Learning to Think

Problem Solving Skills

Problem solving is complex. It is something that we all pretend we do naturally, but on average, humans are not very good at it. In order to be an effective problem solver, you need to divorce yourself mentally from problem. You need to be able to identify and understand the present condition, define a more desirable situation, then work out the path between the two. Each of these three activities requires higher order thinking because not only do you need to understand the domain and context of the problem, but you also need to understand the meta-context around it so you can evaluate, realign, and manipulate the defining factors to your goal.

I believe that most people have difficulties with the initial investigation of a problem. In my experience, the greatest difficulty stems from that inherent attachment people have to their problems. You may be too physically, mentally, or emotionally invested in the situation to be able to objectively evaluate your position. Fortunately, the Scientific Method gives us a number of techniques to investigate and evaluate a problem. The basic process is as follows:

  • Define the Issue
  • Observe and measure the factors around the issue
  • Form a hypothesis
  • Create and execute an experiment to prove or disprove your hypothesis
  • Measure and analyze the results of your experiment
  • Interpret the results, refine or recreate your hypothesis, and recreate your experiment
  • Repeat until you get the desired results

The Scientific Method does not inherently solve problems, but once you have used this method of inquiry to understand your problem you can then move on to solving it. Before you can actually reach a solution, you have to understand what you are trying to accomplish. If you’ve developed and proven a hypothesis that your customers are unhappy because they are missing a key feature in your product, you need to define that key feature before you can determine a path to deploying it. Airplanes do not leave the airport without a destination and a flight plan. The flight plan can be flexible, but the destination is usually fairly rigid. Business goals probably change more often than flight destinations, but the general concept still applies.

There are many methods of problem solving including abstraction, brainstorming, reduction, lateral thinking, root cause analysis, and even trial and error. I will explore some of these methods in future posts. Whatever metaphor, process, or methodology you use, they all have two common points. You start with a definition of your problem and a vision of your desired outcome and you figure out the path from Now to Then.