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Are Your Lights On?

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The fledgling problem solver invariably rushes in with solutions before taking time to define the problem being solved. Even experienced solvers, when subjected to social pressure, yield to this demand for haste. When they do, many solutions are found, but not necessarily to the problem at hand.
Whether you are a novice or a veteran, this powerful little book will make you a more effective problem solver. Anyone involved in product and systems development will appreciate this practical illustrated guide, which was first published in 1982 and has since become a cult classic.

Offering such insights as "A problem is a difference between things as desired and things as perceived," and "In spite of appearances, people seldom know what they want until you give them what they ask for," authors Don Gause and Jerry Weinberg provide an entertaining look at ways to improve one's thinking power. The book playfully instructs the reader first to identify the problem, second to determine the problem's owner, third to identify where the problem came from, and fourth to determine whether or not to solve it.

Delightfully illustrated with 55 line drawings by Sally Cox, the book conveys a message that will change the way you think about projects and problems.

129 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 1982

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Donald C. Gause

6 books4 followers

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5 stars
325 (34%)
4 stars
363 (38%)
3 stars
190 (20%)
2 stars
49 (5%)
1 star
14 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 79 reviews
Profile Image for Jon Mountjoy.
Author 1 book8 followers
April 6, 2013
Written with obvious and playful humour, a short book on problem solving. "A problem is a difference between things as desired, and things as perceived" - and this book goes on to arm you with a number of problem solving techniques, from the venerable "ignore the problem" to understanding just what the problem is, whether the solution is desirable, whether people will believe you've solved the problem, who's problem it actually is, and defining problems well.

Some funny lines too: "Once the rumor starts, it spreads like a muscle spasm in management's lower back."
Profile Image for Vikrama Dhiman.
159 reviews82 followers
January 2, 2021
Fantastic start of the year. What a book!

I have read some chapters thrice already. The contrived examples draw chuckles at how real they are and how you have been solving problems without knowing you are solving one. There are 23 key lessons but I loved three specific takes:

Find out, whose problem is it.
1. We never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over
2. People seldom know what they want until you give them what the ask for
3. Find out, whose problem it is i.e. WHO has a problem?

Highly recommended. The book also has some dry humor. You'll love it. Pick it up now.
Profile Image for Henry Ho.
27 reviews
January 19, 2017
I like the point of the book, but it gets repetitive and most the examples are (purposely?) contrived.

It's been a while since I read it, but I think some of my takeaways were:
- who's problem is it (who cares)? that will usually give you a clue on how to get it solved
- should you be the one solving it?
- if you cannot solve it, then make it a problem for the person who can (make that person care)
- does it needs to be solved / is it a real problem?
- don't jump to a solution / blindly go along with a proposed solution

All of which are things I have heard but often fail to apply.
Profile Image for Mohan.
16 reviews21 followers
July 11, 2022
This is a book on solving problems.

As with Edward de Bono, this is a useful guide to avoid errors in thinking. We have horseblinds that we are blind to, and this book helps us see them. The authors remind us that clearly identifying the problem is the first step, and a truly challenging one at that. Yet, this is only the beginning. Everything done to solve the problem, influences the environment where the problem was found, and this complicates everything.

The key contribution of this book is to acknowledge and explain the human element of solving problems
Profile Image for Artas Bartas.
34 reviews22 followers
April 18, 2021
Typically, I avoid reading business books published back in the day. Unlike fiction, business advice tends to age badly. More dedicated readers with fewer children might think that wrestling with bad economic theory, monotonous writing style, and casual sexism/racism remarks to discover a few nuggets of insight is a fair trade. Not me. I consider my time too precious (and my mental state too fragile) to be indulging in such pastimes.

As a result, I approached "Are your lights on?" with a lot of caution. Oh, how wrong I was. In a nutshell, this book breaks all the rules of modern publishing, which is exactly what makes it such a valuable read. But let's start at the beginning. "Are your lights on?" could be best described as a light-hearted introduction to problem-solving. Each chapter contains half a dozen of real-life problems, lots of unconventional solutions, and pithy slogans helping the reader to learn a bigger lesson hiding in the story.

Authors Donald Gause and Gerald Weinberg have amassed an impressive collection of anecdotes in the book. They'll take you through rigged public tenders and encounters with dour-faced communist functionaries to petty office squabbles, so well portrayed in "The Office," and engineering challenges faced by traffic authorities in Switzerland.

One would struggle to find a common thread running through all these solutions. It's not one of those books peddling a big theory or an exhaustive list of heuristics. Instead, it invites you to approach problems like a multi-faceted puzzle. Sometimes you'll solve them by focusing on technical facts, other times you'll have to navigate the social context or get creative with wording your problems.

Take an example from a company manufacturing toys. A new employee runs cost calculations and comes to a shocking conclusion that the company would save money by closing two out of three factories it runs. He shares his discovery with senior executives but, to his surprise, they thank him for the effort but burry the cost-saving measure. "Why?" asks the bewildered employee, "Don't you want to cut the cost of running a company?"

"The real reason we continue to produce toys in those factories," responds one of the executives, "is not economic, but political." The loss-making factories are located in the cities where the company president and chairman of the board live. And the lesson here is that "in spite of appearances, people seldom know what they want until you give them what they ask for." If you enjoy this kind of practical wisdom, you'll love the book.

One of the biggest sins of modern publishing is word inflation. How many business books out there should have been articles? A good 80%, if not more. By contrast, "Are your lights on?" is refreshingly concise. At 150 pages, with lots of quirky illustrations, chapters chase one another. It took me barely three hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon to get through the book.

And those three hours were accompanied by a constant chuckle and even occasional guffaws. Messrs Gause and Weinberg have a great sense of humor and aren't afraid to poke fun at pompous men and women inhabiting corner offices of American corporations or presiding over visa formalities in communist Poland. Heck, they even let some characters die in the process of solving problems. George R. R. Martin would have been proud.

The biggest insight of the book, however, lies in the way it frames business problems. Whereas modern business books assume that each problem is worth solving and has a discrete solution, this book takes a very different perspective. To Gause and Weinberg, problems are products of social relations and therefore should be approached with the same pragmatic attitude: some will be worth solving, others - ignoring.
Profile Image for Shuan.
56 reviews2 followers
January 28, 2023
A quick read about problem solving

I picked up this book because I read and very much enjoyed reading Gerald’s book on systems thinking when I was a college student.

This book is short and easy to read. Written in a colloquial manner.

My main takeaway from the book is don’t overlook the importance of how a problem is defined, including whose problem it is and the words that are used. Also, solving a problem often results in undesired side effects. A good problem solver is one that sees the bigger picture and prevents the undesirable side effects.
Profile Image for Nimish.
76 reviews4 followers
July 24, 2021
It's written in an amusing and easy-to-read way, but it meanders quite a bit from a central point/theme.

It hits lots of really interesting points/ideas/witticisms, and leaves you going "hmm" a few times, but it doesn't really give you, say, a systemic approach to problem-solving or problem-diagnosing. It has a few interesting guidelines, but I'd re-title it something like "Musings on problem solving and some lateral thinking stories".

Profile Image for Andrew Strenn.
44 reviews
February 25, 2016
As a book on general problem solving, it was pretty entertaining. It was thought provoking, but I didn't learn anything too dramatic.
Profile Image for Douglas.
142 reviews13 followers
June 26, 2017
A nice way to re-frame your approaches to solving problems. Written in the style a book from 1982 could only produce.
Profile Image for Oleksandr .
209 reviews7 followers
July 7, 2018
Several anecdotes about solving problems.
It shows several more ways to think about the problems.
One of my favourite points in this book is - "EACH SOLUTION
Profile Image for Luke.
5 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2021
TL;DR, great read, lots of interesting points, can be hard to follow at times, language is a little dated.

There were some great and interesting thoughts on what a "problem" is, how they arise, how you might approach them etc. That being said, there were a few times the stories didn't gel particularly well. There were even times the authors seemingly had the same though and stories would cut off with "we won't go further", making the story a little bit redundant, then it switched to a conclusion.

There was also a lot of "post script" after each story to explain what they tried to get across previously, which just felt a little like bad writing to me.

This all sounds like me bashing the book, and it is, but the points they make are good ones and land pretty well for the most part making that part great, but it comes at the cost of wading through some parts you may not care about.

Additionally I found the language used has not aged well at all, and just being inappropriate even for the time it was released. This is something to consider if you're thinking about reading this.
Profile Image for Andoni.
56 reviews1 follower
September 26, 2021
Interesting and short reading. The book invites you to deeply analyze problems and take different approaches. As humans beings, we tend to think we have "figured out" what the problem is, minutes after we have learned of the situation. We sometimes even dare to offer a solution right away. We don't have to be afraid to deeply look into problems and find the true cause behind it.

I really liked the opening story, where the autor puts you in a situation, where you have to figure out what the problem really is regarding the "slow" traffic in a building elevator. The author invites you to be open minded about finding what the problem really is.
17 reviews
January 4, 2020
The book is about problem-solving.

There's a series of situations presented, in each of them the problem evolves in terms of complexity. In some of the situations presented certainty is peeled off from the problem statement and the solution. So in the end it turns out that neither the problem statement was correct, nor the solution was correct, even though the process starts with one "solution" and then iterates through more and more failed "solutions" (some of them borderline absurd), none of which fits.

Generally, the point being made is that even though the problem solver thinks they understand the initial problem statement as it was laid out, that too turns out to be incomplete, which they only find out later (either because of unwritten, implicit details that are just absent).

The book also describes some problems in the context of IT (mainly software).

So I think the material presents (in a cautionary style) the difference between textbook problems, and real-world problems where people, interests, politics are involved. So even if something looks like a technical problem, there's always non-technical aspects involving implicit assumptions, incomplete problem statements and implicit restrictions that apply.

I'll give it a 5-star, and I'll have to go back and re-read it at some point.
Profile Image for Nzcgzmt.
88 reviews4 followers
November 25, 2020
The first half is pure genius; the second half is merely intelligent. Overall a rather fascinating read.

1) A problem is the gap between a perceived state and desired state.

2) The trickiest part of certain problems is just recognizing their existence.

3) If you can’t think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don’t understand the problem.

4) Don't Solve other people’s problems when they can solve them perfectly well themselves.
Profile Image for Wanderson Ferreira.
32 reviews3 followers
November 16, 2019
Very nice book. Often I ask some questions about what is the nature of the problem that I am solving with. I think this book sheds some light in this dilema by explicitly asking you: What the problem really is? Who the problem is affecting? This is a problem for everybody involved? All this questions are often not considered and many "solutions" only creates different problems (often harder than the original one). I am re-reading it in the next year for sure.
199 reviews6 followers
January 27, 2019
Solving a problem starts with a solid problem definition. Try to be as specific as you can defining the problem and do reality check of the problem definition. There is one fix for all. And one solution can lead to other future problems. Take example of eCommerce, Internet. Now regulations are needed to keep people honest, moral and ethical.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jyotirmay.
17 reviews1 follower
February 24, 2022
More than solving problems ,the bigger problem lies in defining what is the actual problem.

This book teaches the art of clearly defining the problem,who does it actually affect and how to uncover more pertinent problems.
A very light read with great insights.

Mom Test and Are Your Lights On should be compulsory reading in Product Management
Profile Image for Matt Malin.
11 reviews
December 3, 2019
Short and sweet - surprisingly entertaining and fun. Not quite what I was expecting (in a good way) and also does provide some thought provoking ideas, particularly on considering "who really has the problem".
Profile Image for Giacomo Debidda.
25 reviews
October 17, 2020
Some valuable insights, so-so delivery.
I found some good takeaways in this book, and I liked some of its chapters.
Unfortunately, most of the chapters were too verbose for my taste and I quickly skimmed through them.
Profile Image for Alex Fürstenau.
171 reviews7 followers
December 25, 2020
An interesting read. You don't often ask myself whose problem it really is but you should. Is it really your problem or is someone (your boss, spouse, kids) transferring their problem to your problem?
Profile Image for Brett Schellenberg.
1 review1 follower
February 16, 2022
Not bad, felt like it jumped around a bit. It felt like there were some things left unsaid that I was supposed to grok but didn’t quite.

Still, an interesting short read with some thought provoking allegories.
1 review
January 30, 2023
wisdoms that holds true through time

This is not a step-by-step how-to book. The insights and observations about people are timeless and profound. I could often relate stories to my real life experience, and the book is a refresher to my guiding principles.
Profile Image for Kristina.
123 reviews
October 29, 2017
Characterisation of the classic 'have you tried restarting your computer' use case. Good for high school freshmen. Disliked the narrative format.
Profile Image for Gerry.
149 reviews2 followers
July 28, 2018
An easy short read on a problem solving but compared to other works by the same author didn't get as much as I had hoped.
64 reviews2 followers
August 29, 2018
Provisional three star. Lots of mildly witty stories, but hard to mine the practical advice inside on the first attempt.

Will update if I try it again.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 79 reviews

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