Problem-Solving Problem

9.Problem Solving

Problem-solving is the most widely-known and widely-used application of thinking skills. Problems can be any situation where we are prevented from moving forward or reaching our goals. Problems are caused by lack of information, lack of insight or lack of ideas. For many, a problem is a reason to give up. But for those with thinking skills, a problem is a challenge to be overcome.

The Problem with Problems

People usually respond to a problem in one of 3 ways:

  1. they get uncomfortable and wish it would go away
  2. they feel they have to come up with an immediate, and correct, answer
  3. they look for someone to blame.

Most of us find facing a problem a problem. We think something bad is going to happen. The goal of any problem-solving process is to make us competent to handle conflict.

“How you look at a situation is very important, for how you think about a problem may defeat you before you ever do anything about it. When you get discouraged or depressed, try changing your attitude from negative to positive and see how life can change for you. Remember, your attitude toward a situation can help you change it. You create the very atmosphere for defeat or victory.” (Franco Harris).

The Classical Approach

The classical approach to problem-solving is a step-by-step approach which makes use of the analytical style of left-brain thinking and the synthesis style of right-brain thinking. Here it is:

  1. Become aware of the problem.
  2. Define the problem and define the criteria for a solution.
  3. Survey what you know (the clues).
  4. Advance possible solutions using different approaches to thinking, including sounding others out.
  5. Test them, either in your head, on paper or in practice.
  6. Identify the best solution and carry it out.

The Classical Approach works best in stable environments where there is a known body of information about the problem and time to solve it. In unstable environments, eg those undergoing a large amount of unpredictable change, information may be uncertain and a decision needs to be made swiftly. In these situations, you may need to use some less conventional approaches to problem-solving such as the following.

Do Nothing

The psychologist Carl Jung suggested that we sometimes go looking for problems where none exist. Certainly some solutions to problems can cause more pain than the original problems. When a new situation arises that you think is a problem, ask yourself:

  • is this a problem or just a new situation that we hadn’t expected?
  • is this a problem or an opportunity in disguise?
  • if it is a problem, could I change my goals and plans to stop it being a problem?

“For every problem under the sun, There is a remedy or there’s none. If there is, try and find it; If there isn’t, never mind it.”

Take Your Time

Tim Hicks, founder of mediation business consultants Connexus, says that people are born problem-solvers but don’t realise it. Our fear of conflict means we rush into solving problems when it is infinitely better to take our time. By being patient, we are willing to put the solution at the end of the process rather than at the beginning. It also means being willing to live with “life unresolved”, not always a comfortable thing to do. Hicks says a problem is like a curve in the road where we can’t see the straight road ahead. Take the bend too fast and you’ll come a cropper. Slow down and you’ll make it fine.

Sleep On It

We don’t understand the full workings of the mind but we do know that forcing solutions can sometimes block creativity. This can sometimes happen when we are under time pressure or working with limited resources. The possibility of seeing our plans and goals ruined presses on us and, instead of freeing up our creativity, freezes it instead. By relaxing, going away and doing something else, or sleeping on it, the subconscious mind can work on the problem by itself and come up with an answer.

Attack The Problem

Attacking a problem is a way to tell yourself that you are not going to let a problem beat you. It is a good way to deal with people problems which are often ignored or dealt with only half-heartedly because we fear upsetting someone. If we battle fair and square with a problem and marshall all our resources to defeat it, we are sure to beat it. One way to do this is to use more than one approach, for example, first sleeping on it and then, if that doesn’t work, analysing it, and then, if that doesn’t work, using a creative approach.

two Heads are Better than One

Most people like to help others with problems and there is usually a benefit in two heads being better than one. A synectic, or problem-solving, group following good groupworking guidelines can offer you quantities of ideas.

Use the following four questions to get the group going:

  1. How would others solve this problem?
  2. How did we solve this problem in the past?
  3. How would we solve it if we had a magic wand?
  4. What other situations is this like?

Occam’s Raxor and the Five Whys

Dissecting a problem into its barest essentials, razor-like, was a method advocated as far back as the 14th century by the scholar William of Occam. Hence, reducing a problem to its essence is known as Occam’s razor. An example of Occam’s razor is that, if you see four hoof-prints in the dust, you should start with the assumption they were made by one horse, rather than two standing on their hind legs. A similar approach is used in modern Japanese industry. When looking at quality defects, they ask at least five consecutive “why?” questions to get to the real cause. Let’s say that customer Smith is getting the wrong product.

Why 1: Why is customer Smith getting the wrong product?

Because manufacturing are working on a special spec for customer Smith.

Why 2: Why?

Because the Sales Director spoke to the Production Director and by-passed the office.

Why 3: Why?

Because it was a rushed order and would have taken too long to go through the office.

Why 4: Why?

Because all orders are dealt with in order not by priority.

Why 5: Why?

Because the previous Production Director made this ruling and it has never been challenged. Jack Foster tells the following story about getting back to basics in his book “How To Get Ideas”.

An old office building with just two elevators now had too many workers who spent a lot of their time having to wait for the elevators to arrive on their floor.

The manager asked people using the elevators what the problem was with a series of Why-type questions. Why do you get annoyed at having to wait? Why are the elevators slow? Why can’t you change your breaks? And so on. From the replies, she considered her options.Extra elevators? No room. A new stairwell?Far too expensive. Staggered starting and finishing times to reduce the crowds?Unable to fit in with office hours and cover. What did she actually do?

Well, first she realised that people weren’t particularly bothered about having to wait (especially when returning to the office!). Nor were they prepared for the disruption of re-designing the system. What she found was that the biggest bugbear was that people had nothing to do while they waited for the elevators. So she installed ceiling-to-floor mirrors. Result? People were quite happy to wait as they didn’t mind taking a peak at themselves and the others waiting with them.

How you look at a situation is very important. Many people see unexpected situations as problems and are defeated before they start. Above all, don’t get discouraged or depressed. The unexpected situation may be telling you that there is a better way to get to your goals than even you had thought. Accept the situation, welcome it, be interested in it and you’re halfway to solving it.


Key Points

  1. A problem should be seen less as a threat and more as an opportunity.
  2. The most important factor in determining whether you will solve a problem is your belief that there is a solution out there waiting for you.
  3. Stating clearly what the problem is may lead you straight to the solution.
  4. Problems are usually solved if you refuse to give up.
  5. If a problem seems intractable, re-word it and look at it in a different way.
  6. Reduce a problem to its bare essentials by asking successive “why?” questions.