Problem Solving Introduction

PS101ftIt is a plain and simple truth: Problems are an integral part of life, if we like it or not. And usually the more we do, the more problems we’ll have to face. You could say, the number of problems you have to overcome is a gauge of how active you are. Having problems is normal and actually a good sign.

Life is about solving problems and not about being productive for the “busy’s sake”.

The other good news is that we are born problem solvers. That is what we do from the moment we start to exist: We overcome obstacles. Thus, problems are nothing to hide from but a consequence of a successful life. The more problems we can check off, the farther we’ll go. The difference between doing really well in life and… well… just living, is that many of us stop at a certain point in life to seek out different pathways for how to approach obstacles. We have constructed our view of the world and how to “do stuff” and stick with it.

But problem solving is a skill like any other, which  needs to be practiced continuously and can be improved by adding different approaches to our repertoire. With everything ever changing around us we need to keep up.

This course is designed to give you a methodology for finding solutions for any given problem. Because problems are very different and also the people solving them, I will present you with a variety of methods and different approaches that will help you to tackle all sorts of problems.

If you are doubtful whether this course has any benefit for you, because you are already pretty good at dealing with your problems, then I have two arguments for you.
Number one: This is what I thought for a very long time until I got to work with many people with very different backgrounds. So I learned that there is not only one truth and not only one way to do things. Some methods work and some don’t. It is all about having many options.
Number two: It is free. You’ll need some time for reading that is true. But the time investment may worth it, because reading through this course can save you time down the road. Opening up and listening to others still helps me to avoid a lot of trouble.


But first I need to make sure we are on the same page on what the word “problem” means. Merriam-Webster defines problem as follows:

prob·lem noun \ˈprä-bləm, -bəm, -ˌblem\

: something that is difficult to deal with
: something that is a source of trouble, worry, etc.
: difficulty in understanding something
: a feeling of not liking or wanting to do something

Full Definition of PROBLEM


:  a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution

:  a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done

:  an intricate unsettled question

:  a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
:  difficulty in understanding or accepting <I have a problem with your saying that>

Examples of PROBLEM

1. Racism and sexism are major social problems.
2. The company is having financial problems.
3. He has chronic health problems.
4. The mechanic fixed the problem with the car.
5. There are a few problems with your argument.
6. We have to find a way to solve this problem.
7. She is bothered by family problems.
8. We didn’t have any problems getting here.
9. I have my own problems to deal with.
10. Mosquitoes are a problem in the summer.

Okay, this is what Merriam-Webster says. I’d like to simplify even more and suggest that a problem is something which when removed (i.e. solved) makes a situation better. Being well aware that better is a subjective term, which is why problems are often perceived so differently by different people.


The Process

There are many ways to break down the process of problem solving. I came up with the UPEC system, which consists of four basic modules: Understand, Plan, Execute, and Check.




Understand Your Problem

This is the first and already a crucial part of the problem solving process. An optimal solution is only possible with a complete understanding of the problem at hand. Often a lot of time is spent on solving the wrong problems. Examples are:

  • taking painkillers for recurring pain instead of eliminating the root of the pain
  • increasing the line of credit instead of improving the cash flow
  • failing on crash diets instead of picking up more healthy eating habits
  • troubleshooting a fax machine instead of finding something better
  • etc.

Understanding involves identifying the actual problem and recognizing everything and everyone that is associated with it.


Plan the Solution

Now, that you fully understood the problem you can start finding ideas for possible solutions. These ideas you need to evaluate and decide for the best solution. You then outline a course of action and define your ideal outcome. You should also define a minimal acceptable result (MAR). Defining the MAR is important to make sure you don’t waste time when the ideal outcome is not attainable without unreasonable effort.

When the process towards a solution is more complicated and/or will has to occur over a longer period of time, you should also decide for a metric to track your progress.

This may all sound super dry and theoretical to you right now, but don’t worry we’ll go through some simple examples later in the course. 


Execute Your Solution

Obviously this is the part were you actually solve the problem. Needless to say, how important it is that you stick with your plan and don’t come up with the spontaneous better idea. This is where you are on autopilot and just do what you have planned.

You can see how problem solving is exactly like task management or goal setting, with the difference that finding a right course of action is more complicated and requires more creativity than just setting a time for when to answer the email, ship the product, bring your car to the body shop, etc.  It is different because you know how to do these tasks and have no doubts about the results. Problem solving can be as simple as that, but often it resembles more an experiment.


Check the Result

Just like switching the lamp back on to check whether replacing the light bulb fixed it, you need to make sure you did indeed solve the problem.

This may sound unbelievably trivial, I know. But in larger projects with complicated problems and many people involved this check is often forgotten. Completing the task becomes easily more important than solving the problem and thus no one checks whether a completed action had the desired result.

At this point you need to decide whether you reached either your ideal outcome or at least your minimal acceptable result and whether you need to re-evaluate your understanding of the problem or you want to try another idea.


The Sequence

You can also see, for very simple problems the UPEC sequence can be pretty quick (think about the lamp) and doesn’t require much preparation or tracking. However, the more complicated problems are, the more important it is that you follow your own plan, track the right metric and do the right checks.


What is next?

Now that we set up the basic framework, we are ready for the actionable items and examples. I hope you liked this introduction and are curious about what comes next. Don’t miss it and subscribe!

The Problem Solving Series

So far these posts are part of the Problem Solving 101 course:


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