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9 Math-inspired analytical tricks

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Solving problems is one of the main activities in mathematics. It is worth looking at their conceptual toolkit to borrow a few moves that could be transcribed to political economy analysis. Below are 10 problem-solving tricks that are adapted so they can be applied to country analysis.

  • Start with the goal or the solution and work backwards to something you already know

Starting with the end is a trick that we see across all boards. Backwarding from an end point is a trick that works perfectly for maths, planning, but also country analysis. Imagine a bad ending, for instance a conflict situation. How did we get there? What could have predicted it? Start imagining all the possibilities that could have led to the conflict. List them. Analyse them. Assess their probabilities. This could work for recommendations as well. Imagine a perfect state of things. What do you see? Describe it. Then work backwards. What conditions are necessary to make that state a reality? What needs to be done for those conditions to emerge?

  • Draw a picture of the problem

A picture is worth a thousand words. It is as true with maths as with country analysis. If you are doing maths, it is worth trying to convert your problem into a geometric one. If you are doing country analysis, try to draw the current situation, the preponderant actors as well as their relationships. Drawing will force you to simplify, to be abstract and be more precise, all at the same time. This is definitely one of the most powerful tools. It does not have to be Michelangelo either. Start with the back of a napkin and refine as you go. If you cannot draw it properly, most of the time, it means you lack understanding and you need to go back to research. Alternatively, don’t research without the intention to draw. You’ll be falling for a very elaborated type of procrastination where you feel like you are working when you are actually not honing in on what matters.

  • Add new elements to your problem

To understand the dynamics of a situation, you sometimes need to add a few ingredients to test things and to understand where things are moving. In country analysis, you (luckily) cannot do it through a real experiments. But you can test your mental model of what you are analysing by adding a few elements to a known situation. Playing with counterfactuals is probably the best way to get a direct window into your own brain. Play with them to test your model of a situation. What if the prime minister has a health condition? What if the police are recorded molesting a union leader? What if the GDP grows by 3% next year? Explore what you think will happen, then your own causal model will reveal itself to you. Once your causal model is exposed, you can start to question it.

  • If the problem is abstract, examine a concrete example

Being lost in concepts and abstraction is one of the most common traps of country analysis. Following Feynman techniques of learning, finding a concrete example for every concept you advance will get you a long way. The economy is booming in Côte d’Ivoire. Does that mean company A, that exports cocoa, is having a higher EBIT?

  • Derive a generalization by studying multiple examples

Following the previous point, the opposite is also true. Analysing is also finding patterns and deriving meaning from them. In order to do so, you need to categorise all events properly. Finding a bigger box in which to put things is capital here. Beware though, it is a dangerous exercise. The bigger the box, the more likely it is to break. It is a high risk high reward game. Company A is having a higher EBIT. Company B is having a higher EBIT => Economy is doing good.

  • Give things a name. Give names a definition.

This tool should not be number 6. It should be number 1. By a lot of means, analysing is giving things a name and explaining precisely what we mean by it. If this sounds deceptively simple, don’t be fooled. This is extremely hard. But it will yield exceptional results. For instance, if you say: "the economy is strong". Define Economy. What do you mean by it? Define strong. What do you mean by that?

  • Leverage symmetry.

Find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Find situations that are similar enough so you can contrast your problem with theirs. If you are considering an election in Africa where the president is changing the constitution in order to go for a 3rd mandate, consider a baseline made of elections in this country, elections in Africa in general, elections in the world where current presidents changed the constitution in order to get reelected. Symmetry, baseline, benchmarking. Same Same.

  • Solve a simplified version of the problem first.

Simplify to the limit of oversimplification, then work backwards toward complexification. Try to explain the situation to a 5-year old, then to a 10-year old. Use very basic, very simple language. Try to see if you can get to the root cause this way. For instance, you could start by explaining that “there is a fight in the country because people disagree on who should decide on the rules” and then go on, “especially on the rules about who has access to the weapons (police, army). Each side is afraid the other side will use weapons to make a better life for themselves to the detriment of others”. From there, you can start to complexify again, or propose another simplification with a different angle.

  • Break down the problem into multiple parts.

Maybe there is a subproblem or a side problem whose solution will help you solve your problem. Can you recombine the problem’s elements in some new way? If you are analysing the potentiality of a conflict, break down the problem into sub-components. Look at tensions around resources, try to measure the current level of tensions, look at leaders' discourse and look at the positions of authorities.

All those tricks can be used in a variety of ways. They go well beyond this short introduction and silly examples. They have been proven very useful to slice and dice situations and add analytical value to them. They'll give you useful tools to anticipate better.

Reference and further readings

How to Solve it, George Pólya

Grant Sanderson Youtube Channel, 3Brown1Blue

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