Problems are one of those things that we have to face every day in all areas of our life: from private to working. Some are simple, and require the application of well-known solutions.
Others, however, are presented in a much more complex way, and require solutions that are not so immediate.
If we want to become excellent problem solvers, we must learn a series of behaviors, applying them at the right time, in order to solve those problems that others would define as “impossible”.
Each of these problems boils down to a poor or incorrect understanding of the basic mechanisms and primary causes, and only a correct approach can lead us to the optimal solution.
As soon as we are faced with a problem, our biological reaction is to immediately seek a solution. Our anterior cortex becomes active, flooding us with possible causes and solutions.
This process is strongly influenced by factors related to evolution, by situations in which acting quickly can be a matter of life or death. Our mind then uses our experiences to formulate the most plausible hypothesis, based on the little information available, so that we can act as soon as possible.
This trend is also reinforced at school, where we are rewarded if we give the correct answer first, and where we are discouraged from saying “I don’t know”. The same thing happens in the world of work, where the promptness of the answers is often enhanced, regardless of their quality.
In doing so, however, we are not solving a problem, we are trying to guess a solution. And when the problem is complex, we could hypothesize 20, 50, 100 solutions, without having fully understood what the problem is. If we are lucky, one of the first proposals will be successful, but if not? Testing each hypothesis involves a waste of time, people, money, and there are some situations in which it would not be possible to test so many hypotheses anyway.
Trying to guess is part of our nature, so it is important to recognize when we are only making hypotheses, and stop. The first step towards solving a problem is not the solution hypothesis, but a study of the problem itself.
Knowing how to “smell” the problem
To really understand what’s going on, we need to start with a careful observation of what’s going on. Just like a doctor who, before making a diagnosis, studies the patient’s symptoms, we too must carefully observe what is happening, gathering information about the problem. This can help us establish a pattern of failure , which tells us when the problem arises or when it started. Often, this can immediately give us an indication of the possible solution.
Here are some questions we can use to build a bankruptcy model:
- What does the problem look like?
- Looking closely, does it always appear the same?
- When did you first show up?
- Looking over time, do we deduce plots or patterns?
- Are there other situations in which the problem could arise but it does not?
The important thing is to remember that these questions are used to understand the problem, not to find a possible solution.
It is important to recognize our ignorance
It is not easy to admit one’s ignorance, especially if we find ourselves in the situation where others expect us to find the solution to a problem. Yet it is essential to recognize the limits of what we know, and to be open to the idea of having to learn something new.
Of course, if we are in charge of solving a problem, we often have at least 90% of the necessary knowledge, but we must not allow this to dampen our curiosity. We must be ready to question our knowledge too.
This often involves asking “obvious” questions, questioning what is taken for granted, so as to make sure you really know the facts.
This fact finding is not limited to problem solving, we can use it at any time: we choose something we don’t know, and we study it, learning its details, mechanisms and functioning.
How to make sure you are looking for the right solution
It may seem strange, but often, if we cannot solve a problem, it is because we are focusing on the wrong problem. For this reason it is important to be able to define the problem clearly and precisely, indicating what the objective to be achieved with the resolution is.
A problem defined incorrectly or roughly risks taking us on the wrong path, looking for a solution that will not give the desired results.
Here are some examples of incorrect definitions, accompanied by a more precise definition:
- The pump is broken / The system pressure is too low.
- I have a slow metabolism / I’m not happy with my weight.
- My partner is always grumpy / At the moment we are not emotionally connected.
A great way to arrive at a correct definition of the problem is to assign it a variable, something that we can measure, and on which we can therefore act.
It is important to know the basics of a process
Solving a complex problem requires some knowledge of how the process works. If we do not know what the correct functioning of a procedure is, it will be almost impossible to understand where there may be a problem.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of variables that influence complex processes, but it is important to focus on what affects our main variable. If we talk about low pressure in a system, we begin to isolate the components that can have an impact on the pressure, and try to understand the functioning of those components.
By doing so, not only will we save time and effort in pursuing unnecessary solutions, but we will often be able to optimize our solution, so as to prevent the problem from recurring in the future.
Experts are not the perfect solution
When we are faced with a problem that seems too complex, we tend to rely on expert people, in the hope that they will be able to give us a solution in a short time. But an expert in a certain sector is not necessarily also able to solve complex problems. What it can offer, however, is the knowledge necessary to study the problem, to know its fundamental mechanisms.
Consulting an expert can be risky, especially if he tries to solve the problem with the wrong approach. Once an expert has given his opinion, it will be very difficult to convince our superiors that that is not the strategy to follow.
There is also a tendency to expect an expert to be able to take a look at a situation and offer the answer immediately. Otherwise, what expert would it be? Precisely for this reason it is important to frame its role well, that of support. The draft resolution must remain in the hands of the problem solver.
Instead of asking our expert to give us the answer, let’s ask him to help us understand how a certain process works. Instead of asking what the next step is, let us help identify the information needed to decide the next step.
It is important to learn to work with experts, effectively, without ever allowing them to become a figure on which we totally depend.
The importance of a simple solution
When the problem before us is complex, and perhaps we have already tried the strategy of “guessing” without success, the temptation is to surrender, attributing the blame to something that is beyond our control.
A good problem solver instead believes in a simple solution, reachable by applying rigorous problem solving. A simple solution must not be something obvious, but something that depends on one or two fundamental variables, which operate abnormally within a complex system.
If we do not believe (and therefore do not pursue) a simple solution, we are abandoning ourselves to the idea that the solution must be complex. Solutions of this type tend to solve only the symptoms, not the root of the problem. In addition, these are often expensive processes.
Simple solutions are often viewed badly, because we are convinced that a complex problem must have a complex solution. In this case, it is our task to be able to show others that the value of the proposed solution is not to be found in simplicity alone, but in the meticulous process that led us to formulate a simple and effective solution.
It is important to rely on the facts
Many of us love to think that the decisions we make are weighted and based on solid facts, but this is not the case. Most of the decisions we make are heavily influenced by a multitude of cognitive biases, which make our behavior widely predictable under certain circumstances.
Knowing these biases, and knowing how they can affect the way we deal with problems, is a fundamental skill for a problem solver.
Our decisions are often influenced by personal opinions, and we must learn to recognize when the people who work with us are operating guided by their own opinions.
As with our knowledge, we must be ready to question our opinions, opting instead for an observation of the facts, so that we can base ourselves on more concrete data.
Let’s see some opinions, with the related observation based on facts:
- This machinery is too oldit becomesThis machine is 32 years old and it is difficult to find spare parts.
- We have already tried this solution and it doesn’t workit becomesWe have already tried this solution, and we have encountered this problem …
- Production is too fastbecomes
Over 60 pieces per minute, 1% is defective.
Don’t lose sight of the goal
In particularly complex problems, we may find ourselves dealing with hundreds or thousands of variables. In these conditions, it is easy to lose sight of your goal, being derailed by new details and details.
In this case, identifying a structure of variables, establishing which are connected and which are not, can help us not to get lost in a sea of information.
Finally, we must remember that errors can happen, and that we must not allow an error or a misstep to demoralize us. If we realize that we have made a mistake, we must be ready to recognize it, go back on our steps, question the choices made and re-evaluate the facts on which we based ourselves.
Choosing a method
There are a multitude of “methods” that can guide us in solving problems. Choosing one to follow can help us in several ways:
- it helps us to apply the behaviors we have talked about so far;
- allows us to practice and improve;
- provides us with a common language with which to communicate and on which to base training for us and for colleagues;
- it helps us get back on the road when we derail;
- it helps us to tell our process in a logical way, presenting it to others in a more effective and convincing way.
Some important things to remember when choosing a problem solving method:
- do not choose a method that encourages solutions for “attempts”;
- choose a method that starts by focusing on the problem;
- ask if the chosen method encourages the adoption of the behaviors we have discussed.
You don’t have to be a problem solving expert to get started: we can apply these behaviors and notions to any problem we encounter. The more we practice to deal with problems in the right way, the better we will become at solving them.