Tips for effective problem solving
What is a problem?
Everyday we have to deal with issues of any kind: what to wear? what should I say? how to get my money back? how to stay healthy? where to spent corporate money? should we fire this or that worker? etc. These are problems, i.e. situations, conditions or issues that are not ideal or require some actions to reach a desired goal. Thus, any problem consists of the two situations: 1) current or initial state where the problem is found, and 2) desired or goal state. The problem solving is about moving from the first state to the second through a number of actions. Note that a problem is considered to be a problem only when a person thinks or feels it as such. For example, if extra 2 kg of weight is sensed as normal then it is not considered as a problem since there is no desired state here.
How to define a problem?
- State the problem in the clearest way possible. Example: I'm overweight. Many psychologists advice not to use positive words in a problem statement, so that it gives you sense of a goal and right attitude to its achievement. Example: I want to become healthy or I want to weight normally.
- Find the source of a problem. Example: I'm overweight because I eat too much, have a confining job and not going in for sports. This point is very important since curing the problem's consequences is not a bit as effective as dealing with problem sources. Also, finding a cause largely determines the possible ways to solve the problem.
- Analyze the problem from different viewpoints: persons who caused the problem, who suffer it, will have to solve or pay for it. Example: my wife thinks that's awful because I'm looking too sloppy.
- Answer why do you want to solve the problem. Example: I want to weight normally because I spent too much on food and medicines; I've got heart diseases and want to live longer. Also I want to keep fit and look attractive. Here you not only define the consequences and other issues that are related to the main problem but also roughly outline the goal state.
- Specify constraints of the problem. Example: I want to save my job, my budget is limited, I do not like to work out much in gyms.
How to solve a problem?
- Learn your problem. Explore everything that is somehow related to the problem in question - read books, newspapers, magazines, e-articles, discuss your problem with friends or experts, absorb their opinions, mistakes and experience.
- Set a right goal. Your goals should be: practical (realistic or achievable), effective (dealing with problem causes and not consequences), clear (understandable), positive (avoiding negatives in statement), time-set (target dates and completion stages) and measurable (to allow for tracking the progress). Example: My goal is to lose weight from 220 lb to 170 lb within next year.
- Analyze resources. How much money, time and energy are you willing to spend on reaching your goal? What special knowledge, skills or tools you will need in the process?
- Generate solution alternatives. In addition to general methods of situation analysis you may employ such creativity tools as brainstorming, random simulation, focus groups, mind mapping, TRIZ, etc. Try to generate as much possible solutions as you can. This will provide an opportunity to compare and select the best variant. Remember, that sometimes you will need to apply a complex of solutions to reach the goal. Example: to lose weight I'll need to work out in gym, reduce consumption of high-calorie food and get on a diet, walk much, outdoor activities, etc.
- Take a first step. The key point here is that no problem is solved without your action. Even if someone does all the stuff for you, you need at least to express your problem and give an order. Note, that the first step should be quite easy and positive. Example: As my first step to lose weight I will walk all the way down to my job tomorrow morning and back home in evening.
- Evaluate your progress. Mark off your results regularly and take notes what was right and what should be removed, added or adjusted. Remember to set feasible milestones so that you would always stay positive on each stage of your goal-reaching process.
Some effective problem solving tools and techniques
- TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) - method of problem solving based on the principle that patterns of problems tend to repeat across industries and sciences. By identifying the "contradictions" in each problem, you can predict good creative solutions. More on TRIZ is at TRIZ Journal.
- Brainstorming - a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution of a problem. Brainstorming is based on 4 principles: 1) the more ideas the better; 2) no criticism; 3) encourage unusual ideas; 4) combine and improve ideas.
- Synectics: a variation of brainstorming based on analogies, paraphrases and metaphors. Main pre-assumption of synectics is that the emotional and irrational components of creative behavior is more important than the intellectual ones.
- Heuristic methods: analogies (finding similar problems and solutions to them), generalization, pattern recognition (reviewing the history of a problem), decomposition of a problem, guess-and-check approach, etc.
- Mind mapping: an effective visual tool for structuring thoughts, organizing ideas in a form of decision trees. Read more on mind mapping on our page: Mind mapping tools.
MindDecider's tools in problem solving
Actually there is no universal software package that would solve any problem in any sphere of human activity. It is possible, however, to get use of specific software packages designed to help in decision making and problem solving. One of such packages is MindDecider, which may take part in the following elements of problem solving process:
- setting goals in form of mind maps and decision trees;
- generation of alternatives and their estimation by specific criteria or resources;
- brainstorming your ideas via Teamwork mode;
- creation of time plans;
- monitoring and evaluation of the progress;
- finding the best solutions among analyzed variants by selected criteria.
- S.G. Krantz, Techniques Of Problem Solving, Universities Press, 1998.
- Creative problem solving: Norman W. Edmund's complete guide on problem solving: steps, strategies, tips, plans, tools and techiques.
- Introduction to problem solving: VirtualSalt's chapter devoted to basics of problem solving.
You may find extra information on decision making and problem solving on our links and readings pages.
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