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S.O.L.V.E. Your Own Problems

Saving the World

While attempting to sneak into a top security U.S. research facility, Angus MacGyver first had to get past the front door and its attached security keypad. But how was he to see which numbers were being pressed, and in which order, without surrendering his secure hidden position in the back of a cargo truck 200 feet away? The answer was simple, or at least it was simple to MacGyver, all he needed was the sports section of the newspaper, a mag light and his watch, all conveniently located in the back of the truck he currently inhabited.

My childhood hero
With a few simple twists, MacGyver removed the magnifying lens from the mag light. A moment later, he popped the watch crystal off the front of his watch and rolled the sports section into a conical tube. After placing the watch crystal at the narrow end of the tube, and carefully nestling the larger magnifying lens at the opposite end, he had himself a homemade telescope. All that was required now was to wait for someone to enter the code and pass through.

(beep. boop, beep, beep)


Creative Childhood

MacGyver was one of my all-time favorite TV shows growing up as a kid. I was always amazed with the things he could achieve simply by using the everyday objects he found laying around, and his trusty Swiss-Army knife. If any show was to top "MacGyver", it might have been the "A-Team". Watching B.A.Baracus build a tank out of a Ford Pinto was equally inspiring, if only slightly less believable.

While saving the world and building a tank out of a Pinto are admirable feats, I can't argue otherwise, can you imagine how helpful a skill like this would be in everyday life? How amazing would it be if every time you, or your students, were presented with an obstacle, they looked for ways to overcome it instead of submitting to defeat? Can you imagine for a moment the kind of grit, resilience, and confidence that would build? I propose it would be no less impressive than building that Pinto tank (and it's honestly much more believable).

In this post I present a simple five step process for overcoming blockers and barriers that pop up on a day-to-day basis. Following these steps, I hope you're able to create solutions in situations that would have previously been barriers (and if you happen to save the me).

S.O.L.V.E. Problems

So, have a seat, pull out your Swiss-Army knife and duck tape and prepare to solve problems the MacGyver way. (Or as close as you can get without actually growing a mullet).

The first item I want to clarify is WHEN you should think about using this method. The S.O.L.V.E. method is best used when you need something NOW. It's good for very spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment type problem solving. Often there's a high degree of urgency involved in the need. These are "quick hit" types of solutions, and that is specifically why this method is so helpful in building creative confidence.

To use a metaphor, this is not for solving mountain sized problems. Climbing a mountain takes a long time and a lot of effort and planning. Leave the mountain climbing to the heavy hitters like design thinking or Agile development. This is for the little, "everyday" type issues, and if you're actually looking for the opportunity, I think you'll find they arise much more often than you think. MacGyver used it to save the world. You'll probably use it more to help a friend, student or co-worker.

If you can get people to solve small problems on a day-to-day basis, then they become much more confident in solving larger problems when the need arises.

The Five Basic Steps

The whole process breaks down to the following five simple steps:
  1. Specify the actual need.
  2. Observe the environment around you.
  3. Label things by their functionality.
  4. Validate your solution with a small/quick test.
  5. Evaluate possible risk scenarios and what can go wrong.
Let's take a few examples and see how they solve through the process.


The first thing you need to do when solving any to specify what the actual problem is. This probably sounds incredibly obvious, but sometimes it's trickier than you might think.

"Do you have a compass?"
Let's take our first example, if someone asks for a compass (not the north, south, east, west type...but the thing that looks like an upside down "V" with a pointy tip and a pencil tip) they may not actually NEED a compass. They may actually only need to draw a perfect circle. There are lots of objects you can use to draw a circle, it just depends on the size of the circle needed.

I mean sure, if you HAPPEN to have a compass in your back pocket (then how do you sit down?), go ahead and let them borrow the compass.

In this example, the person confirms that they do indeed need to draw a circle for a project they're working on.

"Do you have a ruler on you?"
For our second example, let's pretend someone asks you for a ruler, a request that seems simple enough. Again, if you have a ruler that makes the discussion much shorter. But let's just say, for argument's sake, that you don't have a ruler on you at all times. (Engineering and geometry teachers, just play along.) Does the person really need a ruler? Are they trying to measure something, and being that it's a "ruler" and not a "tape measure" or "yard stick", it's a safe bet that it's something small (most likely under 12 inches long). Or, do they just need to draw a straight line...and the "ruler" is the first thing that jumped to their mind for that task. The only way to know is to ask them.

For our example, the person needs to measure string into 5 inch lengths for a project.

"I really need a cheese press."
Ok, I admit, this one is most likely going to pop up a lot less often than the other two, but just in case it does, I want you to be prepared. Actually, this one is based off a true challenge that one of my students, Garrett, solved at home, and I love it so I'm going to use it. In this example, Garrett was learning to make cheese at home and discovered that you need a machine called a "cheese press" in order to make certain kinds of cheese. The problem was, a cheese press can cost anywhere from $35 to over $250 and he wasn't going to just run to the store to buy a cheese press -- but he still wanted to make his cheese.

For our final example...Garrett needed a cheese press. He needed a way to put constant pressure on a mass of cheese, while forming the cheese in a "cheese mold" and collecting the liquid that gets squeezed out so it doesn't make a mess anywhere. (This is probably why cheese presses cost so much.)


The second step, is to observe the area around you and take inventory of what you see. Be sure to look in nearby containers, drawers, pockets for possible items. The step is the same for any of our examples...the only thing I'll make special note of is that our chef, Garrett was at home making cheese. At this point, take in everything. You're not going to use most of it, but you need to know what you have to work with.


Step three. Now that you've made a list in your head (or on paper) of what items you have to work with, you need to stop thinking of them as those items.   Instead, label all the items by all the things you can use them for. A roll of masking tape isn't a "roll of masking tape", it's something that can adhere things together, you can write on it and label things, you can use it to pick things up that you don't want to touch, and you can use it to draw circles (two or more sizes...if you're willing to discard some of the tape).  You may also see a soda can, drinking glasses, a drink get the idea.

If you happen to find dollar bills of any value around you, then you have something to write on, make notes with, paper that folds (ideal if you happen to know origami), paper that rolls, paper that is 6.14 inches long by 2.6 inches tall, or 6.6 inches from corner to corner. And with that, you have the makings of a small measuring device. If you can find a standard sized business card near you then you have a measuring device that is 3.5 inches by 2 inches...although it's a little tougher to manipulate than a paper bill.

As for Garrett, he had too many things in his house available to him to even begin to list here. But let's just say he was familiar with the the contents of his I figure most of us would be.


Next, if you haven't guessed, is that you should be able to cross-reference the item labels, with your actual need. If you're lucky, you may have more than one possible match. In that case, you need to pick the best tool for the job. The only way to do that is to perform a quick test.

The fourth step requires you to validate your theories with small tests. Can the things do what you think they can do. Do they work together in the way that you had in mind?

Validating the circle may depend on the size of the circle needed. Drawing "a circle" doesn't do any good if it's not the required size.

For our ruler example, if you can get your hands on two business cards, that makes it very easy to measure a 5 inch string.

Unfortunately for Garrett, there wasn't really a good way for him to perform a small scale test. It was an all-or-nothing experiment. While this is less-than-ideal, sometimes it's unavoidable and you roll with what you have.


The final step is to evaluate the possible risks involved with your solution. This is critical because you need to do your best to predict what might go wrong with your solution. Do you have to dismantle something? Can you put it back together? Is part of your solution consumable...meaning once you try it, it's gone? What is your worse case scenario with your proposed solution?

If you're working with a team of people this can inadvertently cause a lot of frustration because very often this can appear that you are shooting down and criticizing ideas. The truth is that you're simply trying to insure that whatever idea you go with actually works. I'm sure you'd hate to make a problem worse while trying to fix it.

For our ruler example, whether you use a dollar or a business card, or something else, the biggest risk is most likely not measuring accurately. This is assuming you're not going to rip a twenty dollar bill in half to measure something (which will cost you $20). How would an inaccurate measurement affect the thing that you're trying to build?

Garrett has the biggest risk here. Depending on his solution, he could ruin the cheese (and thus all the ingredients used to make it), make a big mess, or even possible break the items he's using for press.

S.O.L.V.E. It!

If you can accept any risks your solution may involve, then it's time to put your plan into action. Sometimes things may not work out like you planned, but I think you'll be surprised at how often these spontaneous solutions payoff. One thing is for sure, if you don't at least give it a try, then I can guarantee the problem won't be solved.

And Garrett? The image below shows the absolutely amazing cheese press that he constructed from items he found around his house. The machine includes an aluminum cooking pan (to collect the water squeezed out of the cheese without making a mess), the top grate from a grill (to keep everything else out of the water), an empty cottage cheese container with holes poked in it to allow water to exit (this contains and molds the cheese), an empty sour cream container (because the base of the container had a smaller diameter than the paint above it), and four gallons of paint (to provide the constant and sufficient weight to squeeze out the water).

Garrett's genius homemade cheese press
This construction was shear brilliance....and all from a high school freshman that didn't consider himself "creative".

He's a genius, and just doesn't realize it.

I believe we're all much more capable at solving problems than we give ourselves credit for. The trick is to stop viewing them as blockades and start viewing them as challenges, or even games that need to be won.

In Closing

My final words on this are that it's a lot easier to S.O.L.V.E. problems when you have a library of information to pull from. A business card is only useful as a measuring tool if you know that it's dimensions are 3.5" x 2".  So, my tip to you is that you should always be observing and taking note of things. Make special note of commonly found items. The diameter of a quarter is only a tiny bit shorter than 1". Any U.S. paper bill is approximately 6" by 2.5". Measure the size of one tile in your classroom or office floor (in case you need a tape measure in the future). Measure the length of your hand when you spread your fingers as wide as you can (mine is almost exactly 9"). Take things apart, see how they work and put them back together.

Be curious. Be creative.


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