The Only Problem Solving Technique You’ll Ever Need

By | September 5, 2012

When solving problems a common mistake is to do things the wrong way round, that is to spend too much time (and often money) on possible resolutions rather than the problem itself. Resolution searching feels like problem solving but it isn’t really, no more than agonizing over  a new item of clothing is going to solve the problem of  not having any friends.

Effective problem definition is critical to being successful in solving problems.   Physicist  Richard Feynman   is supposed to have developed the Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm;

Write down the problem.                                                                                                 

Think very hard.

Write down the answer.

This seems factitious, but on closer examination it makes a very serious point. Writing down the problem involves deciding what is is and what it isn’t. It requires the separation of symptoms and causes and understanding their relationships. It also forces a proper confronting of the problem rather than talking about it in nebulous terms.

Then comes the tough but fun part –  thinking very hard. Thinking productively requires the courage think divergently, to allow abstractions and adjacencies  to wash around  the written problem. To apparently not be thinking directly about the problem at all. This mode needs to transition into convergent thinking to bring the relevant thought and ideas to bear on the problem. Rapid and frequent iteration of these early ideas  is required sometimes the only next step is to start from scratch because the thinking is led to dead-end. Sometimes these cul-de-sacs are no more than false endings, barriers that can be broken through allowing you  to connect to the next piece of the solution map.

Soon (or perhaps later) you will be ready to articulate the answer , and write it down for testing. Often you will have to go back, sometimes all the way the problem definition and begin again.  Great problem solvers don’t see this as failure but as part of the process.

Go problem solve!

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