Admitting Not Knowing What to Do Is The First Step to Problem-Solving

At the height of the Second World War, Great Britain was on the brink of defeat.  The Nazis had conquered the European mainland.  German U-boat submarines were sinking merchant ships from America, constricting critical supplies to the United Kingdom.  The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, was bombing London and other British cities at will, inflicting heavy casualties.  The British leadership didn’t know what to do. 

          The British government engaged the help of its most brilliant scientists to find technological breakthroughs that would perhaps give the English armed forces some advantage in weaponry.  The scientists, consisting of physicists, mathematicians, and even biologists, found out that technology wasn’t the problem, but rather in the manner the military managed its operations. 

          For example, the scientists led by physicist Patrick Blackett1, found that anti-aircraft (AA) batteries defending London were shooting pointlessly against German Luftwaffe bombers because only 30 out of 120 of the guns had access to radar data to track incoming targets.  Blackett’s science group recommended re-deployment of the anti-aircraft batteries so all of the guns would have access to the radar data.  Whereas before it took 20,000 AA rounds to shoot down a German bomber, the number was reduced to 4,000 rounds per shoot-down after the re-deployment.  Anti-aircraft accuracy improved by 80%. 

          Blackett also introduced operational solutions to defeat the German U-boats.  His colleague, E. J. Williams2, also a physicist, suggested changes in how British bombers searched and targeted U-boats.  By changing the timing and placing of depth charges, and by simply repainting planes from black to white to make them less likely to be spotted in the daytime sky, the British was able to increase the kill rate of U-boats from 1 to 2 per cent to 10 percent, a 1000% improvement. 

          British leaders at their darkest hour of the war admitted they didn’t know what to do.  They went to their scientists for answers.  When they did, they found out that the issue wasn’t about searching for the right answers but defining the problems rightly.   By just knowing what problems to solve and solving them, the British and their Allies were able to defeat the Nazis and win the Second World War. 

          Eighty (80) years later, the world again is in a crisis.  The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened more than a million people and brought businesses to a halt.  More than three (3) billion people worldwide are in lockdowns. 

          Despite the efforts, government and business leaders do not have a unified front versus the pandemic.  They have engaged medical experts who have urged quarantines, personal hygiene, and social distancing.  There is no prospect for an early cure or a vaccine.  No one has a firm idea how long this crisis will last.  No one leader, it seems, knows what to do. 

          Admitting not knowing what to do should not be seen as shameful.  Rather, it should be seen as a first step to solving a problem.   

          We have gotten used to finding solutions quickly for most of our problems.   In our fast-paced world, we like to get obstacles out of our way as fast as we can. 

          But not all problems can be solved outright.  Sometimes, and it’s getting more often, we have to admit that we just don’t know what to do.  We need to realize it may be better to engage other resources or talents to define our problems rightly before finding the right answers.

1Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) Kindle Edition, Chapter 6, Loc 2846

2Ibid, Kindle Edition, Chapter 7, Loc 2982 to 3047