Management & Leadership

6 go-to problem solving techniques you can use daily

Oct 01, 2018

Unavoidable and relentless, problems are unwelcome and usually feared. Here are six tips to help you tackle a problem and embrace the opportunities it presents.

Key takeaways

  • Problems are often unavoidable and relentless.
  • To become proficient in problem solving one needs to embrace conflict.
  • Problems provide the opportunity to realign, re-evaluate and fix what’s not working.
  • Problem solving techniques are valuable tools often allowing us to turn problems into opportunities.

We can’t avoid problems. They crop up every day, often in the most unexpected of places. Yet, despite their consistency and determination to stick around so many of us are completely ill-equipped when it comes to adequately dealing with problems. So much so that problem solving, or lack thereof, has itself become a problem.
People are creatures of habit. Research shows that when faced with a problem most of us will respond in one of three ways:

1. We’ll experience fear and discomfort and, soon enough, we will find ourselves wishing, as impractical as this is, that our problem would just go away.
2. We feel an immediate need to solve said problem. The dreaded problem must be solved quickly with the perfect solution.
3. We look for someone else to blame.

Although tempting, none of the above responses are particularly helpful and can often just cause further problems. Many people shy away from problem solving as they associate problems with conflict and an impending sense of doom. Most of us, by nature, avoid conflict at all costs. In order for any relationship, family or organisation to thrive at problem solving however it is imperative that they become conflict-competent. Conflict and problems have two things in common:

1. They are unavoidable and occur frequently
2. They both provide valuable opportunities to improve relationships

Problems provide us with a chance to re-examine and realign. They force us to look at things differently and re-evaluate our options. Here are six problem solving techniques that you can use daily to turn your problems into opportunities.

Embrace the problem

This is easier said than done, but avoiding a problem often makes it bigger, even if this is only in our mind. Ducking and diving may work in the short term, but it isn’t a long-term solution. Despite our best efforts to forget about the problem, we often find ourselves consumed by it, which only heightens are anxiety thus making things even more difficult to manage. Stop. Take courage. Look the problem in the eye and face it. Sometimes the fear of a problem is often worse than the problem itself.

Remember that you don’t need an immediate solution

Unless you’re facing a life and death situation chances are that you do not require an immediate solution. In fact, trying to find a solution straightaway is often counterproductive in the sense that it puts the cart before the horse. A successful solution is found at the end of the problem-solving process not at the beginning. Figure out what isn’t working before you try to fix it. Rushing into something leaves room for error and regret.

Define the problem and make sure you’re solving the right one

Albert Einstein said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet. I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” These are wise-words and, if remembered, they will serve you well when faced with a tricky situation. When attempting to solve a problem, make sure that you are focussed on the real issue and not just a side-effect or symptom. Explore the problem in detail. Draw a spider diagram if you must, whatever it takes to make sure that you are dealing with the heart of the problem. Very often we try to solve something only to discover that the problem lies somewhere else. Be clear about what the problem is. Write it down and go back to it when you find yourself being side-tracked or losing focus.

Understand everyone’s interests

This is particularly important when problem solving as a group. See interests as the need you want satisfied by a particular solution. The best solution will be the one that satisfies, or at least attempts to satisfy, everyone’s interests. Often, we get so caught up in our own opinions that we forget that they are not the only ones that count. We tend to focus on our desired outcome and not that of the group as a whole. When solving problems in a group setting, for example a work or classroom environment, it is important that you actively listen. Putdown your differences and listen with the goal of understanding. There is truth in the old saying, “A problem shared is a problem halved.” The benefit of working as a group is that you don’t have to go it alone and often solutions arise out of the most unlikely of places.

List the possible solutions and evaluate your options

This is the time for brainstorming and creativity. Often there are many ways to solve a problem and it’s during this time that the solutions become apparent. Write down your most ideal solution. Your desired outcome and work from there. Ask yourself what needs to be done to reach that outcome. Let the ideas flow, don’t judge them. You can evaluate practicality afterwards, the aim here is to find as many workable solutions as possible. Once done, evaluate each option. Cross out the impossible, highlight the probable. Look at each possible solution, weigh-up the pros and cons and slowly start to refine your list.

Select an option or options and take a walk

When you’ve honestly weighed up all the pros and cons, look for the best option in the balance. What will get you closest to the desired outcome. If you join certain solutions, will you get closer to your goal. Once you’ve made your decision, if you have the time, sleep on it or at the very least take a short walk. Clear your mind and listen to your gut. Sometimes the best solutions arise when we think we know the answer and we give ourselves a little time to process. When dealing with a significant problem, give yourself time to solve it. I am not advocating procrastination, but often things look different in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Effective problem solving often takes time, but a rushed solution can take even longer to fix.

Granted, that when in the thick of the problem it can be hard to focus on the opportunities being presented. If you look close enough though, they are there. Problem solving is an essential life skill and as a result, as often as possible, problems should be embraced and given the time and attention they deserve.

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