Problem solving is one of the most important skills in life and work. At an early age, we learn to deal with simple problems, big and small. From our first wobbly steps, where we solve the problem of balancing on two ridiculously small feet at the end of our limbs, to figuring out the right shaped block to go in the right shaped hole - the round block goes in the round hole, of course, of course! Humans are natural problem solvers. At least when it comes to figuring out how to navigate the physical world.
As we grow, our lives become more complex. Problems move from the purely physical to include the theoretical; different kinds of problems created by our modern digital world. Physical problem-solving skills are intuitively learned as infants and children, similar to art skills where there is a certain freedom. However, as we get older, we tend to be more risk averse and feel there is just one elusive answer to the problems we face, if only we can find it.
Problems like: What should I study at school or university to achieve satisfaction and enjoyment in our working lives? What steps should I take to find a job? How do I get a passport? What do I need to do to get a loan to buy a house?
Good problem solving is generally not something you can just do. Our ability to recognise, disassemble and start to solve more complex problems is a skill that needs to be learned and then practiced on a regular basis to maintain skill competency, recency and confidence. Problem solving is incredibly useful, whether we are designing a new product or process or we are working to make stuff better.
It is the basis of all innovation and new ideas; continuous improvement depends on doing it well and often.
In addition, people who learn how to solve their own problems need less management and governance structure – problems are solved because they make life easier for the people doing the work. And problems are solved faster and more effectively because the people with the skills who are closest to the problem can actually do something about it.
Unfortunately, it’s not a skill that is learnt in any meaningful way by school-aged children or young adults. They often don't get a chance to experiment, to take responsibility, and learn to make significant decisions themselves. In part this may be because problem solving is not recognised as a foundation skill. While formal problem solving may be a requirement in some jobs, it tends to not to be seen as a basic skill everyone should learn, no matter their role.
If the need is not recognised, the demand is not there, so the teaching and practice of the skill falls short.
I personally believe there are three essential elements needed to create the right climate for problem solving and ensure it becomes part of everyday activities, whether it be during work life or personal life.
Three Essential Elements
1. Be Curious
Good problem solving requires curiosity about how the world works. The average four year-old asks about 80 questions a day, mostly starting with a word: ‘Why?’. Why? Because they are trying to understand the world. They have boundless curiosity, much to the frustration of parents who have to listen to the questions and try to provide answers about why the sky is blue and why insects buzz. They have an expansive imagination that they use to interpret the information their curiosity uncovers (and to generate more questions, the little darlings).
By encouraging curiosity and imagination, and providing people with the knowledge and skills to solve their own problems, we create a common language based on critical thinking to better understand and solve problems. We begin to challenge the idea whether things are a certain way for any particular reason and we start to question widely-held beliefs and assumptions.
A common Japanese maxim says that you need to ‘deeply understand’ problems to properly solve them.
This common language also allows us to pose better questions to uncover facts about problems. Understanding the facts of a problem ensures we have the right information when we come to draw conclusions about what to do.
These questions can be as basic as: What is the problem that we believe we need to solve? What would good look like if we solved the problem? Who is affected by the problem and what is the effect of the problem on each person? What are the possible causes and what are the root causes of the problem?
It pays to be more like your four year-old self and re-learn to ask more and better questions, especially the question ‘why?’
A word of caution. Questions are useful in the collection of facts and information about a problem. We should avoid having opinions about the facts of the problem. Deciding whether to 'believe' a fact can be counterproductive to solving the problem. Facts don't care what you believe. Opinions (especially informed opinions) are useful, however, when we understand a problem and we need to decide what to do about it.
2. Follow Structure
A structured approach to solving problems is essential. It allows a problem to be separated into its component parts - the problem itself, the effects of the problem, and its causes and root causes. To truly solve a problem, the solution must fix only the root causes and must fix all the root causes. If we don’t understand the root causes, or we don’t identify all the root causes, we are unlikely to be able to make progress towards solving a problem.
Without a structured approach to problem solving, problems, effects and causes are easily mixed up. Problem descriptions may actually be descriptions of the symptoms of the problem. For example, a problem described as, 'We're duplicating our account reconciliation activities' is talking about the effects of the problem. In this case, we would need to back up and understand the problem that leads to the duplication of work.
Problems may be described in terms of a supposed solution, an illogical leap of presumption. For example, a problem described as, 'We don't have a shiny customer relationship management system' says nothing about the actual problem and makes the assumption that not having a new system is the problem. It's effectively a circular argument and a trap!
Finally, root causes of problems can be missed altogether leading to ‘symptom solving’; zombie problems that don't die and come back to bite you again and again. In Taichi Ohno’s, often called the the father of the Toyota Production System, wise words, 'The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution.'
Effective problem solving requires us to describe the problem appropriately, describing the gap between the desired state and the actual state we have, and taking the time to understand who is affected by the problem and how they experience it. We then need to spend time and effort identifying the root causes of the problem before developing solutions. There is no shortcut.
3. It’s OK to Fail
The path to solving a problem, from problem-to-cause-to-solution, is rarely a straight line. Only the simplest of problems are solved in this way. More complex problems are often solved through a series of small experiments, mini trials to test a new idea or method. And not all of the experiments will succeed.
Indeed, if we are adventurous in trying new ideas, many will fail. And that’s OK. It’s OK to fail and to make mistakes. But because experiments are small, they are usually low risk and low cost. So it doesn't cost much to fail. Even if they fail, we always learn something, and this information can be useful in the future in helping us solve similar problems.
However, when we try something new, and it works, we have a solution that we can now implement to start to solve the problem. We have evidence that it works so we‘re much more likely to get support to adopt the idea; we can demonstrate that we can get a better outcome. And again, what we learn about the problem and a solution can be used to prevent future problems so we solve once, fix many times.
Effective organisations are made up of people who can solve their own problems. They maintain a curious and imaginative mindset, seeking to deeply understand problems that they want to solve. Armed with the methods, skills and tools to properly analyse problems, they take the initiative and responsibility to devise and trial solutions to solve them.
Most importantly, they are given the space, opportunity, and support to try new ideas, to find innovative ways to fix current problems and prevent future problems, and to possibly fail. This is climate control provided by management to encourage exploration and innovation.
And irrespective of the outcome of any experiments, they always learn something along the way.
As Henry Ford said, 'The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.'
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.