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22 August 2011

"Again and again, the impossible decision is solved when we see that the problem is only a tough decision waiting to be made," American televangelist, pastor and author, Robert Schuller once said. 

Problem solving is a ubiquitous feature of human functioning. Human beings are problem solvers who think and act within a grand complex of fuzzy and shifting goals and changing means to attain them. This has always been true, but it is doubly so today because we live in a time of unprecedented societal transformation. When circumstances change at work or anywhere else, old procedures no longer work. 

There is no formula for true problem solving. If one knows exactly how to get from point A to point B, then reaching point B does not involve problem solving. Think of problem solving as working your way through a maze or resolving issues. 

How then is it possible to improve problem-solving ability? First, we need to recognise when we are engaged in problem solving and accept it as a natural, normal, and expected stepwise and discursive path toward a goal through the application of general and specific heuristics. 

Second, we must not let anxiety take hold. Anxiety is a spoiler in the problem-solving process. It stalks right behind uncertainty, ready to pounce. Demanding and uncertain environments, the seedbeds of all problem solving, are fertile ground for anxiety. Uncertainty is an integral part of the business of solving problems. Those who cannot bear situations in which it is impossible to see the way clearly to the end are emotionally ill-prepared to solve problems. 

Structured problem solving has the following main purposes: 

  • Get to the root of the problem to solve it permanently, in other words, define the problem;
  • State the problem in terms of a gap between the current state and the desired future (expected) state.
  • Show why the problem is important, use facts and data where necessary.
  • List the three most likely potential causes.
  • List the three primary factors affecting the results from each of those causes.
  • Verify the root cause by experimentation.
  • Develop a list of potential solutions.
  • Evaluate each one for feasibility and difficulty of change.
  • Establish measurements to ensure implementation activities are completed as intended.
  • Assign a person to each task.
  • Compare the implementation results to the original and desired states.
  • Analyze reasons for success/partial success and take appropriate corrective action. 

Once some or all of the above have been applied and implemented, you will realise that a problem isn't necessarily something negative. A problem can be a desire to improve a work process or an individual performance that is already good--to take a workflow or person to the next level.

A problem isn't always negative