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The role of strategy in problem solving


A common British proverb says if life serves you a lemon, make lemonades. Making lemonades is not a problem but ability to possess the right equipment, recipe and its correct implementation is where the challenge lies. You can have two cooks with the same knowledge of cookery to prepare a meal, using the same amount of ingredients and equipment, but the result they get ultimately depends on how well the recipe was designed and implemented.

Anyone who has been involved in cooking would agree with me that you can cook a type of meal ten times and get ten different tastes if you do not use the right recipe and implement it correctly. The result will be compromised if the recipe design and its implementation are faulty. The purpose of this allegory is to disentangle and bring to the foreground of public consciousness the role of strategy in problem-solving which is the nucleus of productivity. Problem-solving occurs everywhere in life. Whether you want to cook a meal, solve a mathematical puzzle, win a war or succeed in business, you need to demonstrate strong problem-solving abilities. And this depends on your capacity to think logically and apply the proper principles of science.

Science is involved in every aspect of problem-solving from identifying a problem, evaluating it, collaborating with others and to the design and implementation of strategy that works. Around the world, public-and private-sector decision-makers rely heavily on science to inform decisions, design strategies and implement policies. Businesses and governments fail not because of lack of money and equipment but due to the wrong strategy.

Throughout history the wrong strategy has always failed to yield positive results in spite of the money and equipment one might possess. In the Battle of Salamis (490-480 BCE) between Greece and Persia little Greece with just one thousand soldiers defeated Persia with two million soldiers. If you do the math’s, you will find out that one Greek soldier fought against a thousand Persian soldiers. What could have been responsible for the feat? The answer is strategy.

The Persian Emperor, Xerxes had a wrong strategy while the Greek leader, Themistocles had a superior strategy. And the result was victory for Greece. Another case is the Battle of Adowa in 1896 between Italy and Ethiopia (called Abyssinia then), Italian army with sophisticated armament and bombs could not defeat Ethiopian soldiers who fought with just bow and arrow. This is laughable! One might ask how come? The answer again is strategy. Not too long ago, a similar case played out in the Vietnam War (1965-1973) between the United States and Northern Vietnam. The US failed to conquer North Vietnam in spite of their vastly superior weapons and a whopping $240,000,000 spent on the war.

The Vietnamese who fought with just muskets, without aircrafts and bombs, and with small money proved impossible to defeat. The result was the tactical and disgraceful withdrawal of the United States from the war. The failure to win the war didn’t lie in the US armies but in the wrong strategies used by both President Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon’s administrations. These are just a few examples of how the wrong strategy impedes success. Over the last ten years, the Nigerian government has been struggling to win the war against a rag-tag insurgent group called Boko Haram. All investments and efforts made to contain Boko Haram have failed to yield results. In the security meeting held on Thursday, 18th June, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari burst out and berated his service chiefs about their failure to contain Boko Haram.

He gave them a deadline to defeat Boko Haram or else they will be sacked. Unknown to the President, the fault does not lie in the military but in his administrative strategy. The military is just like a tool in problem-solving. What guarantees success is not the tool but how the tool is used. Since the Boko Haram war began, past and present administrations have failed to win the war because of the wrong strategy. Therefore, I reiterate that only the right strategy guarantees victory.

And when it comes to designing strategy that works, you don’t work alone. You collaborate and seek the help of others. Adolf Hitler’s defeat during the Second World War was achieved by the combined military powers of the United States, Britain, France and Canada. The success hinged on their collaborative efforts and the expertise of Marian Rejewski, a Polish Cryptographer who helped them crack the German communication code. Humans are not the only ones who know how to use collaboration, even animals use it too.

If you have ever seen a horde of soldier ants rolling a stone, you would agree with me that every intelligent creature is endowed with innate abilities to collaborate. How comes the men and women who run the Nigerian government seem to be ignorant of the power of collaboration in problem-solving? In 2014, the United States government offered to help Nigeria combat Boko Haram but to the surprise of most of us in the civic space, the Federal Government of Nigeria turned down such rare privilege. And since then Boko Haram has been enjoying a field day in Nigeria with scores of civilians and soldiers paying the ultimate prize of death on a daily basis, just because the Nigerian government failed to apply the principles of science in problem-solving. Science is about thinking and thinking logically. The ability to think logically in problem-solving situations is the hallmark of a truly educated person.

Education is beyond schooling. It is the art of training the mind to think. The spectacular pyramids of ancient Egypt which remain standing today, built as at the time when there were no schools, is a strong evidence of the people’s ability to think. Unfortunately, the type of education we have in Nigeria only fosters reading ability and not thinking ability. There is a big difference between ability to read and ability to think. People say that readers are leaders and I say no! Thinkers are leaders! Leadership is all about obligation which depends on your capacity to think and solve problems.

And your capacity to think depends on the strength of your education. A lot has been said about the poor state of the Nigerian education but those who talk or write about it seem not to realize the root cause. Here is the root of the problem: academic courses like algebra, geometry, combinatory, logic, calculus, geography, psychology and history which develop reasoning and thinking skills are not included in the core curriculum. The resultant effect of this shortfall is the inability of most Nigerians to develop the capacity to think logically. This explains why mediocrity is entrenched across the boards. In Nigeria today, it is not uncommon to find doctors who kill their patients, lawyers who cannot write, teachers who cannot do arithmetic, or engineers who cannot count. Evidence of these scenarios are everywhere around us. Surprisingly, some of these stocks of people end up becoming the officers and politicians who govern us, with gross inability to think and solve problems.

The results of this abnormally are the mountains of problems lying in our national space. Ranging from insecurity, economic depression, acute food shortages, infrastructural deficit, massive job losses, hyperinflation, official corruption, rising debt profile, to emasculated development programmes like the Millennium development Goals.  All these are direct effects of the failed educational system which is apparently telling on the Nigerian government and her people. In Nigeria, census is not regular, surveys are not conducted by the government, collaboration is not sought, and statistical data are not used to identify and address the needs of the people. The UK government’s census of 2001 included a question on religious affiliation for the first time, to enable marginalized religious groups gain a greater voice and representation in government. This demonstrates the government’s capacity to work scientifically.

The ancient Greek philosopher and thinker, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) asserted that the universe is governed by natural laws and that these laws can only be understood by logic and reasoning. Due to this understanding, Greek schools of the time started to teach pupils logic, geometry, poetry, and science. Soon the Romans and other European nations adopted this educational policy and the result today is a block of European countries that are highly developed. Thus the role of science in nation building cannot be over-emphasized. Until the Nigerian government re-strategize and starts working scientifically, our problems will continue to soar and the entire country will continue to be wrapped in frustration.
James is the convener of Opinion Force.

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