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.