Swiss Army Knife Thinking
This one doesn't even have half the tools mine does.

Swiss Army Knife Thinking

The flaws in thinking solution-first

When it comes to helping, we automatically think of solutions. Is there anything more basic to helping than that? Right now, the person that helps me is the one who can get me to stop grinding my teeth at night, or that can make me crave junk food less, or that can fix email (a tortuous system we impose on each other).

In other words, we think of helping as making problems go away.

But look at the bias that underlies this kind of thinking. Problems aren’t to be understood, just eliminated. What is the point, after all, of deeply understanding something that’s meant to go away? That goal, disposing of problems, gives us a bias for solutions. Thinking about solutions just makes sense, and feels a lot more exciting to boot.

Have you ever owned a Swiss Army knife? Those little devices are brimming with solutions. There’s a doodad for just about any situation. The one I own (purchased in my 20’s) has the typical pair of knife blades and a can opener. But it also has a Phillips-head screwdriver, three different flathead screwdrivers, a pair of scissors, a pair of pliers, a serrated saw, a file, a hook, a ballpoint pen, a corkscrew, tweezers (now missing), a watch (long dead), a magnifying glass, two other tools defying description, and a fish scaler.

I bought my Swiss Army knife not simply because it might be useful. I remember at the time feeling like I would use it to conquer the world.

But if you own one, you know the thorny truth about a Swiss Army knife: it’s mostly just a big empty promise in an awkward little tool. I, for example, have never once scaled a fish, let alone scaled one with my Swiss Army knife. Perhaps the most delightful absurdity is the tiny three-inch ruler etched into the side of my fish scaler, handy for measuring the three-inch-or-smaller fish I may someday catch. (Yes, I know I can measure the fish in sections. But c’mon.)

So why the appeal? Why do people buy Swiss Army knives? It’s because we love solutions. We love them so much, we’re willing to overlook their weaknesses, and how inapt they can be for any given problem. For any given problem, there is always a better solution than a Swiss Army knife.

The truth is that if I was serious about scaling fish, I would take much more seriously the problem of fish scales. I would learn how they work, what makes them hard to remove, what differences there are between different kinds of fish, and why the scales need to be removed anyway. If I was serious about scaling a fish, these are things I should know before I even thought of what kind of tool would do the job.

Unfortunately, when we encounter problems our minds turn first to the solutions we have on hand; let’s call that Swiss-Army-Knife thinking. We do this rather than understanding the problem first, knowing it well enough to discover the tools we really need.

Here are a few examples of Swiss-Army-Knife thinking:

  • Taking a group of teenagers to build a school in a developing country, where plenty of experienced builders could easily be hired. (For less than the cost of the trip!)
  • Grounding your child for yelling at you without understanding why they were yelling.
  • Developing a phone support script to more conveniently manage staff, not to better solve customers’ technical problems.

In each of these examples, the solution is more enticing than actually understanding the problem. And so the solution—every time—falls short to everyone’s disappointment.

When you encounter new problems this week, resist the urge to reach for anything resembling a Swiss Army knife. Instead, take some time to ask questions and understand the problem first. Then figure out the right tool for the job.

Seeing Good at Work

One of the best organizations for providing access to clean water is also one that looks deeply at problems. Water for People has thus far provided clean water to more than 3.6 million people, an amazing feat. But even more impressive, Water for People only works on water programs that can be owned and maintained by local organizations so that they never again need outside assistance. This is critical, as many parts of the world are littered with broken-down water equipment that was installed then forgotten by aid groups.

Water for People also actively measures their impact, and provides constant up-to-date access to their data through the Everyone Forever tracker. (“Everyone Forever” is their mission when it comes to clean water.) They estimate that a $10 donation results on $107.45 in benefits to the communities they serve.

Promotional Stuff

This week, I’d like to tell you about University Impact, a nonprofit that provides paid internships and fellowships to students who then conduct due diligence for seed-stage impact investments and provide consulting services for impact startups. (I’m on the board and investment committee for UI.)

We’ve recently launched a new product for donors that use Donor Advised Funds (DAFs), something we call the Triple DAF. A DAF managed by UI not only offers competitive management terms, but also brings three big advantages:

  1. You can use your DAF to both donate and invest in startups with high social impact.
  2. You get customized recommendations for your donor priorities, highlighting some of the most innovative solutions out there.
  3. Your support helps train students in the best practices of impact assessment and investment due diligence.

If you are interested in connecting or would like to move a DAF to University Impact, please reach out to me or visit:


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT