Karl Popper, one of the most influential 20th century philosophers of science, once eloquently stated, “All life is problem solving.”
And it’s true – we all encounter problems across all facets of our lives and so it’s best that we learn how to effectively solve them. In order to improve your problem solving technique, you must first understand the strengths and weaknesses inherent in your natural strategy and approach to problems.
In my problem solving workshop, to help participants get to grips with their default strategy, I start each session by giving participants a puzzle to solve, without instructions or directions to help them.
Below I list some of the typical approaches I come across in the session. Be honest & see if you can identify yourself in the profiles below to learn how you could strengthen your problem solving methodology in practice.
- Those who jump right in
While it’s great to be enthusiastic and aim to solve your problem as quickly as possible, how can you solve the problem if you are unsure what you’re solving for? I always have an image of what the puzzle should look like (the desired state) available for those who ask for it before getting started. If you jump in headfirst, you may want to take some time at the start and really reflect on what you’re solving for.
- Those who give up
One of my favourite bits of the session is observing what happens when people start getting frustrated. Sometimes there is audible groaning and sighing, sometimes puzzles get thrown down onto the tables and sometimes people run away for impromptu coffee & tea breaks as an escape from the room.To be clear, nothing is wrong with getting frustrated. It’s what you do with your frustration that counts. Getting irritated to the point where you give up totally means you may never arrive at a solution and have to watch the others around you who do.I’ve often noted that those who persevere and plough their exasperation into the solution, or come back fresh with a new perspective after a break are often among the first to solve. So – if you get frustrated – take a break and come back with fresh eyes, don’t quit.
- Those who ask for help
Sometimes we don’t have all the answers and we can use input from others, especially when we’re struggling. I admire those in the session who hold their hands up and say either to me or to someone sitting close by “What’s the best way to achieve this?” even before they get to the point of frustration. Nothing is wrong with asking for help either in the session, or in real life – once it’s from someone you’ve selected carefully as having more expertise, experience or knowledge in the area.
- Those who solve together
I love it when my participants solve the puzzle as a team, but the approach really only works when all the members of the team come together and collaborate on the solution. Watching quietly as others solve, while sharing in the success on completion is not the same as working as part of a team. If you’re working as part of a team – contribute, and make sure others play a part as well. On the other side of the coin, don’t choose work in a team just to impose your ideas and method on the other team members – you may as well keep working to solve on your own. Remember each person brings a different set of skills and vision to the task, and those teams that share ideas are the ones that succeed.
- Those who throw out the rules
There’s always a maverick in every group. The puzzle I start with is pictured below. Many of you may be familiar with it from your childhood. To solve you’re supposed to move the squares until you get them in order to reveal the picture. However, what I get sometimes is someone who removes all the tiles and then clicks them back into place in the order in which they are supposed to go. I am always impressed – because until I saw it, it was not an approach I would have thought of myself. What a way to think outside of the box and be creative!
The only thing with this approach is to be wary of situations where you must work within a framework or set of rules for regulatory or ethical reasons, where too much creativity might get you into trouble. In addition to thinking about potential repercussions, also think about whether or not your maverick approach to solving the problem is a long-term solution