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If Queen Marie Antoinette actually said Let them eat cake, she didnt understand what was happening in France at the time. To her, the solution was simple; the peasants were short of bread, so offer them the closest substitute, cake. Legend has it that the ancient Chinese Emperor Hui suggested a similar solution. Upon being told that his subjects didnt have enough rice to eat, he was said to have replied Why dont they eat meat? Neither of these responses addressed the real problem of course.

Its easy to come up with a solution if you dont understand the problem. And thats the way it is, all too often, today. Quick fixes, wrong-headed notions – were full of them in business, in government and even in our personal lives. H.L. Mencken, an astute observer of mankind, said, There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.

Some easy solutions:

Were a large lubricants distributor who decided to reduce wage expense by offering early retirement to long-term employees, all of whom were receiving above-average pay. Later, we realized that those workers possessed valuable, unwritten knowledge which was essential to our efficient operation. Now were having to provide an unplanned, expensive training program to bring the remaining workers up to speed. Might there have been a better way to cut costs?

Were politicians who want to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve because of high gasoline prices. We know that the resulting price drop will last only a short time, but voters will feel that were doing something. Were not concerned that the Reserve was established to hedge against a global crude shortage. We hope such an emergency will never come – at least not while were in office. But All too frequently a problem evaded is a crisis invited, statesman Henry Kissinger once famously observed.

Were a couple approved by the bank to purchase a house, but were not sure that we have the resources to cover principal, interest, taxes, insurance and repairs. Well go ahead and buy the house anyway. Surely someone will bail us out if we need it. Its not our fault that were over-extended. But maybe we should have rented instead?

There are more effective ways to approach a problem:

Ask penetrating questions of advisers, peers and subordinates to gain an understanding of the situation before considering possible solutions. To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem, psychologist Carl Jung noted. An inquisitive, open mind is a great advantage in deciphering complex problems. Challenge conventional knowledge – the answer may be different this time.

Avoid easy band-aid remedies which may not stand the test of time. Most problems are more complicated than they appear at first, and solutions are useless unless the problem is clearly understood beforehand. Stick to the facts, keep emotion out of the analysis, and aim tenaciously for solid, long-term answers.

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