The Art of Solving Problems
The word Einstein has become a synonym for “brainy” and “intellectual”. Originating of course from Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the most famous scientists of our time and widely regarded as one of the best problem solvers that ever lived. When you have a simple problem you usually know exactly what to do. However, more often than not a multitude of complexities cloud our options, confuse our mind and the best solutions become blurred. But problem solving does not have to be hard. Here is a simple, systematic, step-by-step procedure that will navigate you through the problem-solving process.
1. Identifying the Problem
Step one is to clearly identify the obstacle. Define the problem. Is it your monkey or is it someone else’s monkey? If you don’t own the circus, don’t adopt all the monkeys. If it is yours to solve, can you solve it alone, or do you need help? Is it worth solving? These are basic, but important nuances that will help you focus on the problem correctly. So be willing to make time in defining and understanding the full extent of the problem, both in general and specific terms, before you start trying to solve it.
2. Gathering Information
Step two is to gather all the information and data you can regarding the problem. Find out what the boundaries or constraints are, if any. This includes limitations such as financial restrictions or human resources restraints. If a solution itself is surrounded by too many constraints, then the constraints themselves become problematic as well and need to be included in your solution. Ask yourself questions such as: Who must be involved? What were previous or are current hurdles that must be overcome? What solutions have already been tried and what was the outcome?
3. Developing Alternatives
Step three encompasses the developing and evaluating of all your options. Look at the problem from different vantage points. Search for a perspective that you haven’t thought of before. Brainstorming and white boarding are excellent ways to activate a discovery process. Stay flexible in your thinking and be open to various possibilities. One note of caution during this phase: Defer prejudice, bias, and opinion. Do not criticize or disregard another’s suggestions. At this stage, the intention here is to uncover all possible solutions, not judge them.
4. Selecting Solutions
Once you have listed all the possible alternatives, step four requires you to evaluate the options objectively and logically. Use either the “Positives & Negatives” technique, by listing a minimum of three good and three bad things about every proposed solution idea, or the “Suitability, Feasibility and Flexibility” matrix to rate every option accordingly. Compare and prioritize the solutions without expecting a “perfect solution.” Evaluate your best alternatives to see if there is anything you missed and explore if a hybrid solution makes sense. Always be prepared to consider a compromise.
5. Implementing Decisions
Implementation is the hardest step and is the stage where most solutions fail. This means solving the problem and completing the project and/or solution. Don’t falter, don’t change mid-stream and don’t keep moving the goal posts. It’s hard to paint a moving train. This is not the pondering stage. If you completed the previous steps then you would have done your homework and now you must focus on execution. Breakdown what tasks need to be addressed, who will perform each one of them, what the deadlines are and who is ultimately responsible, if it is not you. Study the steps, track the timeline, probe the progress, and review the results. And above all, communicate comprehensively and consistently.
Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible.” Problem-solving is a fairly straightforward rational process. And all processes have steps. Comprehensive research creates more alternatives and that, in turn, leads to more and better solutions. Like traveling from one place to another, different routes can show you different routes to get to the same or alternative destinations. Your responsibility is to find the best path.