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Solution in search of a problem

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(English) This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

The statement that a proposal is a solution in search of problem is made sometimes when a person proposes a change that others see as not worth the bother of implementing. But of course, solutions, being non-sentient, don't actually search for anything, problems or otherwise. There are only solution-proposers who might be in search of problems.

But why would a person come up with a solution and then look for a problem, rather than perceiving a problem and then looking for a solution? It seems at first to not make sense, and to go against everything we know of economics. A person takes action in an effort to become happier, and eliminate sources of unhappiness. He seeks to direct the use of resources at achieving those goals; he uses means to accomplish ends, so as to maximize utility.

To criticize a person's proposal, or her/his problem-solving approach, by saying that s/he is proposing a solution in search of a problem is basically to say that their thinking process is backward. But what is the point of speculating as to what is going on in their head? Do we know that it's the wrong approach?

It is not bad for a person, in possession of solutions, to go in search of problems they might solve


In fact, it's rather commonplace to have solutions and go in search of problems. A salesman may show up at your door and say, "I sell vacuum cleaners. They have attachments that can do x, y and z." You may respond, "What is wrong with my existing vacuum cleaner? You haven't identified a problem; you're just proposing a solution." In this case, one might indeed be suspicious of the salesman because he has a financial incentive to sell vacuum cleaners even to those who don't need them.

In the wikisphere, such incentives usually don't exist. So then, what would be the point of proposing useless ideas? A person might be accused of being a troll who is just trying to get a reaction. Or he might be regarded as well-intentioned, but having a flawed problem-solving technique.

An ice cream salesman might say, "I have vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate." The consumer might respond, "You haven't explained to me why I should choose your wares over the alternatives that are out there, or why I shouldn't just continue on my way without eating ice cream at all." The ice cream vendor might well reply, "I have no way of knowing whether there is an ice-cream deficiency problem that I can help you solve, unless you make your preferences known. So, what are your preferences? Do you want ice cream or not? If so, which of these flavors would solve your problem in a way that would satisfy you the most?" It is up to the consumer to provide the information needed to determine whether there is a problem or not, and how it can best be solved; the ice cream vendor can't be expected to know it.

It is true, he has a solution in hand (ice cream), and is in search of a problem (consumers' ice cream deficiency). Maybe some consumers won't want it; maybe some will. Why is it so bad to ask, in an effort to gain the information? Is it so costly to consider the idea? Is it even necessary to consider it, when the alternative of ignoring it is readily available?

Alternative critiques


People could instead say "From the information you've presented, it appears that your proposal's costs outweigh its benefits" and provide the reasons why they think so. If the proposer has not cited a benefit of the proposal, then that is the same as having not identified a problem. For purposes of debating proposals, a situation in which action can result in a better state of affairs can be regarded as a problem, because any suboptimal situation is problematic.

Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the proposer began with a solution and then went in search of a problem, it's irrelevant; all that matters is whether it's a worthwhile idea or not. The thought process that got the person there is not germane; to cite that as a reason for rejecting the idea would be an appeal to motive.

It can come across as somewhat patronizing to say, "Here's a better way to go about thinking about how to solve problems" when it is unclear that the person is consistently erring in his basic approach just because he came up with some ideas that are bad. It would be like if someone made a mistake in his arithmetic and you took it upon yourself to say, "Here's the proper way to do math." One can know, and still err.

It could be that a multiplicity of ideas results in both more bad ideas and more good ideas. As long as the costs of putting forth more bad ideas are outweighed by the benefits of putting forth more good ideas, the person is not to be discouraged from putting forth more ideas.

Is there a grain of truth to the concept?


Sometimes a proposer will bring up a multitude of weak arguments for a proposal, and others will perceive him to be grasping at straws. He could just be trying to present the best argument possible (even if the best that is possible is still not very convincing), so he is putting forth every possible argument he can think of. Perhaps he is happy if the outcome goes against him, as long as he feels he presented that side of it as well as was possible.

One should not assume that a proposer believes his proposal is best, or that as the conversation progresses, he remains convinced that it should be adopted; he could be playing devil's advocate. Given that possibility, one should not assume that he is mentally deficient for being unable to tell that his idea is not worthwhile, and that he needs someone to help him adjust his thinking patterns to be able to make better decisions.

Sometimes a person will say, "Would it be better if we did x?" without specifying how it would be better. One could simply respond, "No, I see no reason why that would be better." If the proposer is ready to state why he thinks a proposal will be helpful, rather than simply stating the idea without making any argument for it, then perhaps he should give that information; the more information that is available, the better-informed the decision can be. But he can also leave it to others to make the arguments, and consider his work done after putting forth the proposed solution. It is not the ice cream vendor's job to talk you into buying it; it is enough if he simply tells you of its availability and characteristics.

In short, sometimes people put forth ideas in order to inform people of possibilities, or to gather information on others' preferences. One can say, "We could do x" or "Do you think we should do x?" It should not, at that point, be regarded as a fully-formed proposal, but rather as something that may lead to a proposal. One is reminded of an exchange that took place on wikitech-l on 14 January 2014:

The response was:

See also