Define Your Problem to Help You to Solve It
For many of us, the initial reaction to any problem that seams unsurmountable is to panic. Car won't start when you're stuck in the middle of nowhere? Suddenly you have a wealth of potential problems and issues that will be running through your head: you're going to be late, you're going to starve, you have no phone, you're cold, you're scared… these are all issues but they are not the main problem and in some cases they can serve to distract you from the matter at hand.
What you need to do then is to take a breather, get a grip and define your problem.
Defining the Problem
Defining the problem means cutting through the surrounding issues and outlining the one thing that is putting you in trouble. In this case, the problem is that your car won't start. Forget the rest and instead focus on that one central challenge.
You might also have 'other' problems but for this exercise the most effective thing to do is to pick just one to focus on first.
Finding the Root
When defining your problem it's also important to make sure that you are at the root of it. The problem 'you are going to be late' is harder to solve because it's more 'high level'. If the root of your problem is 'your car won't start' then that's a better place to start. But then again perhaps that can be simplified further to 'you've run out of petrol'. Suddenly the solution becomes clearer because you've broken it down.
Rewording the Problem
If this hasn't immediately helped, then you might want to try rewording the problem. In this case you can think of your problem almost as an equation and by flipping it around while keeping the meaning the same you can often start seeing answers.
Your car won't start
Your car is broken
You have no mode of transport
You have no way of getting home
These last two 'rephrases' in some cases might start to offer up solutions. A solution to not being able to get home is to call a friend – or maybe to even stay in the area in a hotel for the night. By rephrasing the question you can view it from different angles and this can often result in a solution.
Ultimately this all comes down to 'knowing your enemy'. Once you've done this you'll have a target you can aim for and a solution will be much more likely.
Cognitive Biases Hampering Your Problem Solving
Problem solving is a very broad skill and thus it is one that can be highly useful in a range of different situations. Essentially, problem solving is the 'master key' to helping you accomplish everything more quickly and efficiently and is perhaps the single most useful skill to cultivate. The question is… how do you go about cultivating this skill?
The answer may lie not in adding to your skill set as such, but rather removing the blocks that are preventing you from performing your best. And one of the main areas to focus on here is 'cognitive biases'.
What Are Cognitive Biases?
The easiest way to think of cognitive biases is as 'flaws' in our thinking. While most of us think that we are logical and reasonable in our thought processes, in reality we actually often make our decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Or else, we might focus on the wrong aspects of a problem, or we might let our emotions get in the way.
And this isn't anything you should feel bad about – as actually most people suffer from precisely the same cognitive biases because they are part of the way we are programmed to think. The human brain is designed to be able to make decisions rapidly and efficiently and sometimes this comes at the expense of accuracy.
Struggling to relate to this concept? Here are some of the most common cognitive biases that you likely will have been guilty of at some point in your decision making life…
The confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out information that confirms our hypothesis rather than discrediting it. This is one of the psychological tendencies that can ultimately lead to the development of extreme or radical views.
This is our habit for factoring past outcomes into our future expectations. For instance, if you throw a coin ten times and get heads ten times in a row, then it has to be tails next time right? Wrong: the odds of throwing tails are always 50% (unless you have a trick coin).
This describes the way in which things seem obvious in hindsight. This can be destructive if it causes us not to take the problem seriously the next time it occurs. Of course things seem obvious when you have all the information available!
So what can you do about these biases? Research them and learn them. Armed with knowledge you'll at least have the ability to spot when you're potentially veering into dangerous territory. Start with the book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' for a great introduction to the world of cognitive biases.
Functional Fixedness and Problem Solving
Problem solving is an incredibly important skill and something that can make life much easier once you get good at it. Of course the specific skills required in problem solving will always vary depending on the type of problem in question but becoming 'generally' better at problem solving is also certainly possible. And once you achieve this, you'll have the ability to overcome almost anything life throws at you with much more efficiency and effectiveness… no small matter!
One way of getting better at problem solving for example, is to address your 'functional fixedness'. This is something that many people experience without realizing it and which can seriously hamper their ability to find solutions to the challenges they face.
What is Functional Fixedness?
Essentially, functional fixedness describes an inability to think of items as being useful for anything other than their intended purposes. In an extreme case of functional fixedness then, you might not realize that a piece of newspaper could be used to stop your table from wobbling. While most of us don't have it that badly though, it nevertheless effects most of us to some degree.
The Candle Box Problem
A perfect example of this is 'the candle box problem'. This is a task that researchers give to participants where they are provided with a candle and a box of tacks and then asked to attach the candle to the wall so that it will burn while staying elevated off of the ground.
Most people try to tack the candle directly to the wall – which fails of course – rather than realizing that they can actually use the box itself as a resource. The correct solution is to tack the box to the wall and to stand the candle inside it.
Likewise, there are probably problems you are facing right now that you have all the necessary resources to solve – you just don't currently realize it.
Overcoming Functional Fixedness
That's all well and good but how do you go about curing this problem? The answer is to use a simple mental trick each time which is break down the things you have into their component parts. Don't think about just tools, think about raw resources and possible roles as well. This then means you don't have candles and a box of tacks, you have:
Solutions for the Hardest Problems
When Nothing Else Works
There are many checklists for problem solving which tend to focus on things like 'listing resources' and 'defining the problem'. In many cases, these problem solving solutions will help you to come up with an answer and can certainly increase your chances of getting a positive outcome.
But that said, these sorts of steps are very much 'considered' approaches that require time and thought to carry out. What do you do when those don't work? When you really can't solve the problem?
'Brute force' is a term used in hacking to describe the method they use to bypass username and password combinations. Here they use a problem to simply try thousands and thousands of combinations until they find the right ones.
Sometimes the same kind of strategy can be applied to your problem. Sure, you can't find the 'right' solution or the 'easiest' answer… but if you just go all out in terms of effort and output… could that be enough to solve the problem?
Sometimes your attempts to solve a problem can actually make matters worse. If you've been working on a project or anything else for long enough and have made no progress, then often the best course of action is often to hit the reset button and just start again. Sure, it's undoubtedly upsetting to have 'wasted' so much previous effort but that doesn't mean that it's not the right thing to do. Don't keep banging your head against the wall!
In other cases it might be time to start thinking about contingencies and compromises. In other words, you can't win… but how can you 'not lose'. Thinking of an exit strategy, or a way to make the problem matter less can often be a better use of your time than trying to solve a problem that can't be solved.
Finally, you might sometimes have to put your hands up and say you can't solve the problem. In that case, you should maybe consider instead getting someone else to solve it for you. This might mean just getting your colleagues, your friends or your extended network of contacts to help. Or it could mean paying someone to complete the job for you. There's no shame in letting someone else take care of a problem for you – it doesn't mean you've failed – it just means your solution was to outsource or delegate.
Five Whys for Powerful Problem Solving
When trying to find out what people really believe, productivity gurus and therapists will often use a technique called the 'five whys'. Here you ask the question 'why' five times to uncover what's at the root of it. For instance then, if someone says they want to be a rock star, asking them the question 'why' five times might tell you something insightful about their personality.
It may be they don't want to be a rock star but instead they want to get adulation from the masses – in which case there are many more potential satisfying career options for them.This technique can also be used to solve problems though and it is highly powerful in that capacity. Read on and we'll look at some of the best ways you can solve your problems by simply asking 'why' five times.
Short Term Problems
In the short term, asking why can often yield answers that you might otherwise have overlooked. For instance then, if you're stressed that you're going to fail your university course, you might ask yourself 'why' and the answer might be 'because I don't have enough time to complete my dissertation'. You might then ask 'why' again and learn that it's because you have too many other things to do this week.
Ask yourself why again and you might say that it's because you committed to go to Karate twice a week with Joe. Sounds like you need to talk to Joe…
Note that 'five' is an arbitrary number: often you'll find an answer before you need to go that deep.
Long Term Solutions
Better yet though, asking why can be useful for preventing problems from occurring again and for plugging leaks. This can be useful when looking retrospectively at past problems.
In a business setting for instance, you may have lost a client. Five whys might go like this:
Next time you have a problem or have had a problem then… just ask why. Then keep doing it!