Problem solving is a mental process that involves discovering and analyzing a particular issue, developing strategies, and organizing skills and knowledge in order to overcome obstacles and find viable solutions that best resolve the problem.
The choice of an appropriate strategy depends largely on the unique situation. In fact, there are many different problem solving processes. However, all of them consist of a series of steps. It is useful to view problem solving as a cycle as a problem often needs several attempts to be solved. In the following, we present a seven-step problem solving model:
Step 1: Identify the problem
What is the problem? The first step consists in recognizing the existence of a problem that needs to be solved. In order to find an appropriate solution, you need to identify and name the problem. While it may seem like an obvious and simple step, finding the source of a problem is often the most challenging part of the process. You may not be clear of what the problem is or feel anxious and confused about what is getting in the way of your goals. Ask questions, which help you to determine the difference between what is expected and what is occurring, like: What is the nature of this special problem? Is it temporary or longer-term? Does the problem affect other persons or only you? Will others need to be consulted? What do they know about it? What is hindering you from completing this task? Do you need more time, information or experience?
Step 2: Explore possible strategies
The next stage is to research the problem as fully as possible and to explore possible problem solving strategies. Think about the different elements of the problem by watching it from different angles. You can ask yourself questions such as: How would another person perceive the situation? What would he/she do? What were the best ideas that my competitors have had? Are there existing solutions? Explore as widely as possible, e.g. through brain storming, imaging/visualization or other creative and analytical tools in order to generate many potential solutions. List and discuss them. Then, form possible problem strategies. The next step helps you in doing this.
Step 3: Set goals
Goal setting is crucial to reach your strategic objectives. Goal setting is a powerful process for thinking about your ideal future, and for motivating yourself to turn your vision of this future into reality. Key questions are: What is it that you want to achieve? What would it be like without the problem? What do you want things to be like instead? It is important to solve a problem at the right level. If you ask questions that are too broad, then you’ll never have enough resources to answer them effectively. If you ask questions that are too narrow, you may end up fixing the symptoms of a problem, rather than the problem itself. One effective tool to set goals at the right level is the SMART criteria.
Step 4: Look at alternatives
How many different approaches can you think of that will solve the problem? What are the pros and cons of each approach? When you have decided what your goal is you need to look for possible solutions. The more possible solutions you find the more likely it is that you will be able to discover an effective solution. You can brain-storm for ideas. The purpose of brain storming is to compile a list of possibilities. It does not matter whether the ideas are useful or practical or manageable: just write down the ideas as they come into your mind. Some of the best solutions arise from creative thinking during brain storming. You can also seek ideas about possible solutions from friends, family, a partner, a counsellor, books or the internet. The aim is to collect as many alternative solutions as possible.
Step 5: Select a possible solution
Decide which of the available options you will choose. You should be prepared to give reasons why and be able to show that this is the best of all options available. From the list of possible solutions you can sort out, which are most relevant to your situation and which are realistic and manageable. You can do this by predicting outcomes for possible solutions and also checking with other people what they think outcomes might be. When you have explored the consequences, you can use this information to identify the most relevant solution.
Step 6: Implement a possible solution
Once you have selected a possible solution put your plan into action. Create an action list, which comprises the following elements: What needs to be done and by whom? Can you chunk your plan into smaller bites? Estimate how many time, money, and effort will be needed to realize your subgoals. An essential question to motivate yourself is: What rewards you will give yourself when you have done it?
Step 7: Evaluate the result
After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results to determine if it is the best possible solution to the problem. Decide how you will quantify the success of your problem solving strategy. Questions are: How effective was that solution? Did I achieve what I wanted? How do I know this?
If the implemented strategy was successful in helping you solve your problem and reach your goal, then you know that you have effectively solved your problem. If you feel dissatisfied with the result, try alternative possibilities by beginning the problem solving cycle again.
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