4 ways to improve your problem-solving skills

Advice based on new research in cognitive psychology and design thinking suggests the best methods in solving problems, with greater attention to company and business issues, they list the best ways to “sell” the solutions found.

Through this article readers are guided in the process of formulating, structuring and solving a problem.

Two thinking methodologies most commonly used by individuals

There are two main systems of thought commonly used by individuals:

System 1 or fast thinking, where you focus on the information available immediately and jump to conclusions without doing further research and System 2 or slow thinking, which requires more attention and research but can lead to analytical paralysis. System 2 is activated only when fast thinking does not work.

Research shows that experience is a necessary but not decisive factor in problem solving, in fact experts are often guided by the illusion of understanding the problem, thus making wrong analogies in their own sector of competence, with consequent formulation of erroneous solutions.

A systematic problem solving method that does not lead to hasty solutions of the first system or to analytical paralysis of the second is required to improve your problem solving skills.

The most common traps when trying to solve a problem

  • Wrong definition of the problem.  For example, when the MP3 format began to spread, the music industry tried to fight the problem by defining it thus: “How to stop piracy?” and making its solution impossible.
  • Confirm the solution.  The two CEOs of the joint venture of Grameen and Danone proposed a particular type of yogurt to solve child malnutrition in Bangladesh. Despite the various defects of this solution, such as the difficulty of distributing yogurt in such a hot climate and without adequate infrastructure, the proposal was carried out without being contested by anyone. The two administrators were blind to the flaws in what they had proposed.
  • Wrong reference scheme.  The reference schemes indicate what we must pay attention to but also what to ignore, therefore the choice of a certain scheme can blind to other important aspects of the problem.
  • Shallow framing.  When dealing with a complex problem understood only superficially, one often falls into the wrong use of reasoning by analogy in order to quickly identify a solution, without however investing resources to better understand the problem. For example, Ron Johnson failed with his JC Penny renewal strategy because he followed the same reasoning used in the past for the Apple Store, without investing more resources to better understand the needs of JC Penny’s customers.
  • Bad communication. Bad communication of a good solution leads to inactivity, while on the contrary it is also true, excellent communication of a wrong idea can do greater damage. In 1950 researcher John Yudkin discovered that sugars were the main cause of obesity, but his research was ignored for years due to the bad communication of the idea while the erroneous belief that fat was the main cause of obesity spread quickly thanks to effective communication.

The Solution: the 4S method (state, structure, solve, sell)

The 4S method is not necessarily sequential but is iterative.

  • State  (affirm).Affirmation of the problem. To affirm the problem one must periodically revisit it, collaborate with others, integrate the visions of different individuals and create a main question that must follow the elements of the following checklist called  TOSCA :
  • T rouble (problem): the space between a situation and an aspiration or opportunity. The problem must be defined in a specific way, asking the question “why now?”, Without letting the interpretation of the problem pollute its definition. For example, to say “our product has lost impact on the consumer” is wrong, the problem should instead be defined as “our product has lost five market points in the last year”.
  • O wner (property): who asks to solve the problem and will judge the definition and suitable solution.
  • S kill criteria: define success criteria by asking the question “Why?” allows you to focus more on defining the problem while ignoring possible solutions for the moment.
  • C onstraints (limitations): time, budget, resources that limit possible solutions.
  • A ctors (actors): they are the interested parties whose needs (customers) must be understood.
  • Structure  .
    The problem must be structured and different methods can be used.

    • Pyramid of hypotheses: you start by choosing a solution to the main problem, trying to confirm or deny it by dividing it into sub-hypotheses, that is, the conditions necessary for the hypothesis to be true. For example, the Librinova company wants to expand in Canada, the main question would be “What strategy to implement?”, The solution to be verified: “Partnership with De Marque, Canadian company”, necessary conditions for the Librinova hypothesis to be confirmed:
  • Canada is a desirable market;
  • collaboration is the best way to expand into a new market;
  • De Marque is a good partner.

At each level of the pyramid, all conditions must be MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive), that is, they must be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive (together they must be sufficient to confirm the hypothesis). This type of problem structuring is efficient and is benefited by the consultant’s experience, but is susceptible to all the traps listed above and to logical challenges, such as the possible confusion between necessary and sufficient conditions.

  • Logical tree: it begins by splitting the main question into other questions and not into affirmations or hypotheses as in the previous structure. All questions at all levels must be MECE and it is good to follow the 80/20 rule, i.e. 20% of the questions must provide 80% of ideas, in this way the questions that could lead to dead ends are eliminated. to lighten the tree. For example, with the case of Librinova the main question of the company “Expanding abroad by collaborating with De Marque?” it can be divided into subsections with the following questions: “Is the alliance with De Marque desirable?”, “Are there better options?”, “Should expansion be delayed abroad?”.
  • Pre-established schemes: each type of sector has pre-established schemes to structure a problem, therefore one must always be aware of the assumptions incorporated in each pre-established scheme in order not to fall into the traps. The skill lies in being able to identify the appropriate scheme or set of suitable schemes to solve the problem.

It would always be good to use the structure of the logical tree to solve problems and instead relegate the pyramid of hypotheses only when you have confidence in your experience and hypothesis.

  • Solve  (solve).Solve the problem by performing analyzes, using prototypes and testing solutions.
    Eight types of analysis can be listed:
  1. Hypotheses that can be considered true without further analysis, that is, thanks to the use of existing data (facts).
  2. Easy to find numeric facts.
  3. Evaluations based on non-numerical facts, such as technological changes in the industry that have an impact on customers and therefore require interviews to evaluate customer response. Qualitative facts.
  4. Hypotheses that can be solved with a simple analysis.
  5. Hypotheses that force you to make predictions because it is impossible to find the data.
  6. Internal plans and guess-based predictions, such as sales plans.
  7. Expert advice, such as legal advice.
  8. Common sense decisions, predicting customer feedback.

However, there are some common mistakes that affect all types of analysis:

  • Use of misleading data. For example, if you wanted to calculate the percentage of homicides in Great Britain, looking only at the data, you can see a 21% increase in homicides, however paying more attention, you can see that an accident happened during a football game in Hillsborough and which caused the death of 96 people, was classified as a murder, thus making the percentage misleading.
  • The time frame analyzed is questionable. For example, when a company hires a new CEO right at the beginning of a global market crisis, if the company’s profits are lower than in the previous period, this will not be due only to the erroneous decisions of the new CEO.
  • Samples prevented. The use of questionnaires sent only to unsatisfied or satisfied customers can return untrusted data.
  • Unrealistic forecasts.
  • Errors in numerical calculations.
  • Misinterpretation of the data and the correlation between the data (cause-effect correlations).
  • Sell  .Sell ​​the solution using the pyramid principle. First of all, the main thought, that is, your own suggestion, must be set out in a sentence that will cause questions to be answered in the following points. It is good to use a style of “grouping” of the main points in support of the suggested solution when you know that the public already expects the suggested solution and only needs detailed reasons to implement it, instead it is better to use an argumentative structure (i.e. the points the main ones are connected to each other in a sequential and logical way) when the subject is more complex and must be introduced gradually.

Thinking design

Design thinking is a more creative and iterative problem solving method, it is not linear and is divided into the following phases:

  • Identify yourself with the customer using empathy to understand the problem through observations, interviews or using the product as a customer. For example Doug Dietz reinvented the MRI machine after observing the children’s reaction and studying infant behavior. In this way he created an experience suitable for them which allowed to decrease the times of the resonance and consequently the costs, since the children responded better to the instructions.
  • Define, understand and structure the problem by understanding the needs of users.
  • Summarize the needs and insights related to customer experience, asking the question “How could we?”, To guide the research.
  • Designing possible solutions, quantity is more important than quality during this step.
  • Create prototypes as soon as possible by answering the question “What do we want to find out?”.
  • Test as soon as possible to get an idea of ​​the possible difficulties.


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