Modern humans are the greatest problem solvers the world has ever seen. While our predecessors developed primitive tools to better live in their environments, humans are the first to develop the mental acuity necessary to transform their living space. As a consequence, we thrive around the world, altering hostile, barren desert lands and freezing climates into hospitable habitats with growing populations.
Of course, problem-solving abilities vary considerably from one individual to another – some of us excel in resolving overarching dilemmas, while others are more adept at making basic day-to-day decisions. Researchers at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan believe that difficulty solving problems tends to stem from the following two issues:
- Inaccuracy in Reading. Incorrect interpretation of a problem can stem from perceiving it without concentrating on its meaning. It can also result from reading unfamiliar words, overlooking important facts, and starting to address it prematurely. Simply stated, many people have difficulty framing a problem accurately at first and consequently develop inadequate or incorrect solutions.
- Inaccuracy in Thinking. Ancients Greeks called the ability to properly reason “logic.” Today, we sometimes refer to this ability as “pragmatism” – a system of thinking to determine meaning, truth, or value. Poor decisions result from a lack of clarity so that irrelevant information is considered in the problem-solving process. We sometimes pursue solutions that do not meet our intended goals, or we fail to break complex problems into understandable parts when time constraints force us into premature decisions.
Each of us makes decisions every day that affect our happiness, careers, and satisfaction with life. By learning and practicing the skills of proven problem solvers – and following the necessary steps – you can boost your self-esteem, reduce interpersonal conflicts, and lessen overall stress.
1. Define a Problem
Fully understanding a problem before developing possible solutions is essential. Some problems appear simple – deciding what to eat for breakfast, what to wear to work, whether to take mass transit or to drive – and their solutions rarely have any real impact on our lives. Other problems are incredibly complex and have long-term consequences: choice of careers, whom we choose to marry, or whether to pursue an advanced educational degree.
Problems are further complicated due to emotions, and whether we perceive the implementation of a solution to be painful or pleasurable. The fact that many of our decisions have consequences far into the future leads to procrastination and further complexity.
The way we think about or define a problem can result in missed opportunities, inadequate or impermanent solutions, unnecessary costs, wasted time, and continued frustration and stress. An instance of this is when we simplify problems by seeking single, either-or, or short-term solutions, while neglecting long-term consequences.
For example, a rushed parent needing to serve dinner might run to the store for that night’s meal, and might repeat that behavior multiple times per week. In seeking the short-term solution (buy tonight’s dinner) and neglecting the longer term solution (make one large, well-planned grocery trip in advance), he or she wastes time, gas, and effort and deals with repeated frustration.
There is usually a range of decisions and actions we can take to resolve a problem, each of which has different short- and long-term effects that need to be considered. Expanding the definition of a problem by providing more details can stimulate critical thinking and result in multiple, often innovative solutions. The better problem solvers know that asking more questions before trying to find a solution generally brings better results.
The Importance of an Accurate Description
Charles Kettering, head of General Motors research division from 1920 to 1947, claimed, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” A 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review concurred, saying, “Well-defined problems lead to breakthrough solutions.” The authors believed that the majority of companies and individuals aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why the solution is important.
For example, the cleanup of the Alaskan coast following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill cost tremendously more than was expected and took more than 20 years to complete, primarily due to a failure to consider that oil in subarctic waters becomes syrupy. The fluid’s low viscosity made pumping it to onshore collection stations extremely difficult.
Once the problem was expanded from “oil cleanup” to include “materials viscosity,” a chemist in the cement industry proposed a solution that would vibrate the frozen oil in the barges as it was pumped, keeping it fluid. As a consequence, cleanup was sped up with a potential savings of millions of dollars.
Using the Kipling Method to Define Problems
The first step in solving any problem is a clear, concise statement – what advocates call a “problem statement.” The Kipling Method, named after Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 poem in his book “Just So Stories,” is one of the more popular systems for defining a problem. Sometimes called the “Five Ws and One H” system, journalists often use it to communicate the facts of a situation.
The poem highlights the six components necessary to properly frame a problem:
- What is the problem?
- Why is fixing the problem important?
- When did the problem arise? When does it need to be solved?
- How did the problem happen?
- Where is the problem occurring?
- Who does the problem affect?
A problem statement should be as clear and complete as possible. For example, a destitute student considering whether to attend college might conclude that “I cannot go to college this coming semester.” This decision reflects a faulty problem statement about a lack of funds, rather than a framework to develop solutions that can allow for attendance.
A better problem statement might be: “I (who) lack the funds to pay the coming semester’s tuition and fees (what) at UCLA (where) by September 1st (when). I was laid off from my summer job and cannot save as much as I had hoped (how). As a result, my degree and the start of my career will be delayed at least six months (why).” An expanded problem statement might lead to other solutions such as seeking scholarships, borrowing funds, attending a different college for lower tuition, working part-time while attending school, reducing other expenditures to save, or a combination of all.
2. Develop Alternative Solutions
A common barrier to successful problem solving is our reliance on previous experiences, especially those that appear similar to our current situation. According to psychologist G. Stanley Hall, humans are largely creatures of habit, and our activities and decisions are often automatic reflexes based upon our personal biases, stereotypes, and history.
Many scientists believe that habit is the natural consequence of evolution, a trade-off between the brain’s enormous requirement of energy – brains account for less than 2% of a human’s body weight, but consume up to 20% of our calorific intake – and survival. Running from the growl of an unseen lion undoubtedly saved more of our ancestors than waiting to confirm its presence.
Unfortunately, this tendency to apply the same experience to every problem can lead to poor decisions. As American psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.”
Except for math or fact-based questions, few problems have a single solution. The better problem solvers employ a variety of strategies to develop multiple solutions before coming to a decision. Since the optimum solution is usually discovered by comparing alternative results, theorizing multiple choices and their outcomes is advantageous.
Techniques to Develop Multiple Solutions to a Single Problem
During this stage, the goal is to generate as many potential solutions as possible without considering whether they are realistic, practical, or effective. Useful techniques to break old habits of thinking include the following:
- Analogies. Consider similar problems from your past and adapt their solutions to the current situation. For example, a company seeking to market a new software product might consider common industry marketing tactics – celebrity endorsements, low introductory prices, or national advertising – to roll out the product.
- Brainstorming. This technique requires that you turn off your internal censor and produce as many solutions to a problem as possible, no matter how far-fetched. Often called “creative thinking” or “thinking out of the box,” exceptional solutions can result from combining, expanding, and improving original thoughts. IDEO, an award-winning design and development firm in Silicon Valley credited with such products as the original Apple mouse, the Tempur-Pedic mattress, and the revolutionary PillPack, relies heavily on brainstorming for new ideas.
- Divide and Conquer. Break down a large, complex problem into smaller, solvable problems. For example, NASA’s goal of putting a man on the moon in the 1960s was achieved by simultaneously solving simpler engineering problems ranging from how to stack two or more rockets on top of each other (multi-staging), to selecting and training astronauts.
- Means-Ends Analysis. Begin with the desired outcome and work backward through the critical steps necessary to reach your goal. For example, receiving a promotion usually requires a positive recommendation from a superior. However, superiors usually evaluate candidates by their record of previous successful assignments. Having the opportunity to work on an assignment is dependent upon employees’ consistent attendance and work habits, and so on and so forth, until arriving at the starting point of your analysis.
- Root-Cause Analysis. Rather than focusing on the problem, focus on the cause of the problem. In the earlier oil spill example, the problem was initially thought to be the extended time and cost of the cleanup effort. However, the root cause was the difficulty of quickly pumping thick oil to storage facilities.
- Trial-and-Error. Where time is not a consideration and change is relatively simple to implement, consider trying everything until you reach the optimum strategy. The lessons learned from our mistakes are often more valuable than those learned from our successes. As Thomas Edison said when talking about his invention of the electric light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”
The time taken to develop multiple solutions should be proportional to the scale of the problem and its impact. At the same time, trying to develop solutions for the sake of more choices is rarely worthwhile, especially after an extended period of effort. When you are comfortable that you have exhausted the possibilities, it is time to evaluate potential solutions.
3. Select an Optimum Solution
Critical thinking is the process of conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to guide belief and action, according to the Foundation for Critical Thinking. It is a learned process intended to avoid bias, distortion, prejudice, and inconsistency, and is essential to effective problem solving. Critical thinking is required to evaluate potential solutions to a problem and determine which would be most likely to produce the best overall outcome.
Eliminate Obvious Ineffective Solutions Early
Some, if not many, of the alternative solutions developed previously are impractical or cannot be implemented because they are too expensive, take too much time, require unavailable resources, or produce uncertain results. Evaluating such obviously inappropriate choices is a waste of time and energy and should be avoided if possible.
Conversely, your preliminary scan of possible solutions may produce additional insight and lead to an indisputable best choice, eliminating the need for further analysis. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, claims that there is always an element of serendipity – good fortune or luck – in significant discoveries or leaps beyond conventional thinking.
Develop a Decision Matrix for Evaluation
When solving most complex problems, there is rarely a single solution that meets all of the criteria – the best ones meet the most important criteria with minimal negative consequence or impact on other factors. According to Mind Tools, a decision matrix is an excellent tool to visually understand the differences between alternative solutions when there is not a clear or single choice. Potential choices can be ranked by the degree that they meet the criteria for the best choice.
Here are some factors that might be considered in your analysis of possible solutions:
- Efficacy. To what degree does the solution solve the problem?
- Practicality. Is the solution realistic in terms of available resources and capabilities?
- Timeliness. Will the solution meet critical deadlines or time frames?
- Expense. What will the solution cost in resources and effort?
- Risk. What are the consequences – good and bad?
- Manageability. Can the results be measured?
Each factor should be weighted on a scale of 0 to 10 for importance in the final solution, with 10 being the best ranking and 0 the worst ranking. For example, one solution might completely solve the problem (a “10” on efficacy) while another solves most of the problem (a “7”). Similarly, one solution might involve little or no cost ( “10”) or require high expenses (a “0”).
The final step in creating the matrix is to establish the relative importance of each factor in the final solution using percentages so the total weightings equal 100%. For example, efficacy might have a rating of 50% while timeliness is 10%. In such cases, the completed decision matrix might look similar to the following illustration:
Pick the Best Solution Using the Available Information
If the highest rated solution intuitively does not seem to be the best, reconsider your initial weighting and rankings. The discomfort you feel may be an indication that some factors are more important to you than you originally thought. In that case, re-rank and reweigh them. Be aware that a low score in one factor may be enough to discard it as a solution. For example, high costs may be enough to make a solution unacceptable.
4. Implement the Optimum Solution
Once you have made the decision about the best solution to your problem, it is time to take action. Recognize that implementation may not go smoothly, especially if the solution depends on the cooperation of other people. Virtually every decision requires a change in the status quo and, as Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in 1532, there is “nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” The tendency of people to resist change is so prevalent that change management consultants regularly earn six- and seven-figure annual incomes.
While it is important to implement a solution to critical problems as quickly as possible, it is also prudent to recognize the obstacles that are likely to appear and develop a corresponding strategy to overcome resistance. Here are some common obstructions to change in a business environment:
- Moving Too Fast. Rather than resisting directly, people are more likely to seek delay by asking for more information, considering other alternatives, or pleading a lack of resources.
- Implementation Takes Too Long. The solution is too little, too late.
- Unaffordable. Cost is too high or will detract from other important investments.
- Understaffed. Your people are too busy or lack the training to implement the solution.
- Customers Will Not Like It. You will lose market share to competitors, customer complaints will rise, or customer service will suffer.
- Negative Consequences Are Unknown. What if the solution does not work or causes us to lose business?
- The Solution Will Not Work. The analysis of the problem is faulty, was too hasty, or failed to consider necessary elements.
Do not be afraid to confront objections from others, or yourself. With others, respond to questions factually, politely, and with as much information as possible. Keep the focus on solving the problem, not the personalities of those involved.
If a legitimate objection or solution is raised that has not been considered previously, be prepared to postpone implementation until it can be investigated. If you do reconsider your decision based upon objections received, investigate quickly and report your findings back to everyone involved. Do not have pride in the authorship of a solution, but in the process to determine the best solution.
5. Trust Your Analysis
If you have diligently followed the steps to better problem solving to this point, have confidence that your work is complete and you have arrived at the best solution. Much of the resistance you encounter is likely due to fear and lack of information, rather than a genuine objection to the proposed solution.
By communicating your process, you can convert the naysayers and fence-sitters to your way of thinking. Be transparent and non-defensive, recognizing that their fears and objections are natural and are likely to arise in most situations involving change.
If a group has been involved in the process to arrive at the optimum solution, identify key allies who can help convince others that the solution is sound, based upon all the information available. Having sponsors or “champions” to assist in convincing others is always a good strategy when implementing a difficult or controversial change.
Monitoring Results – The Feedback Loop
Despite your best effort, some solutions do not work out as planned. There are many reasons for this: a failure to consider all factors, lack of available information, unintended biases or misperceptions, or a change in the underlying conditions affecting the problem or the solution. We live in an uncertain world, so there is rarely an answer guaranteed to be true or effective at all times.
Great products and companies grow through the process of integration and constant innovation. By continually monitoring results, comparing them with expectations, and subsequently adjusting one’s actions to better achieve the intended result – otherwise known as a “feedback loop” – we can be confident that solutions will remain valid and produce the desired results.
According to Wired, feedback loops are how we learn, whether we call them trial-and-error or course correction. They have been thoroughly researched and validated in psychology, epidemiology, military strategy, environmental studies, and economics, and are a common tool in athletic training plans, executive coaching strategies, and a multitude of self-improvement programs. Elon Musk, inventor, entrepreneur, and CEO of Tesla Motors, claims that it is important to have a feedback loop where you’re constantly thinking about what you have done and how you could be doing it better.
As results appear from the implemented solution, it is important to collect data and determine whether the consequences are as initially intended. When there is an unexpected negative result or an outcome that does not meet the expected parameters, the better problem solvers repeat the problem solving steps, making adjustments as needed.
In many cases, the adjustments are minor and can be quickly implemented. However, in some cases, a new strategy or solution is necessary, and that means restating the problem with the information gained from the implementation.
Problem-solving is not an innate ability, but an acquired skill. Ken Watanbe, former McKinsey consultant and author of “Problem Solving 101,” teaches that practicing good problem-solving skills develops a mindset that drives people to bring out the best in themselves and to shape the world in a positive way. Learning and using the proper skills can become a habit, making problem-solving easy and empowering each of us to make our lives and worlds better.
Remember, everybody faces problems, large and small, everyday that need solving. Following these steps can lead to better decisions and a happier life. In many cases, it is not the problem that creates the most stress, but the consequences of a poor solution.
How do you go about problem solving?