Getting started with real life problem solving efficiently
Real life problems are complex
In the case of a mathematical problem, if it is solvable (there are many unsolvable mathematical problems), however hard it is, someone somewhere can solve it using known techniques and methods. In other words, generally a mathematical problem:
- Is well defined: Example: Find the average age of 4 members of a family whose ages are 1 year, 2 years, 27 years and 30 years: the goal to find the average is very clear as also the given facts.
- Is well structured: Example case: the components of the concepts are linked in a hierarchical and clear structure. To find the average you need to do addition and then division. For each you would have the required information and learning help.
- Has no uncertainty: Example case: there is no scope for any uncertainty anywhere – not in the given information that is specific as also not in the method. There is no ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ embedded.
- Has one unique and precise solution (that may have two values, for example a quadratic equation in a single variable may have two real roots): Example case: average age is 15 years.
- Has clearly known method for reaching the solution: Example case: the generally followed method is to add the four numbers to get the total as 60 and then divide the total by the number of values, that is, 4 to get the answer as average age 15 years.
- Has no context dependence: averaging remains same in China or in USA, now or 30 years ago.
- Has no subjectivity: If a student finds the right answer to a mathematical problem, it will be right even if the teacher makes an error. The answer is not opinion or judgment based.
- Is not affective: No role of emotion in a mathematical problem (except that if you are angry or nervous, you are prone to make a mistake in solving even a mathematical problem that you knew how to solve).
In contrast, a real life problem generally,
- is ill-defined: Example: You need to find the most suitable husband for your 24 year old daughter. How to define the “most suitable” is not known as also what the real preferences of your daughter are or how you can go about this. It is one of the most difficult real life problems that we face routinely in various forms.
- is ill-structured: Example case: No clear step by step method is available to you.
- is highly uncertain: Example case: the method, the solution and the consequences of the solution are all uncertain.
- has no unique solution: Example case: there may be any number of suitable husbands for your daughter. None of them you know now, but you have to find out such a one who is willing.
- has no standard methods or paths to the solution: Example case: How best should you proceed with the job? There are ways followed by others, but are those dependable? Is there any that would work for you as well?
- is deeply context embedded: It means, all aspects of the problem depend on the persons involved, the time frame of the problem and the place or environment: Example case: Marriage problem would be dealt with in a different manner in Sweden and Kolkata as also today and 30 years ago in the same place in Kolkata. It also depends on your family background.
- is mostly subjective: the solutions are mostly opinion or judgment based. Many times instinctive decisions play an important role in real life problem solving. Stringent reasoning and analysis usually take backseat.
- is many times affective, involving intense emotions: Example: a conflict at home or in an organization. Though in real life problem solving we are never comfortable in dealing with affective problems, more often than not we have to face such problems. These are generally the most difficult problems to solve because human emotions are involved that are unpredictable and uncertain. A special word of caution: if a problem solver gets emotionally disturbed or involved when solving a real life problem, his or her effectiveness will be seriously undermined. A corollary to this principle is: "I am more effective in solving others’ problems than mine".
In short, if solving a mathematical problem is like a walk in a garden, solving a real life problem seems to be like finding a needle in all the haystacks in a village.
Principle and Strategy based approach
With so much uncertainty in a real life problem, it is but natural that general tendency is to deal with such a problem using commonsense and instinct rather than any systematic approach.
This imprecision, uncertainty and vagueness in real life problems demand an approach wholly different from the linear and deterministic approach of mathematical problem solving or more realistically, the any which way commonsense conventional approach generally adopted in solving real life problems.
To overcome the imprecision and uncertainties of a real life problem, in a new approach thus we use largely abstract principles rather than formulae, and strategies rather than standard methods.
This approach is to some extent similar to Managerial Problem Solving, only the scope of application is broader in this overlay discipline of Efficient Problem Solving because of its total independence from any specific domain of activity or conventional subject of study. Extensive abstraction makes it possible.
The main actors in real life decision making
In a problem scenario, we have three important active agents:
- Problem owner: One or more than one person affected by the problem, interested in solving the problem and having minimum resources to solve the problem. In many cases real life problems do exist but it becomes difficult to find a clearly identifiable problem owner. All big problems of this world are of such types. Without clearly identifiable problem owner, no problem is solvable unless God intervenes.
- Decision maker or DM: One or more than one person authorized and capable of taking decisions in implementing the solution to a problem. Many times but not always the DM and the problem owner are the same entity.
- Decision Analyst or the DA: One or more than one person whom we can call the Problem Solver. It is the responsibility of the DA to analyze the problem and come up with recommendations to the DM for reaching the solution.
Usually, all three roles are combined into you, unless you are able to find a capable DA.
Overlay discipline of Problem Solving
The abstract principles, strategies and techniques used in efficient and minimal cost real life problem solving together constitute the Problem solving armory resources and study, creation and use of these problem solving resources form the overlay discipline of Efficient Problem Solving.
Some of these resources are abstracted out of mathematics, some from management, a few from computer science, a few others from cognitive science, some from innovation studies and many of these from daily life problem solving experience.
While creating such a problem solving resource though, we always take care to identify its essence in its general and abstract form so that it can be applied in solving not just one type of problem but many kinds of problems in multiple activity areas.
This abstraction of the definition of a problem solving resource and its method of application makes a problem solving resource independent of any conventional activity or subject area.
Depending on its suitability, an abstract problem solving resource that helps to solve a mathematical problem in only a few steps in contrast to the long conventional solution, may very well help a top-notch business consultant to propose a highly cost effective solution in a critical business problem situation.
Problem solving concepts
These are not related to creation and use of any specific problem solving resource but involves studies on general questions such as, what is real life problem solving, what are the steps in real life problem solving, what are the various types of real life problems, how to learn problem solving and so on.
Problem solving armory resources
These abstract problem solving resources are used suitably to solve real life problems including personal, organizational and academic problems for improving quality, cost and effectiveness of solution.
We classify these resources into four groups - problem solving principles, problem solving approaches, problem solving techniques and problem solving tools.
Problem solving principles
These are abstract principles forming the bulk of problem solving armory resources.
Extracted and assimilated from underlying conventional disciplines and problem solving experience, such a problem solving principle can potentially be applied effectively in a wide range of problem situations. These are similar to Management Principles, but are more abstract and wider in scope of application.
Some of the principles are: Principle of exhaustivity, Principle of Zero based problem solving, Principle of sharing, Principle of hidden opportunity, Principle of positivity, Principle of disbelief & verification, Principle of consultation, Principle of disproportion, Inventive principle of segmentation, Inventive principle of taking out, and so on.
We would elaborate definition and use of these principles through real life use cases.
You may later refer to each of these principles regarding what these are and how do they work by using the links above.
Problem solving approaches
These are powerful resources that can be applied in a wide range of problem situations. These can be thought of as broad spectrum problem solving strategies. The number of these efficient real life problem solving approaches or strategies are few, but each is immensely potent.
Some of these problem solving approaches are:
Project management approach: Core concepts especially the project stages concept form this approach in problem solving. In the process of solving a large and complex problem we invariably use the problem project stages concepts. A problem is a project for us.
End state analysis approach: In most of the problem solving situations, we naturally analyze the end state of the problem. In its more well-defined form, we combine initial state analysis and end state analysis in a continuous process to reach the solution much faster than other methods. It is one of the most powerful problem solving resources and is used in various forms in innovation studies and management practices.
Working backwards approach: Instead of approaching the solution from initial problem state to the desired solution, in this approach, the problem solver is urged to start from the goal state and move backwards in the direction of the intial state passing through the intermediate states all of which are unknown. A good example is planning and preparing for an Event when Event date is fixed.
360 degree analysis approach: We look at the problem from the perspectives of all the stakeholders involved in the problem. It is equivalent to putting yourself in the shoes of a stakeholder and analyze the problem through the eyes of the stakeholder. In conflict management problems or negotiations, this approach should produce much better results compared to conventional approaches.
Multi-criteria decision making approach: This approach involves a rich body of knowledge and methods that can be used in a large number of real life problem situations where evaluation of choices is based on evaluation of multiple criteria of each choice. Examples are: choosing a property, making a policy, ranking of candidates, procurement of materials and so on.
Problem solving techniques
Problem solving techniques are usually more specific in their definition and application methods. Consequently the scope of a technique may be more restricted compared to a problem solving approach or a problem solving principle. Nevertheless, when a specific problem solving technique is found to be suitable in a problem situation, it will always produce most effective results. A large number of such techniques have been identified to form a rich technique base.
Some of these are: Abstraction technique, Change analysis technique, Consult the expert technique, Delusion analysis technique, Problem breakdown technique, Logic analysis technique, Memory indexing technique, Pattern recognition technique, and so on.
Problem solving tools
Efficient problem solving tools are to be used usually with techniques to solve a problem. Problem solving rules, Personal rules, Rule sets, Decision tables, Concept structures are some of the problem solving tools that are effectively used in solving various types of real life problems. Generally use of a tool is more specific.
Among problem solving tools, concept structure stands apart as it lies at the heart of learning.
Problem solving skills
A problem solver needs to have many skills such as: Problem definition, problem structuring, analysis, abstraction, learning, prioritization, reduction or information cleaning, estimation, innovation, pattern recognition, key information extraction through question and answer, information organization, classification, visualization, shape analysis and so on.
We consider the skills to form the ability set of the problem solver and would discuss these skills and how to improve a specific skill later.
We define deductive reasoning as the mechanism that chains use of different types of resources in solving a problem. This is much more than the conventionally understood concept of reasoning, as it understands significance of a problem state and attempts to find the next suitable step towards the goal by evaluating alternatives. In deductive reasoning we often use our estimation abilities that form no part of logical reasoning.
We invariably find that,
In solving a significant real life problem, we would need to use not one but a number of most appropriate problem solving armory resources and skills for efficient solution at minimal cost.
We will now take up a real life problem solving case analysis to highlight the process that may be followed for best results.
Problem Solving Case Analysis
How to go about finding the right match in marriage for your daughter.
This is the very first step in a step by step approach. You have to start somewhere. Where would you start in this case? The problem is stated in everyday language. Unless we transform this statement to more specifics, we won’t be able to proceed much further following any systematic manner. We need to form specification of the problem with precision.
First question to be resolved:
The very first thing that comes to mind in this case is - which method to use? How do people around go about it? Asking the question to a few friends you come to know of three channels:
- Through print advertisement,
- Using own acquaintances and friends, and
- Through matrimony websites.
You also come to know that you would get maximum exposure in minimum time through matrimony sites.
Being a believer in the Principle of parallel action, you decide to use all the channels simultaneously.
This Principle of parallel action says,
If there are more than one non-conflicting action towards the solution that would increase the chances of final success, then take up all the actions simultaneously.
The other two channels being simple, you take up those actions but concentrate more on the matrimony channel as it needs more time and attention.
Thus at the first stage of problem definition, you decide on the crucial question of what channel would be used for finding the groom – you define your medium first. Further actions will be determined by the requirements in the specific medium.
As you concentrate on the matrimony medium, other two being simple, you now face the next stage.
Problem analysis and decisions:
Analysing the present state you face the next question:
Which matrimony site to use?
There are a number of them – which one should you use? This again is a choice problem.
For website evaluation there are standard techniques that common people may not know. Instead you ask your friends again and additionally use whatever website evaluation concepts you have and make a ranking order of the choices yourself.
You now take a pragmatic decision of using the first three websites in parallel. This would not only increase your chances of success in a shorter time but also would correct any potential shortcoming in your choice ranking. This is a decision resulting in three advantages.
- You tend to reach an acceptable solution in a shorter time.
- You increase potential choices significantly.
- Without prior knowledge of the quality of the choice sources (the matrimony sites), you come to know which is the better source of choices through experience.
If the cost is not a big constraint it is always better to increase your potential advantages. You also reason out: while using the websites over some time you would be able to evaluate the quality of the sites by the responses you get. Later, you may drop any of them and concentrate on the one or two that you find really effective till then.
This is experience based decision making. You learn from experience and modify your decision. Pattern recognition and use is at the core of this type of decision making. Continuous subjective evaluation is akin to identifying effective and useful patterns.
At this stage you find the problem to be transformed to:
How best to use a matrimony site for finding a good match for your daughter.
While you explore a matrimony site you find the very first step you have to take now is:
- To open an account and make a profile for your daughter.
There are usually two types of accounts: free and paid. Having no experience you go for the free account first. The advantage you have in this process is: you can modify your choices depending on your experience. In real life we do this often.
Technique of specifying
A profile is nothing but a specification in clear terms about what you want and what you have. As it is a matchmaking problem you have to specify the characteristics of your daughter as well as the desired characteristics of the would-be groom. Though this is again a type of definition, it is more specialized and more precise.
In many problem situations such specifications need to be created and a good specification in such a case is always crucial to chances of success.
Case example of specialization in specifying
A professional decided to change his company and submitted his CV to a recruiter. For weeks he didn’t get any worthwhile response. He got depressed and started doubting his own worth. Then one of his friends suggested him a professional agency that specialized in making CVs. Within two weeks of submitting the new professionally prepared CV, he got many good offers and in a month he got a new job that satisfied him fully.
Similarly for organizational procurement tender specification is of utmost importance, for industrial R&D target product specification is crucial, for buying a fridge you study the specification of various models – specifications surround us in our daily and organizational lives.
Though specifications vary widely in content and form, some of the abstract requirements can be found to be common.
If you know this abstract set of specifying, you should be able to build a good specification practically for anything by asking the right questions to right people and analyzing the specific domain information.
System Requirement Specification or SRS for large software systems is one of the most complex specifications created this way.
Coming back to our present problem, we find that you have used your own commonsense and took a number of pragmatic steps again to create a profile for your daughter:
- You have selected a few profiles for both girls and boys from the website and studied the content trying to identify what makes a good profile.
- You have found that the photo is important, the language should be good and must not have any single error, the information given should not be too much at the same time should not be too sparse, the criteria that must be met should be specified in no uncertain terms and some information should be withheld for next stage of interactions. You also found, paid profiles attract more attention and respect.
Principle of consultation
With this information you now sit down with your daughter and finalize all the items of the profile by consulting her at every point. This is crucial, as in this case, your daughter is the decision maker or the DM and you are the decision analyst or DA. Being wise, you have recognized this essential requirement and never failed to take her consent for any decision now or later.
After all you are only aiding her in this process. It is her life decision.
Whenever you are the DA you must take care to consult all the important stakeholders for the final decision. It does not mean that opinion of majority will always hold. Many times it may not lead to the right decision.
It would depend on how you present your choices with pros and cons to get the right decision. As a DA you should be clear about your recommendation and at the same time take pains so that the important stakeholders can understand and are able to comment upon the recommendation. Constructive inputs from the wise always strengthen decisions.
Analysis and action on responses
After you convert your account to paid category and publish the profile of your daughter, the hard part comes. You start receiving a continuous stream of responses from eligible and not so desirable candidates.
In consultation with you daughter you must now establish a system of,
- Screening out not so promising candidates, and
- Responding to the short-listed candidates keeping track of the responses and your reactions. Recording the results is very important here.
Principle of cancellation
Screening out a candidate is as important as short-listing a candidate in this type of problems.
We recommend screening out or dropping a candidate without any hesitation if at any point in the selection process a doubt is created in your mind. We call this as principle of cancellation. Your main objective would be to cancel out a candidate rather than choose one.
The reason for this devious approach is:
- In a virtual environment it is nearly impossible to clarify any doubt and be fully satisfied.
- Any virtual environment abounds in various types of spurious elements.
- In a busy matrimony site as candidates drop out new candidates enter – it is a continuous flow.
- When the right match appears, all criteria would match usually like magic. All concerned will know instinctively that yes, this is the right match. After all, marriages are made in heaven.
- If you hurriedly take a decision, you may miss this opportunity and may get into an unwanted situation.
After the first contact you may decide steps of further interactions – your interest bearing message, candidate’s interest bearing reply, your discussions with the candidate’s parents, your daughter's telephonic interactions with the candidate, first meeting of the two and so on.
Evaluation and screening will continue all the time on both sides, at every step.
It may seem at first to be a complicated and delicate process. Think again. It may seem to be complicated but it is based on reasonable principles and techniques that you may decide to apply or create your own. In any case, you would be proceeding systematically with built-in precautions so that you don’t land into unwanted situations and gradually move towards the best solution.
The process elaborated above is just a template or example of systematic treatment of a difficult real life problem to give you an idea about how systematic treatment of complex real life problems may be carried out. We do not claim to possess the best method in this area though, it is quite well possible that you know better. This is just an example of systematic treatment of a quite common real life problem.
You would note that decisions at every stage that you would have to take would be judgmental, based on the information you have till then.
This is the hallmark of real life decision making – it is finally judgmental. We try our best to introduce as much reason, systematic approach and reliability in such processes as we can by following principles and techniques that we found to be effective. This approach usually would lead us very near to the most desirable solution leaving the final judgment based decision making to the problem owner or the DM.
With a judicious mix of deductive reasoning, systematic approach and experience based judgments, best results are achievable in most cases.
And if we are aware of the problem solving principles, approaches, techniques, tools and where and how these can be applied most effectively, it becomes much easier to follow a systematic method in solving a real life problem at minimal cost and time.