Solutions for problem-solving

    HOW TO

  • Enhance your career by getting good at fixing things 
  • See the creative sides in problem-solving

Necessity is the mother of invention. Or, in other words, problems birth solutions. Although we spend most of our lives solving problems, big and small, we tend to see them in a negative light. Yet all innovation comes from trying to fix something: Organizations exist in principle to do so, whether they are corporations, charities, or governments. The most gripping stories are built around a major problem to resolve. Likewise, we tend to succeed or fail in our careers based on how good we become at problem-solving. Ask around: A great boss, employee, or colleague is one who excels at solving their own problems and those around them.

The five-step approach

Problem-solving, therefore, is a crucial soft skill. It is usually taught through some variation of a five-step method. First, define the problem, by stating exactly what it is that you are setting out to solve. Then analyze the problem to understand its causes and effects the best you can. Third, decide which option(s) you want to try out as remedies. Fourth, implement your decisions, through a clear strategy. Finally, assess the results through feedback and self-criticism. Especially with complex problems, these steps form a cycle, which you may loop through several times, incrementally. Each time, your assessment helps you redefine the problem, and devise a more informed approach on the next go.

Problem-solving is central to all product design processes, which involve coming up with an effective solution to a specific need. The so-called “design thinking” method follows pretty much the same course as above, while bringing in an additional step which is too often overlooked in other fields: empathize, by putting yourself in the shoes of others who will approach this problem from a position other than your own. Indeed, most problems we must grapple with involve other people, and thus demand that we account for diverse perspectives, desires, and constraints.

All innovation comes from trying to fix something

Sometimes recognizing a problem as ours to solve is the hardest step. Particularly with tough, emotionally-charged problems, we are often tempted to procrastinate, pass off responsibility, or ignore the problem altogether. To make things worse, we spend much of our time juggling simultaneous problems in our personal and professional lives—and can easily deprioritize the latter as we get absorbed by the former. Only if we acknowledge our own evasion tactics—“it’s above my pay grade” or “I’d love to but can’t find the time”—can we find the courage to tackle a pressing problem head-on.

Following the method, step by step

Once you’ve decided to face up to a problem, you need to define it. And if tricky problems were easy to grasp, they wouldn’t be tricky in the first place. Defining a problem is less of a single step than an ongoing, tentative process. You start by posing a problem in one way, and discover its hidden meanings as you go. It is usually part of some bigger picture which we don’t see at first, and which we only uncover through trying out solutions. 

If we know what problem we’re trying to solve, analyzing it becomes easier. But that effort is also oversimplified in the five-step framework, which suggests a more systematic, detached approach than we can hope for in our messy reality. Problems may disturb us, torment us, wake us up at night. They may be enlightened by chance conversations. They can suddenly and unexpectedly make sense, as we lay things out to a friend, read an unrelated book, go for a walk, or take a shower. Successfully mulling things over often takes time, a stroke of luck, and a good dose of experience. One of the best arguments for tackling issues that we are tempted to ignore is that we get better and better at problem-solving the more we practice it—like building a library of possible solutions you later pick from.

Deciding which ones to try out is equally untidy. This rarely is a matter of applying a clear-cut analytical methodology. Instinct plays a role, and the solutions we test are typically half-formed. Some options may also feel counterintuitive. Sometimes, we decide to let a problem be, because it doesn’t seem to have a solution; to make it explode, as the only way to break out of an impasse; or to merely contain it, especially if there is some valuable lesson to derive from allowing it to play out. For instance, there are mistakes one must make to get better at one’s job: As a manager, preventing a colleague from doing so may be tempting on the moment, yet ultimately unhelpful.

Defining a problem is a tentative process

Solutions, for their part, often mean bringing in something new, which may entail risk-taking. It’s not unusual, to unlock a complicated professional relationship for example, to have to go out of character: Sometimes an element of surprise is the best way to break a vicious cycle. On other occasions, we may have to pull in a third party, although we can’t fully control the outcomes. Again, if force-of-habit and conventional thinking were the solution to a problem, it probably wouldn’t exist in the first place. 

However messy the process, the options we choose to implement should be always be unequivocal. Once we’ve reached a decision, we must act on it with confidence, if only to give ourselves a chance. The worst thing we can do is to proceed without conviction, putting forth solutions that even we don’t seem to believe in. Taking a stand will also produce clearer outcomes and more genuine feedback from others, helping us assess your results and adapt your approach.

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In sum, we have much to gain from recognizing problem-solving as a creative and rewarding process—and one that leads to empowering ends. If you don’t solve the problems you face, you’ll either have to live with them or worse: live with uncomfortable solutions that someone else came up with.

21 June 2022

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