Problem Solving is Not an Event

Occasionally we find ourselves caught in the “paralysis of analysis” when attempting to solve a problem. To make progress, we have to come to terms with the fact that deciding on a course of action frequently requires us to move forward with incomplete or imperfect information. The reality is that there will always be more information available later. Rather than getting stuck, we have to make the best decision we can with the information on hand, and be prepared to iterate and make adjustments as new information comes in.

US Navy via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain*

Problem Solving is a Process

In other words, even solving a specific, discrete problem can’t be viewed as an event. Sometimes a fix is temporary, or the solution to one problem, over time, becomes a new problem in itself. Even if a chosen solution is perfect and permanent—the environment continues to evolve, often rendering both the initial problem and the solution irrelevant. If we think about problem solving as an ongoing process that plays an integral part in our everyday activities, we can avoid becoming frustrated by limited information and our inevitably short-lived success.

Capturing Lessons Learned

A key factor in effective problem solving is the development of a system or process for monitoring and recording lessons learned. Over time, many problems will fall into identifiable patterns or categories. If the information gained from earlier challenges is captured and stored in a way that is readily accessible, old struggles won’t have to be re-experienced when a similar situation occurs. Since many of the same problems tend to revisit us in different guises, we will be better problem solvers if we make a point of learning and sharing the lessons of the past.         

No Substitute for the Brain

Research into problem solving in the 1930s assumed that the basic mental processes involved in solving a problem would be the same across different knowledge areas (eg. physics versus chess playing versus managerial decision-making). Later researchers found, however, that the processes underlying creative problem solving in different knowledge domains were also different. In fact, the way in which we solve problems differs based on the type of problem being tackled, the area of knowledge in question, the level of expertise of the problem solver and many other variables. This means there is no easy way to model the creative problem solving processes the brain may follow in any given situation. So, when it comes to untangling a complex can of worms, remember that there is still no real substitute for the creative, focused human brain.      

Problem or Opportunity?

Finally, the word problem has a negative connotation for many people who prefer to use the word opportunity. In fact, a problem is simply a situation that requires action for which the necessary action is not yet known. When such a situation exists, we search for a course of action that will solve the problem. This is problem solving. Whether we call these situations problems or opportunities doesn’t affect the process. In either case our objective is to find a course of action that will bring about the desired change in the situation.   

The critical thinking skills and creativity required to solve the many challenges we face in today’s rapidly changing workplace are highly valued skills which can be cultivated. We take the first step in developing those skills when we recognize that problem solving, in the workplace and elsewhere, is not an event. Rather, it is an ongoing process of identifying and resolving issues to repair damage, remove obstacles and make improvements. 

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Langley, P. and Rogers, S. An Extended Theory of Human Problem Solving: Computational Learning Laboratory Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University

Jung-Beeman, M., Bowden, Edward, M., Haberman, J., Frymiare, J.L., Arambel-Liu, S., Reber, P.J., Greenblatt, R., and Kounios, J. (2004). Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight

*Photo: A Navy diving instructor stands ready to offer a diving student air if he is not able to regain his own air supply during a problem solving exercise at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Fla., on Feb. 9, 2005. The carefully supervised exercise is designed to train students to remain calm during a loss of air situation while following carefully supervised procedures to regain their air supply without going to the surface.

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