Problem solving is, I believe, one of the most important life skills. Personally, I have always enjoyed problem-solving, but before we take a look at this most interesting topic, let’s first be clear about what is problem actually is; and what it is not. If you want to get from point A to point B, and you know the way, then you don’t have a problem; you have a task.
You have a problem when you want to get from point A to point B, but you don’t know how to do it, and that ability to decide that you are going to get somewhere, or do something, and then work out the route to your destination is an ability we all share, but few of us use effectively. So having defined what we mean by a problem, let’s take a look at Edward De Bono’s problem-solving model; I’m sure you know that he is the guy who originally coined the term ‘lateral thinking’.
TO – Definition
LO – Logical Analysis
PO – Possible Solutions
SO – Decision
GO – Implementation
It is a simple five step process that begins with understanding your problem and getting it properly defined. This is a vital first step because many of the solutions we produce are a product of that first step. The definition in our own mind shapes how we think about the problem and thus, the results of our thinking i.e. our solutions.
The next step is to logically analyse the problem to deduce what you can from what you are given. Some people are naturally better than others at doing this, but you can definitely get better with practice and a great way to practice is with Retrograde Chess problems. Of course, you need to understand the rules of chess to use this tool, but it is an excellent way of sharpening your ability to think logically.
Once you have completed the first two steps, you can begin the business of brainstorming possible solutions. You will find that they will come much easier to you after you have properly completed the first two steps. And, if you are prepared to sleep on the matter, you might even begin to realise that your brain can problem-solve subconsciously – this can be quite an amazing discovery in itself. This technique is deceptively powerful especially when you combine the subconscious aspects – something that few people actually think about doing.
Decision making is usually straight forward. You are essentially looking for high-payoff, low-effort or low-cost options – they are usually easy to recognise as winners. If you absolutely cannot see one option as a clear winner, then just make a decision and live with the consequences. In practice, the available options are never usually close enough in terms of benefits to consider tossing a coin, however flip a coin if necessary, but make a decision.
You then get to put your thinking into practice in the implementation phase. If it does not go as well as you had thought, that’s ok, you’ve got another problem to solve, so simply go back through the same process again.
Edward De Bono’s technique is not the only problem solving model in existence – for example there’s also the Kepner and Tregoe technique which is more suited to IT problems – however it provides us with a good generic problem solving model. The more you use it, the easier that solving problems will become.