Problem Solving and Design
Page created 15th April 2013
updated 9th June 2015
Update - New Mobile Pocket Guide Version - Free Download
I re-worked the article, chart and table (with some minor changes and enhancements) into a handy and compact step-by-step mobile guide. That said, it is also suitable for tablet and desktop use, as it is a cross-platform web-app. You can save it for off-line use as well.
This new version has a handy checklist, and a widget for taking notes and making a list. A future versions will go into much more detail and provide individual tools as well, so stay tuned.
Check out the browser-based version (first link). If you find it useful you can bookmark the page or, if you want to use it like an app in full-screen with an icon on your mobile or tablet home screen, and use it off-line, you can use the second link.
To install the off-line app, first tap the link below to load the page. The entire app is one page divided up into tabs and drop-downs. Many mobile devices will let you save a shortcut to the home screen. Follow the usual steps for your device. Once it has created the home screen shortcut icon, exit the app in the browser and open it from the home screen. It is at this point that the app is downloaded to your device. The previous step only saved the shortcut and icon.
You will now see it in full screen and will be able to access it without internet connection. There is more information in the app on the Home tab. Both versions are under 60kb.
Browser-based Problem Solving Guide:Online Demo
Offline Problem Solving Guide web-app:Off-line App
Why is problem solving and design often lumped together? I think Herbert Simon hit the nail on the head with this quote:
Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones
A problem is simply a situation we would prefer to be different, as is an object we design - we want one which suits our (or someone else's) purpose better. So we design a way to get from here (less desirable) to there (more desirable).
That makes everyone a designer. Want to build a house extension? Tackling that question makes you a designer, even if you don't put pen to draft paper. You will be thinking about what kind of extension, how big, what type of structure, where, and many more variables. If you do your design job well, you will also want to think about "what for?". But even that heart-to-heart with your teenage daughter can benefit from carefully considered thoughts. Yes, that too makes you a solution designer.
The bigger the investment, the more important the decision, or the more intractable the problem, the more we benefit from a systematic approach to solution design.
A Balancing Act
First of all, I would like to emphasise that a problem solving map or system is not an all left-brain, mechanical approach to solving your problems. It is more like a checklist for making the right considerations in the right order, and not leaving out important ones. Feeling and intuition still play a large part. We cannot separate ourselves from our emotions. We can, however, make sure we consider our future emotions, and the wider impact.
Solution Design - the Steps
Problem solving chart
If you do an online image search for "problem solving" you will find a large number of systems and charts (sometimes called "simplex"), but most are designed for industry and large organisations, and are over-kill for us mere individual mortals. So I've distilled the information of many, many sources into a more user-friendly system for you and me, adding a dose of my own experience and thoughts.
At first glance it may look daunting, however, it is a simple flow-chart with an obvious beginning (it even says "start") and steps to get to the goal. It is not unlike a certain game with the "GO" field at the beginning, but hopefully it won't land you in jail at any point . Treating a problem like a game is more fun, don't you think?
These are, of course, the broad strokes, your global check list and map to point you in the right direction. Also, the steps are only broadly in sequence. In practice, there is a lot of back and forth between the main steps with micro-steps. Make sure you are on the mailing list if you want to see more detail in future articles and publications.
Before we go any further, you may find it easier to have the chart to refer to, so go ahead and download the chart (free). There are two pages in pdf form, one is the steps chart which you can see in the image, the other is a table with a little more detail on the steps. As it is a printable pdf, I offer a set for letter sized paper, and one for A4.
Zipped set 240kb
or download individual files
Zipped set 240kb
or download individual files
The Five Broad Areas
These five areas follow each other in principle and are sub-divided into steps.
- Prepare mind, body, work area
- Explore effect, information, causes, goals
- Create potential solutions
- Evaluate statements and solutions, choose
- Act - define tasks, sequence, resources, implement
Before anything else, preparation is the key to success, as Alexander Graham Bell said. Here we are talking about preparing your mind, body and work area. This first step should not be overlooked, especially in a difficult problem situation.
Have you had enough sleep for a thought-intensive session? What about some good brain food? Exercise supports those grey cells too.
What can you do to organise your work area? Are there some aids which will help in your problem solving - a magnet board, mind-mapping software, large sheets of paper, coloured pens, and, and ….?
The Problem (the effect)
What have you noticed that you prefer to be different? This is the stage where you become aware of the problem effect. What do I mean by "effect"? This is best illustrated with an example.
You are spending long hours in front of the computer. You've been getting a lot of back ache lately, and your bum doesn't feel too good either. You try an extra cushion, but to no avail. You conclude that chair you use is not really suitable for working at the computer. You buy an expensive office chair and find it makes little difference.
It is easy to skip to what we think is obvious as it stares us in the eye because it is more concrete. In this example the cause was an unsuitable chair and the obvious solution a more suitable one.
If we look at the effect - the pain in the back and you-know-where else, we can then take the wider picture into account in the next stage and increase the potential for a suitable solution.
Gather all relevant information, organise it and make sense of it. Cast your net wide at this point. In another step you will narrow things down again. What is the current situation? What are the circumstances? What data can you find? What are all the potential causes?
In the chair example we acknowledge that the cause can also be the fact that we are sitting for long hours, or even the fact that we are sitting for long hours. This subtle shift in emphasis can make a big difference, one which can point us to an unexpected solution.
Included in the Information step is also global information which you can re-visit repeatedly for related problems. This can be in the form of checklists for practical problems, or some basic understanding of what makes us tick.
Goal (the brief)
Here the key question is "what do I want to achieve?". Get to the core of what you want. This is likely the negation of the effect. In the example above the effect is the pain when you work at the computer. Note that it is not "sitting" in front of the computer, which would be a (potential) cause, not an effect. Assuming that working at the computer is necessary, we discount that as a cause to reverse. So the goal would be not to be in pain when working at the computer.
However, whilst we want to negate the undesirable effect, it may also be an advantage to turn the problem around and frame the goal as something positive to strive for. Rather than avoiding pain our goal can be to work in comfort.
Spotlight 1 (confirmed or revised brief)
Now we shine a spotlight onto all the statements and information we gathered. And we try to debunk it. Are we making assumptions? We want to make sure we are working on the right problem, have the right information, all of it, and ask ourselves "is that what I really want?".
Theoretically, one can drill down into deeper causes to the point of asking existential questions. In the chair example you might ask "do I really need to work at the computer?", "do I need that money?" "could I go into a Buddhist monastery?". You will have to find your reasonable cut-off point.
The outcome of this will either be confirmation or we have to revise our information or brief.
This is the fun part where we come up with ideas. This is the creative phase. How can we achieve our goal? In the chair example we have established that sitting for long hours is a cause, and so is sitting for long hours. And there is pain, which we don't want. One solution would be to take pain killers. So how do we deal with the long hours? We break up the sessions and move around doing other things, maybe take some exercise. As for sitting, one solution would be to not sit in front of the computer. Maybe a kneeling chair, a standing desk, or reclining in bed. You could also combine the shorter spells and alternating positions. And what about outsourcing some of the work, or dictating whilst you move about?
Spotlight 2 (potential solutions)
Now we put each of our ideas under the spotlight. Are they any good? Do they solve the problem? Is there something we can do to mitigate a negative point in an otherwise good idea (back, briefly, to "create")? Judge each idea on grounds of desirability, suitability, usefulness, and feasibility, as well as urgency.
Now we hold the ideas next to each other and compare. Which is the best choice? Can we combine several ideas? It is not always either-or. Is there a second choice? Put this on the back boiler. This could be plan B.
We picked the best choice and now it is time to put things into action. What do we have to do to get this thing done? Break it up into individual tasks. What is the right sequence? Can some things be done in parallel?
When should they be done? Does anything need scheduling? Who can help? What resources do I need and which do I have? Then - do it!
Spotlight 3 (verdict)
This is the morning after, when we look at our deed in the cool light of day. Was it a success? Yes? Goal achieved!
No? There are three alternative paths for an unsatisfactory result.
- Abandon - the problem wasn't important enough to solve, given the price of solving it
- Improve - go back to the beginning and re-visit any necessary steps to refine the solution
- Plan B - go back to your second choice and go through the subsequent steps for that choice (tasks, implementation, spotlight 3)
Match the Process to the Problem
Not every problem requires a thorough walk through the steps. Instead, we can skip or run through some and dwell a little on the necessary ones. Match the depth of the process to the size of the problem. Nevertheless, even a small problem can be solved more quickly by using the key questions and a little creativity and judgement. In the end you will, of course, act one way or another. The steps guide will ensure you have not overlooked anything.
Reminder of Download
The above steps are set out as key points in the free, downloadable table, which includes purpose, outcome, key words, application and key questions. The simplex is a graphical illustration of the steps.