Problem Solving 101
Problem-solving is a life skill, and like all other skills you must use it or lose it. Anyone reading this that is over age 25 and can still divide fractions, probably does it on a near daily basis. There is a reason there is a show called “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader”. Skills that we don’t use become lost. So if you were one of the lucky ones that attended a school that taught problem-solving but haven’t used it in a while, you might need to brush up on your skills. If you are in the 90% who attended a school that did not teach problem-solving, download the worksheet and read on
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Ground Rules of Problem Solving
Before we get started we need to set a few ground rules.
- Remove emotion. This is the hardest part of solving any problem. Emotions of others can and should be considered when solving a problem, but keeping your own emotional pull out of the equation will help you in the long run.
- Prioritize. Solve the most important problem, or the root cause of the problem first. For example, if you are unemployed that can lead to problems with relationships, money and your overall happiness, but you are just wasting energy if you are trying to solve the symptoms rather than the cause.
- Apply the KISS (Keep it Simple Silly) method whenever possible. Problems are messy, especially if they deal with relationships, but you have to keep the solution simple. If you don’t you are less likely to go through with your plan of action.
Problem Solving Step 1: Define the Problem
As I said before, problems can be messy. So the first step is to strip the problem down and define the problem. Take the emotion and stress out of it and in just a sentence or two, define the problem. Make it as simple as you possibly can, even if it doesn’t seem that simple. Here are a few examples of what I mean.
How the problem is presented to me.
“I hate my job, my boss sucks, I have no time with my family, I am exhausted all of the time. I really want to quit but this company has good benefits and I doubt I could find a comparable package anywhere else.”
How I define the problem
“The role you are currently in is not working for you”
Notice that I took all of the extra stuff out of it and just took it down to what the problem actually is. I did not say “You need to quit your job” for two reasons. First, that is a solution and not the definition of the problem and second, that might not be the case. I won’t know what the best solution is until I get a little bit more information. Here is another one.
How the problem is presented to me.
“I am miserable in my marriage, my husband doesn’t pay any attention to me, I spend all day at work only to come home and clean, we split the bills but I am always loaning him money. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to get divorced, but I don’t know how long I can live like this. I feel bad for the kids, they probably see it to”
How I define the problem.
“My relationship with my husband needs work”
Again, all of the emotion is taken out (and this is a really emotional topic!). I stripped it down to just the root of the problem. I also didn’t feed into the emotion of this topic by saying something like “Yea your husband is a total jerk you should ditch him!” Again, I don’t really know if that is true without getting a little more information.
Problem Solving Step 2: Define the Desired Outcome
Now that you have a simple definition of the problem, you need to define what you want the outcome to be. You won’t know how to get where you’re going if you can’t define where that is.
If you are having trouble with a boss at work but the company you work for has a lot of positives maybe the outcome you are looking for would be a new role in the same company. Maybe you hate the work and the company maybe a new job in the same field would be a more suited outcome.
If you are in the second scenario maybe a happy marriage is the outcome you want or maybe you don’t see yourself with your current spouse in the future so your desired outcome might be a safe home with my children.
No matter the problem, you have to have a defined outcome that you are looking for or you will be on the crooked road to nowhere.
Problem Solving Step 3: Consider Your Options
Now you know where you are and where you want to go. This is going to sound a bit harsh but at the end of the day your two choices are usually to find a way to deal with your current situation or to leave and find a better situation. In both scenarios above those are the options.
Now that was the bad news, the good news is that there is a lot of room in those two options for wiggle room. So you need to do your research and come up with possible solutions. With the invention of the internet research is available at the tip of your fingers. I will caution you though, you can go on information overload and end up more confused than you started. Problem-solving is not always easy and this is the biggest trap I see people fall into. Here are some tips for avoiding this problem-solving trap.
- Ask friends and family for recommendations. Maybe you don’t want to ask them for advice, but you can ask them for resources that they trust. For example, if someone asks me about money issues, I am going to send them to Dave Ramsey and suggest they read some of his material. If you ask me about jobs I am going to send you to Dan Miller and suggest you read 48 Days to Work You Love.
- Investigate the source of the material before you commit to following it. Just because Auntie Claire suggested The Crystal Wizard for all problems does not make that a good recommendation. Read the Amazon reviews, google the person behind them and get a feel for how this person does business.
- Once you find something that gets you excited, stop researching other avenues. If you find a book, website or system that gets you so excited you see light at the end of the tunnel, stick with it. You can continue to research, but research more about that particular person, system etc.
Once you have a few good sources of information you can investigate those avenues and come up with a two or three simple solutions. Do not play the if/then game. If I do A, then B, C, D and OH MY GOSH, E will happen. Don’t do that. A reasonable outlook is good, but you are probably not clairvoyant, so stick to realistic possible outcomes in the near future.
Problem Solving Step 4: Develop a Plan
As you come out of the research phase you probably have a rough idea of a plan to move forward. Now is the time to solidify that plan. You have done the research and found something that you think will help you get from point A to point B. If that thing is a system like Dave Ramsey offers, you can follow his guide. If it is something more general then you have to come up with a plan of attack.
A plan of attack is a series of action steps that you are going to take to solve your problem. You are the only one who you can completely control so do not put any actions on it for someone else to do. Your problem, your action.
Break your plan down into small steps and give each step a timeline. Perhaps you are working on your marriage and in your research, you discovered human touch can do a lot to improve mood and life satisfaction. You believe this is a great first step to helping your marriage so maybe your step one looks like this.
“Hug my husband before and after work and before bed, even if he is being a jerk”
Now you have to give it a timeline. For the one above maybe you are going to try this for 2 weeks.
One quick note on timing, problems are immediate, this is not a life plan. A problem should be able to be solved or at least mostly solved in less than one year. A marriage takes a lifetime, but you should seek marked improvement in much less than a year.
Problem Solving Step 5: Evaluate Your Progress
After you reach the timeline for each step you need to evaluate your progress. Problem-solving can be a bit of a trial and error so you have to see how each step is working. If you are the wife in the above scenario how did those two weeks go? Have you seen a positive change in your marriage?
If you see no progress at all, you need to try something different, but if you see any progress no matter how small, stick to your plan.
Keep Your Chin Up
Problems are called problems for a reason, and problem-solving effectively can be a huge challenge. Take the emotion out of a problem, employ the KISS (Keep It Simple Silly) method whenever possible and look for proven ways that others have solved a similar problem.
Evaluate your progress as you go and keep your chin up, you can do this.