-203.

[5] Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Creative Vision: Longitudinal Study of Problem Finding in Art (New York: Wiley, 1976).

[6] Stéphanie Z. Dudek and Rémi Côté, “Problem Finding Revisited”, in Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and Creativity (Mark A. Runco ed.) (NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1994) pp. 130-150.

[7] Ibid, at 142.