Problem solving is the mental process you follow when you have a goal but can’t immediately understand how to achieve it. It’s a process that depends on you — how you perceive a problem, what you know about it, and the end- state you want to reach.
Solving a problem involves a number of cognitive activities:
- ascertaining what the problem really is,
- identifying the true causes of your problem and the opportunities for reaching your goal,
- generating creative solutions to the problem,
- evaluating and choosing the best solution, and
- implementing the best solution, then monitoring your actions and their results to ensure the problem is solved successfully.
Clearly, problem solving isn’t a one-step process. Your success will depend on whether you approach and implement each of the stages effectively. The best way to do this is to use a well-established, systematic problem-solving model.
The six steps of problem solving
Problems vary widely, and so do their solutions. Sometimes a problem and its solution are clear, but you don’t know how to get from point A to point B. At other times, you may find it hard to define what’s wrong or how to fix it.
Regardless of what a problem is, you can use a six-step problem-solving model to address it. This model is highly flexible and can be adapted to suit various types of problems. It also comes with a flexible set of tools to use at each step. The model is designed to be followed one step at a time, but you may find that some stages don’t require as much attention as others. This will depend on your unique situation.
The steps in the problem-solving model are as follows:
1. define the problem — Defining the problem is a crucial step that involves digging deeper to identify what it is that needs to be solved. The more clearly a problem is defined, the easier you’ll find it to complete subsequent steps. A symptom is a phenomenon or circumstance that results from a deeper, underlying condition.
It’s common to mistake symptoms for problems themselves — and so to waste a lot of time and effort on tackling consequences of problems instead of their causes. To define a problem, you can use gap analysis, which involves comparing your current state to the future state you want to be in, to identify the gaps between them.
2. analyze the problem — You decide what type of problem it is — whether there’s a clear barrier or circumstance you need to overcome, or whether you need to determine how to reach a goal. You then dig to the root causes of the problem, and detail the nature of the gap between where you are and where you want to be. The five-why analysis is a tool that’ll help you get to the heart of the problem.
Ask “Why?” a number of times to dig through each layer of symptoms and so to arrive at the problem’s root cause. You can get to the root of a more complicated problem using a cause-and-effect diagram. A cause is something that produces an effect, result, or consequence — or what contributed to the current state of affairs. Categories of causes include people, time, and the environment.
3. identify as many potential solutions as you can — Brainstorm creatively — ask lots of questions about the who, what, where, when, and how of the causes to point to various possibilities. Don’t limit yourself by considering practicalities at this stage; simply record your ideas.
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