Five Problem Solving Techniques

Albert Einstein famously said “If I had sixty minutes to solve a problem, I’d spend fifty-five minutes defining it, and five minutes solving it.” So if that was the approach of one of the greatest thinkers the world has known, why do so many of us fly by the seat of our pants – solving problems spontaneously and without much thought – rather than using a systematic and sustainable approach?

While I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for the spontaneous approach – especially in “reactive” areas like healthcare and the military – the systematic approach often arrives at a more-balanced and better long-term answer. So here are five tips to help you approach problem-solving in a more systematic manner:

  1. Define the Problem
    You can’t solve a problem without knowing what it is – try to be as detailed as possible when defining the problem and figure out what the issue actually is. Another reason to do this step routinely – sometimes when you define the problem carefully, the solution automatically presents itself!
  2. Ask Others For Help
    When you’re immersed in an issue, it’s hard to see the forest, because the trees get in the way – you are so focussed on the minutiae that the big picture eludes you. Asking others for help – for more details about the issue, for their perspectives and feelings, for the historical context – can often uncover valuable data that helps you to make progress towards the best solution.
  3. Don’t Pretend to Know the Answers
    Some people like to pretend that they have the answer to a problem, even when they don’t. Regardless of the reason for this behaviour, when you accept that you don’t know the answer (and admit it to others) you remove a significant barrier to finding a successful solution to your own issue.
  4. Seek Out Similar Solutions Where Possible

    Time for another famous quote (this time from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With some research, you might find that your problem has been solved somewhere or sometime else – perhaps in a different country. Or maybe you’ll find the solution to a similar type of problem, but in a different context, that suggests a solution that you can apply to your circumstances.
  5. Focus On Flexibility
    Not every solution is going to work out the way you planned, but that shouldn’t stop you taking action and applying the best solution you can come up with. Sometimes the best ones are those that are most flexible and allow for the most contingencies – in this way you can adapt your answer to new events and factors as they emerge.

Bonus Tip: Use Expert Resources
Stumped by a problem or reached a dead end? Sometimes you need to reach out to a consultant or mentor who may have experienced a similar problem before. In the personal context, a counsellor, coach or psychologist may have the objectivity and experience needed to help you find the best solution to your situation.

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