How to solve unfamiliar problems

Most of us spend most of our time solving problems in a domain we're familiar with. I code and writing code is similar across desktops, web, iOS, etc. The languages I use are generally similar and there are patterns I use to solve programming problems.

But sometimes, I'm confronted with a problem that I need to solve for which I have little background or experience. For example, the first time I had to ship software in a box with a manual, there was a ton I had to learn about cardboard and printing and folding and a lot of other stuff.

Learning about a new problem domain is interesting. I tend to read, talk to people, hire consultants, get lists of vendors from people I know and the consultants I hire. Once I have all this information, I'll assemble it into a consumable form and work with people I trust (in the case of boxes and manuals for software, my company's management team) to review the assembled information and make decisions.

Put another way, I'll assemble binders of information for review and decision making…

Problems that should not be unfamiliar

Listening to Romney's debate discussion about equal pay for women in last night's debate, I was struck by Romney's complete failure to understand the issue.

Romney talked about getting a binder full of women and choosing from that binder for his administration. This is a failure on Romney's part to understand that women are not just a checklist item, but woman are people and all people are integral to making an organization successful. Woman (or blacks or Jews) are not just decoration for votes, but core contributors. Romney should be going through his day identifying awesome potential team members, some of whom are not white Christian men.

The list of excellent women Romney might add to a team (business, government, whatever) should be an integral part of who Romney is and how he goes through the world. Why didn't he have his HBS/HLS classmates to call on? Didn't he identify awesome women in the investment banks he dealt with or in the companies Bain invested in?

So, to my mind, Romney's "binders full of women" comment would have been fine if he was talking about finding a vendor to pour concrete or manufacture electronics. But it's not fine when he's talking about building excellent teams. If he was unable to find excellent team members who were women as a natural way he went through the world, then he fails the very basic test of someone who understands and practices equality.