Do we have a term to describe the attitude which instead of solution, focuses on the problem. This attitude is encouraged in many places and there are some stories about it. Maybe the most famous story is "The Empty Soap Box".

I was thinking of Pluralism as a description for having many ways to get to one goal (not really relevant), or lateral thinking which is a superset of what I want.

What term is suitable?

  • Pluralism means something else entirely. – choster Sep 24 '13 at 16:49
  • just a comment on your question title: "focusing on the problem, not the solution" and "focusing on the target, not the path" actually sound like very different problems (generally, the solution is the target...) – KutuluMike Sep 24 '13 at 16:58
  • @MichaelEdenfield thanks for your comment. I changed the title. Actually by target, I meant a physical target. For example, say that you want to go to country X (target). You have many paths to get there, many transportation options, many ways. – Saeed Neamati Sep 25 '13 at 7:45

Thinking out of/outside the box

is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. This phrase often refers to novel or creative thinking. The term is thought to derive from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s challenging their clients to solve the "nine dots" puzzle, whose solution requires some lateral thinking.



Previous answer, kept for relevance

When I first read the question I believed you were referring to the XY-problem which is referred at meta.stackoverflow.com

The X-Y Problem, as it is sometimes called, is a mental block which leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and energy, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help. It often goes something like this:

  • User wants to do X.
  • User doesn't know how to do X, but thinks they can fumble their way to a solution if they can just manage to do Y.
  • User doesn't know how to do Y either.
  • User asks for help with Y.
  • Others try to help user with Y, but are confused because Y seems like a strange problem to want to solve.

After much interaction and wasted time, it finally becomes clear that the user really wants help with X, and that Y wasn't even a suitable solution for X.

  • Nice term. But it's not well recognized. I'm searching for a more formal, widely recognized term, such that can be found in credible sites like Wikipedia. Thanks for answering though. +1. – Saeed Neamati Sep 24 '13 at 12:26
  • 2
    Thinking outside the box is very recognised! – mplungjan Sep 24 '13 at 12:59
  • 1
    But perhaps isn't specific enough - the questioner didn't necessarily need this degree of creativity ("lateral thinking is a superset..."). – Chris H Sep 24 '13 at 15:07
  • ouside the box is an often used synonym for Lateral thinking – mplungjan Sep 24 '13 at 16:17
  • Does not seem to be a single word, as the OP requests. – Jack Ryan Sep 24 '13 at 16:41

There are many interpretations of this.

  • A management consultant might like Goal-oriented (-directed, -driven etc.).
  • The second solution in your story was, in the engineering sense elegant.
  • How about enterprising: 2. characterized by great imagination or initiative
  • Or even resourceful: able to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations, difficulties, etc.

In contrast simply "focusing on the problem" (or at least dwelling on the negative aspects of it) could be construed as pessimistic.

  • Not really informative and descriptive :) – Saeed Neamati Sep 24 '13 at 15:22
  • @mplungjan I wouldn't have proposed it on its own, but included it as an example of several takes on the question. From M-W:pessimism "1 : an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome" Sounds like focussing on the problem to me. – Chris H Sep 25 '13 at 7:49
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    @mplungjan, it was in contrast to my rather more positive examples. I'll tweak my answer to downgrade that example and comment on it. – Chris H Sep 25 '13 at 8:35

There are various phrases using the term big picture

the entire perspective on a situation or issue —used with the

Two common phrases are

seeing the big picture

big picture thinking

There are numerous articles and books discussing the differences between people who tend to be big picture thinkers as opposed to detail oriented thinkers, such as this essay.

  • Yeah, big picture denotes that concept to some extent. But it's more like a description of a thing, rather than an attitude. – Saeed Neamati Sep 24 '13 at 15:23

In the UK, we'd call this 'belt and braces' or 'check the basics'. No point in taking the computer apart to find out why it's not working if you haven't checked the power supply is functioning, or that the fuse hasn't blown in the plug - that's called a belt and braces approach. Not one word though, obviously...

UPDATE: mplungian: not so. 'Belts and braces' also refers to looking at a whole problem, with an overview, or a birds' eye view if you like, singling out the possible issues, and then deciding, by prioritising the identified possible causes, how best to resolve the situation. For interest's sake, in the Empty Box story, the reaction of the company to try to solve the issue would, in London colloquial terminology, be called half cocked (meaning off and running before looking properly, or only half ready).

  • Belt and braces does not relate to thinking laterally. It refers to making redundantly sure something works – mplungjan Sep 24 '13 at 16:09
  • I do not agree. I have only ever seen using more than one method to make sure that something is safe or sure to happen and dictionaries back me up. If the fan guy additionally had a person poke boxes that budged when blown at in case they had stuck to the belt, then it was belt and braces – mplungjan Sep 25 '13 at 8:06
  • Well, that's okay, I don't have a problem if you have a different opinion from mine. – bamboo Sep 25 '13 at 11:53

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