Real life problem solving
Definition of problem solving
Problem solving is - searching for the quickest and least cost path to the desired solution, finding and implementing an acceptable one – that too with high degree of assurance. It is not just solving a problem in any possible way. Formally, problem solving uses systematic analytical methods to achieve efficient solutions.
We say, yes there is a problem here, when it is a crunch situation, the solution is not apparent; when hope is nearly absent; when there is scope for radical improvement in the existing situation. And yes, we discuss solving of real life problems, not just academic problems.
Brief case example 1: A Life and death battle
You get the news of your old time friend’s accident from another friend. For many years you lost touch with the man now fighting for life lying in a hospital bed. You decide to get involved. That is the turning point. Quickly you learn his only daughter is quite young and is in the final year of her college and his wife is sick. His relatives are scattered and aged. You classify – this family is fragile. The girl, the future of the family, has none to look up to for advice.
With no other alternative, you have to become the main decision maker, though strictly speaking you can only analyze and recommend but not make the decisions.
It was a long drawn out battle alright with hard decisions many, grief seemingly endless and pains deep.
All through you tell the girl – “I am the decision analyst. I cannot take decisions for you. It is your life. It will be shaped by the decisions you take. I will explain to you various options, possible consequences of each and my recommendations. It is you who have to choose an option.”
She understood. Very rarely you had to take a decision yourself. She chose.
Decision Analyst or DA analyzes all aspects of the problem and recommends actions to be taken in the form of proposed choices and prospects of each choice. It is the responsibility of Decision Maker or DM to actually take the decision of choosing a specific option leading to required actions.
On one occasion, four days before her father expired, the daughter called you late in the night, crying, “I am breaking down, I cannot take it anymore. I am continuously thinking, what would I do when my father dies?” You told many things to her, but the main principle you applied that day was, “Why should you think of the time when your father expires? It is still in the future. When that point in future you reach, in any case you have to feel the pains, inevitably you have to go through the actions.
He may die now or may survive many months – you never can say when a man will expire under such conditions. You have seen that even the Doctor is unable to say anything about it with certainty. Till that moment comes why would you waste your precious present times? It is illogical. Delink the future from the present. It is chaining you down. Think instead of your exam, take care of your mother and your health – you are the main person now.” The irrefutable logic broke through her gloom.
You have applied the important Technique of Authority Support. It says,
To strengthen your argument, cite statement from a recognized authority on the topic of argument.
In business life we frequently use this technique in the form of Certification or organizationally approved Orders.
But the crucial principle you applied was the Principle of living in the present.
Principle of living in the present
You were aware of wise people mentioning this profound principle of “Living in the present” earlier. But when you applied it in a crunch situation yourself, it took body and shape in your mind. It took up new meaning and usefulness. It became a powerful problem solving resource that you would surely apply in many future problem solving situations.
Delink present from the future and focus all your attention on the highest priority activity that you face NOW.
Following this principle is most important when you can't affect an undesirable future outcome by any action that you take now.
A large problem is solved by many people working together
In this kind of extremely emergent personal life problem, relatives and friends together form a loosely bound project team. If these many opinions and many abilities are focused all the time towards the central objective, highly satifactory results can be reached.
All resources need to be used optimally at each dynamic decision making point.
This is application of Project management approach in personal life problem.
In general, in any large problem solving situation, desired solution can only be reached by the actions of many people and not one man, each playing his or her role as best as it is possible. Among all though, there must be one decision analyst who being aware of overall good, and aware of problem solving principles, guides, when needed, all decision makers towards the goal.
Who is your best help in a problem situation?
After a few months when things stabilize, you ask her, “Tell me, in any problem situation who will be your best help in solving the problem?” You are not very surprised when she answers in a low voice, “It is me.”
She has learnt the core principle of problem solving, the Principle of self-solve. It says,
Solutions to your problems are in you.
In Learning any subject, following this important principle produces best results. It translates to "Principle of self learning", which is the most important form of learning.
For this important principle of self-solve to work, problem ownership ultimately is a must requirement.
If you relentlessly try to analayze problems yourself and act as the decision analyst and decision maker for every problem, searching for and getting suitable help when needed and learning all the time, you would surely become an independent and effecive Problem Solver in time. It doesn't happen in a day and it doesn't happen with an uninvolved approach towards problems. But otherwise it surely happens.
This is Principle of problem ownership. It says,
Unless you take up ownership of your problem, searching for, evaluating and getting help when needed, most likely you won't get the best of solutions.
In some problem situations, people around may not even be aware that there is a problem. But if we look deep into the essentials of the situation and ask at every step where we stop to look, “Is everything alright here? Is it the way it should be?”, more often than not, at some point or other we discover a dormant problem crying out for recognition and action.
Brief case example 2
You are in-charge of a faculty in a large organizational training centre where trainees come from all over the organization. After taking up the charge recently, you find things running absolutely smooth with all trainees satisfied and with not even a murmur of discontent. After all, you have half a dozen high quality expert trainers working for you. They must be doing a wonderful job, you think.
But in a short while, the absolute calm bothers you. “Let me see firsthand”, you decide and enter a class while it’s on.
That opens your eyes to a rude shock – you understand at last the reason behind the calm. The teaching is flawless, but the content is long obsolete. The same old content is flawlessly repeated again and again over the years to the complete satisfaction of the trainees who are not at all aware of recent developments.
In short you are in-charge of a “dead service system”. This principle of dead service system states,
Any service system with zero complaints is not used by the users at all or even if used, its effect is minimal.
Dead people don’t speak.
It took intense efforts to upgrade and modernize all the contents.
This is a case of a dormant problem. Question asked – is everything alright? No, it is not. There is no constructive or critical feedback at all. What are they learning – you wonder! When you ask this question and decide to examine physically, the dormancy barrier is virtually broken.
As you become aware of the power of this principle, in any future situation where things are apparently calm, you question every parameter and its desired state. Is everything alright?
We classify this type of problem as a dormant problem as the problem lie hidden and unseen. Concerned problem owner is not aware that any problem exists. That's why this type of problem is harder to solve.
Principle of disbelief & verification
This is also a case of going against general perception – is the perception generally believed by the people the actual truth? You develop a habit of questioning accepted barriers to problems - with experience you increasingly explore new paths applying principle of exploration – is there any other better way to reach the solution, what are the ways to break the barrier?
When beliefs around you form barriers to the desired option, don’t change the option, rather question the beliefs around you. This is a direct application of the principle of disbelief & verification by questioning existing beliefs to detect a problem and also the principle of exploration to find the solution.
Any great mind needed to solve real life problems?
It is a case of proactive problem solving with great gains. Any brilliant intelligence involved here or any great innovation? Rather it is – a different way of looking at things, defining a problem where problem situation is perhaps perceived but not recognized as a problem by others at all. Identifying the barriers to solving the problem; searching out possible ways to break the barrier and choosing the most suitable path; taking action with sufficient care so that the effort doesn’t turn to a failure because of weak implementation; and finally carrying out tasks as per the detailed plan towards final success.
What is problem solving – second stage definition
Problem solving is a way of thinking and taking action. Thinking analytically right from the stage where even the problem may not be identified as a problem. Analytical thinking throughout is the thread by which the fabric of problem solving is woven.
It involves analytical thinking but also it necessarily involves use of right kind of problem solving resource for breaking the back of the problem so to say.
Technique of authority support, Principle of living in the present, principle of self-solve, principle of problem ownership, principle of dead service system, principle of disbelief & verification, principle of exploration and Project management approach are only a few of the principles, techniques and approaches used as a part of a large resource pool for solving any personal life, work life or academic life problem efficiently and at low cost.
Problem solving does not end in finding the path to the solution, it necessarily involves implementation of the solution in an effective way and also to check whether the results are as desired and achieved at low cost.
Much talk with no results means nothing.
Are we talking about solving all problems?
Problem solving essentially encompasses all kinds of problems that can appear in real life - in personal life, in work life or in academic life.
You may ask, “How can all of the millions of problems be solved? Can anyone do it? Is there any sure way to solve any problem?”
Obviously there can’t be any single method to solve all problems. Can all mathematical problems be solved by following a single method? Can all problems in any exam you appear be solved by one method? There isn’t such a one.
Still some people score brilliantly by solving maximum number of problems in an exam. They didn’t know which question will appear. They have simply developed an ability to solve most types of problems that can appear in the specific subject area.
While we talk about mathematics as a subject we never expect one mathematician to learn and solve all mathematical problems. Mathematics is a cumulative effort of many mathematicians.
When we discuss the subject of problem solving, we do not expect one person to know all the theories and effective use of all the resources of problem solving. This is more so as, types of real life problems in the life of one person, that is you, is not limitless and can be classified in a short enough list. You are not to solve all the problems that can occur in the world as a whole. You will pick up and use only those problem solving resources that are useful for you.
As in learning any other subject, you need to reach an initial stage of comfort for continuing your journey of learning into the fascinating area of knowledge and enquiry of efficient problem solving.
How to reach the initial stage of comfort in learning efficient problem solving?
The first and foremost way to learn efficient problem solving is to have the belief that you really can solve the problem. The truth is – most of the problems, if not all, are solvable.
The second most important aspect in solving a problem and learning problem solving is, to approach a problem analytically, not just in any which way.
To solve a tough problem that sometimes might result in greatness, one of the key requirements is to follow principle of persistence. You must make a resolve that you would never give up. You would try once more searching for a better way. Proverbially, it is the bulldog tenacity that is necessarily required.
To solve a problem like a problem solver, efficiently at low cost and time, you need to have the core problem solving idea that will cut through to the heart of the problem. How do you get that inner eye?
It is not as mysterious as it seems. The important help in this direction comes from,
- Recognition that problems are solved by applying abstract and reliable principles and not just a problem specific technique. This is against the basic conventional teaching which focuses on solving a subject specific problem using the subject specific knowledge and method only. The fact is, all expert real life problem solvers who have not heard of the discipline of problem solving as a subject at all, use invariably quite abstract problem solving tools and techniques adapting them to the specific problem situation unknowingly. For you, who are learning problem solving, this process would be carried out knowingly, and incrementally.
- Studying already solved problems by you, analyzing how you solved them, thinking about how you could have improved the problem solving method, and extracting for future reuse the useful rules or techniques that you have used successfully in this problem. This is learning from past experience proactively and continuously – this is one part of your study. You might extend this study to your near ones to analyze how they tackled their past problems.
- Study and use the resources that we present here. You would find many basic concepts and techniques clarified here using real life case examples to enhance belief and utility of knowledge in this area.
- Solve actual real life problems yourself independently. Start participating in solving others’ problems in addition to solving your own problems. Learn from this practice and develop your own customized rules and procedures of general problem solving. With practice of any discipline, your ability, knowledge and confidence would grow. There is no alternative to actual practice. Even if you develop an interest in solving tricky academic problems, you would surely enhance your general problem solving skills. Problem solving is a highly practical, analytical and generally logical discipline with scope of little vagueness or subjectivity in it.
You are sure to reach the initial stage of comfort if you follow these or similar such steps suitably chosen by you. Once you reach this stage, you will discover that automatically you are analyzing your reasoning while you are in a problem solving process. This is the difference between a self-aware problem solver who always tends to decide and act systematically, logically and efficiently and the unaware problem solver who might solve a problem efficiently now and then but
- may not be consistent in facing all kinds of problems
- won’t usually be able to explain how he had solved a particular problem, and
- if he is not a specially powerful natural problem solver, he will tend to move in random paths rather than a well-analyzed short distance path to the heart of the solution.
But I am not a physician, how can I take decision in a serious medical problem in my family?
If you are the person to analyze the problem situation and take decisions in case of a serious medical problem in your family, then technically, you are the Problem owner, Decision Analyst and Decision Maker all three combined. As the problem area is outside your area of expertise, naturally it is not your job to prescribe medicines to the patient. But it is you who have to
- decide which doctor to consult
- provide the doctor with maximum amount of useful information related to the case
- understand, evaluate and monitor the treatment costs and results, and
- go for a second opinion or change the doctor if required.
Just like sometimes you need to change your hairdresser, legal advisor, financial advisor or your bank, occasionally you may be forced to consider changing your medical specialist also. It is not necessary that a single medical specialist will always satisfy you in all problems in his domain. For every type of specialist service you avail in your daily life, it is a natural requirement for you to constantly evaluate whether you are getting the desired service at the cost you are incurring. Medical problems are no exceptions.
When we face a problem requiring specialist intervention, the important technique that comes into play is – Find the expert (or trouble-shooter). Whom would you ask? Would you consult a specialist or a general physician? If you are not sure, would you instead consult your friend who knows many doctors and is quite a bit of experience in this area? Your decision may make the difference between life and death of your dear one – no less.
Brief case example 3 – a decision that most likely saved a life
The patient is the wife of your close friend. For quite long she was not well. You got news that she had been admitted to a hospital with fever rising and signs of delirium.
Getting involved, you are in close touch evaluating the diagnostics, the tests, general condition of the patient and responses of the doctor in-charge critically and daily. A week passed.
Her infection in blood could not be controlled in spite of increasing the dose of antibiotics. Next step taken by the hospital after a few days of delay was taking the whole abdomen USG. The doctor-in-charge of the case informed you and your friend that, “It is a large stone in kidney that is blocking the urinary path and is the source of this infection. Only resort is to operate and it is not an easy operation.”
“Can you do it here? How is the condition of the patient?” you ask.
“Patient condition is not stable. We can’t do the operation right now. Yes, we have surgeons here...”.
Alone with your friend, you tell him your opinion, “We have to shift the patient as soon as possible, under the supervision of a surgeon on whom you can bet your life. Here it is highly risky.”
The gravity of patient’s condition, the difficulty of the operation, the delay in diagnosis and the slight hesitation in doctor’s voice all contributed towards your final recommendation. That was the easy part.
When you try to find a solution intensely, the breakthrough idea suddenly pops up in your mind. You remember the leading surgeon you knew closely decades earlier. Both of you knew him. You mention his name to your friend and together decide immediately, yes you can bet your life on him.
Most likely, the decision to shift the patient that day saved the life of the patient as, the legendary surgeon admitted after a long drawn out operation, that even in his long experience, this had been one of the most difficult operations he did, especially on a patient with such poor general conditions.
This is an example of applying the principle of find the expert – whom you can depend on fully!
But prior to that, you didn’t take the doctor’s statement at its face value. Instead you had evaluated his statement and all other parameters relevant to the case on the basis of your experience and then only you took the all important decision to shift the patient. That was the first decision. Finding the right expert was the second decision towards solution.
It is hard reality that if you are not able to evaluate and analyze the parameters and deliverables even in specialist domains during your daily life or work life, you are liable to suffer heavily at times.
As a problem solver it is your duty to analyze relevant aspects of any problem domain and analyze, search for and implement a better alternative choice if necessary. Doing nothing or deciding randomly will deteriorate the problem situation in most cases.
Among other things, problem solving is thus proactivity, analysis and use of the right problem solving resource that are part of your mental problem solving framework.
Can I become a problem solver in a short time?
The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ because, if you adopt a problem solver’s stance, study, use and practice the resources at your disposal (you can proactively search for any resource) in solving problems and continuously absorb the knowledge gained, you may reach the initial comfort state of a problem solver in a few months. We have seen it happen in daily life around.
Organizations routinely put fresh recruits through domain specific well-designed intense but short training schedules to prepare the employees for solving problems in organization specific target domain.
On the other hand, the answer to the question is ‘no’ because long and hard experience usually is necessary to build a rich set of problem solving resources in your mind to confidently deal with any problem. It takes time to become an experienced and well-rounded problem solver. This is same as in any other activity area.
We emphasize here that we are talking about solving a problem by anyone - a common person like you and me, and solving a problem efficiently at low cost and in short time. The methods and resources we discuss and use should be easy to perceive and reuse by one and the all.
What would I do in a completely new problem situation?
If the problem is emergent, though you will be limited by your inherent problem solving decision making abilities, you still can try to use all the resources that you can find including getting the right expert or trouble-shooter to help you in a major way.
In any emergent situation, the one who holds nerves and can think and act rationally but instinctively (instinct works fastest) would contribute maximum to the solution of the problem.
But if the problem is spread over some time you can do much more. You can learn fast.
How about solving one of the hardest Sudoku problems in seven days from learning to solve your first Sudoku problem?
In your search for problems to solve (as a problem solver if you are short of real life problems, naturally you would search for academic problems), you remembered the name Sudoku and decided to explore. To your surprise you found the game involving no mathematics at all. It was purely a highly addictive pattern recognition based game.
You knew - best way to gain expertise in a problem area is to solve problems and learn useful rules of problem solving in that area, but in a planned manner. So you solved first two problems in the easiest category of a four category problem set. Those you found easy. Immediately you went on to select two from the medium difficulty set. These two also posed no problems for you. Solutions came quick. You felt confident and in a rush of confidence selected a problem from what you thought as the next higher difficulty set. And you were stuck. You found it tough, very tough. It refused to be conquered try what you may!
As you are a problem solver, you had the bulldog tenacity – you didn’t leave the problem and went hard at it continuously. After 25 hours of backbreaking effort suddenly and unexpectedly all the pieces fell in place and you got the solution. Curious, you checked the category of the problem – by mistake you had skipped one difficulty category altogether. You attempted a problem in the highest category of hardness. This teaches - you must proceed step by step in solving a class of problems and must not skip any step. We will later discuss these learning stages in more details.
Being a methodologist you took up the next problem in the same category and solved it in 6 hours, the next in 2 and half hours and the fourth in one and half hours. You were satisfied. By then you had identified many useful patterns and incorporated them into a system of Sudoku problem solving. You thought you reached the end of Sudoku challenge.
Before closing this avenue of problem solving however, you went to explore the Sudoku world casually and in a few minutes faced the reportedly hardest Sudoku problem in the world by Prof Inkala, a mathematician.
Quickly you found its hardness to be of a different level altogether. By now you have reached the comfort zone in Sudoku and developed a fairly comprehensive general system of solving Sudoku problems. Still it took you a dozen hours, it was certainly laborious, but at the end you solved it without much difficulty. In the process you had developed the second and more comprehensive version of your Sudoku problem solving method. Finally you left Sudoku problem solving altogether.
You have discovered more and more powerful patterns as you went on to solve problems of gradually increasing difficulty.
Learning by discovering useful patterns and rules is a crucial ability in problem solving.
This is the way our mental problem solving framework gets shaped.
Learning through useful pattern recognition
A human baby after its birth starts identifying objects, sights, smells and sounds using its inherent pattern recognition abilities. This learning continues at a breathtaking pace without any guide. The most difficult problem any human being solves is learning his mother tongue as a baby. It is an enormously difficult task which any baby born anywhere in any environment does effortlessly. This huge power of useful pattern recognition lies at the heart of problem solving ability and every baby does it effortlessly.
When you are in a new problem context, your mind automatically analyzes the new environment to extract useful patterns that can be used in solving problems in this new area. To proceed methodically you adopt an approach of learning though problem solving and start solving problems. As you proceed to solve problems your set of useful patterns grows in volume and quality.
This is the crux of problem solving in a new domain.
Can I become a problem solver?
Our answer is a firm 'yes'. All babies solve one of the hardest problems in human life - learning to speak. But later in life, this and other special powers of human mind become dormant due to environmental pressures. Most cases we use only a small amount of our power of mind.
We believe through observation of numerous cases that,
Every human being has enormous thinking assets. Only alignment of the mind is needed to enhance the power of mind manifold.
If you try with your full efforts and whole heart you would certainly become a confident problem solver and much more.
Management principles embody one of the most valuable set of principles, techniques and methods to solve real life problems that can appear in a specific sub-domain of organizational activity such as Project Management, HR, Marketing, Finance, Material Management and so on. Predictably, variety of organizational problems being large, management problem scope is also wide. Managerial problem solving in an organizational environment is mostly non-mathematical and based on principles and methods found to be effective from experience and practice.
As in management, all real life problem solving is based on sets of principles, techniques and methods that are found to be effective in solving certain kinds of problems. Such approaches, principles, techniques and tools form the abstract problem solving resource for solving any general problem.
Can all these resources be listed? As problems are open ended, a new problem may appear anytime and we may need to devise a new way to solve the problem, we clearly recognize that problem solving as a subject of learning and practice is open ended and cumulative. It can’t be close ended. Once you start learning how to solve problems yourself following systematic methods, not just in any way, ability to solve problems builds incrementally. After a stage, just like learning any subject, basic confidence is attained for facing any problem.
It is no different from learning and practicing any other knowledge or activity area in this aspect. The difference lies though primarily in focusing on the way to solve rather than the solution itself and on using abstract principles or techniques rather than domain specific techniques.
The more abstract the problem solving principle is, the more efficient the problem solving is. That’s the whole point. Problem solving resources are abstract and domain independent. And that’s why the same abstract principle that can be used in solving a mathematical problem elegantly can also be applied to solve a tough real life problem in an assured manner.
Are these resources new discoveries? Some of the resources are adapted and abstracted from various disciplines - Management, Mathematics, Computer Science, Cognitive Science, Innovation systems and so on. By defining problem solving as an overlay layer, it becomes imperative to use a valuable problem solving resource in any discipline that can be abstracted and used in any other discipline, as an important element in the set of abstract problem solving resource layer. Amenability to abstraction and reuse of a problem solving strategy or technique are two main characteristics of a valuable problem solving resource.
On the other hand, through our problem solving experience we became aware of a new problem solving resource in many cases. Those are new to an extent (from a general perspective, nothing is new, all existed in nature).
To us it is a practice oriented empirical subject where we practice, explore and learn continuously. Main focus though is on solving daily life problems of common people like you and me. Being an overlay layer of knowledge and practice, the same resources can potentially be applied in any knowledge and activity domain.
It is to emphasize that most if not all of the problems that appear in our daily lives are solvable. We emphasize from many real life case experiences, that no situation is totally hopeless. Hoping, doing things the right way and learning gradually brighten up even the gloomiest of situations.
Approach is though always systematic, analytical with use of powerful problem solving resources that are not too many.
Are there infinite types of problems? Most of the problems that appear in daily lives, especially daily life of one person, can be classified into a short list. We are not here to solve all problems of all people in the world.
Can anyone become a problem solver? To us the answer is an emphatic yes. Most of the people whose problems we dealt with till now gradually became independent. That is the main objective of all discussions here – to offer you resources and ideas using which you may become an independent problem solver in time.
As every human being has large untapped power of mind, with proper commitment and method it is possible for anyone who is not brain-damaged to focus his or her thinking power towards achieving great positive results.