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PROBLEM SOLVING TECHNIQUE

There are many approaches to problem solving, depending on the nature of the problem and the people
involved in the problem. The more traditional, rational approach is typically used and involves, eg, clarifying
description of the problem, analyzing causes, identifying alternatives, assessing each alternative, choosing one,
implementing it, and evaluating whether the problem was solved or not.
Another, more state-of-the-art approach is appreciative inquiry. That approach asserts that "problems"
are often the result of our own perspectives on a phenomena, eg, if we look at it as a "problem," then it will
become one and we'll probably get very stuck on the "problem." Appreciative inquiry includes identification of
our best times about the situation in the past, wishing and thinking about what worked best then, visioning what
we want in the future, and building from our strengths to work toward our vision.
The activities of problem solving and decision making are closely intertwined, so the reader will often
find mention of the two topics together.

Basic Guidelines to Problem Solving and Decision Making


Written by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC. Copyright 1997-2007.
Adapted from the Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision.
Much of what managers and supervisors do is solve problems and make decisions. New managers and
supervisors, in particular, often make solve problems and decisions by reacting to them. They are "under the
gun", stressed and very short for time. Consequently, when they encounter a new problem or decision they must
make, they react with a decision that seemed to work before. It's easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle
of solving the same problem over and over again. Therefore, as a new manager or supervisor, get used to an
organized approach to problem solving and decision making. Not all problems can be solved and decisions
made by the following, rather rational approach. However, the following basic guidelines will get you started.
Don't be intimidated by the length of the list of guidelines. After you've practiced them a few times, they'll
become second nature to you -- enough that you can deepen and enrich them to suit your own needs and nature.
(Note that it might be more your nature to view a "problem" as an "opportunity". Therefore, you might
substitute "problem" for "opportunity" in the following guidelines.)

1. Define the problem


This is often where people struggle. They react to what they think the problem is. Instead, seek to understand
more about why you think there's a problem.
Defining the problem: (with input from yourself and others)
Ask yourself and others, the following questions:
a. What can you see that causes you to think there's a problem?
b. Where is it happening?
c. How is it happening?
d. When is it happening?
e. With whom is it happening? (HINT: Don't jump to "Who is causing the problem?" When we're stressed,
blaming is often one of our first reactions. To be an effective manager, you need to address issues more than
people.)
f. Why is it happening?
g. Write down a five-sentence description of the problem in terms of "The following should be happening, but
isn't ..." or "The following is happening and should be: ..." As much as possible, be specific in your description,
including what is happening, where, how, with whom and why. (It may be helpful at this point to use a variety
of research methods. Also see .
Defining complex problems:
a. If the problem still seems overwhelming, break it down by repeating steps a-f until you have descriptions of
several related problems.
Verifying your understanding of the problems:
a. It helps a great deal to verify your problem analysis for conferring with a peer or someone else.
Prioritize the problems:
a. If you discover that you are looking at several related problems, then prioritize which ones you should
address first.
b. Note the difference between "important" and "urgent" problems. Often, what we consider to be important
problems to consider are really just urgent problems. Important problems deserve more attention. For example,
if you're continually answering "urgent" phone calls, then you've probably got a more "important" problem and
that's to design a system that screens and prioritizes your phone calls.
Understand your role in the problem:
a. Your role in the problem can greatly influence how you perceive the role of others. For example, if you're
very stressed out, it'll probably look like others are, too, or, you may resort too quickly to blaming and
reprimanding others. Or, you are feel very guilty about your role in the problem, you may ignore the
accountabilities of others.

2. Look at potential causes for the problem


a. It's amazing how much you don't know about what you don't know. Therefore, in this phase, it's critical to get
input from other people who notice the problem and who are affected by it.
b. It's often useful to collect input from other individuals one at a time (at least at first). Otherwise, people tend
to be inhibited about offering their impressions of the real causes of problems.
c. Write down what your opinions and what you've heard from others.
d. Regarding what you think might be performance problems associated with an employee, it's often useful to
seek advice from a peer or your supervisor in order to verify your impression of the problem.
e.Write down a description of the cause of the problem and in terms of what is happening, where, when, how,
with whom and why.

3. Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem


a. At this point, it's useful to keep others involved (unless you're facing a personal and/or employee performance
problem). Brainstorm for solutions to the problem. Very simply put, brainstorming is collecting as many ideas
as possible, then screening them to find the best idea. It's critical when collecting the ideas to not pass any
judgment on the ideas -- just write them down as you hear them. (A wonderful set of skills used to identify the
underlying cause of issues is Systems Thinking.)

4. Select an approach to resolve the problem


When selecting the best approach, consider:
a. Which approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the long term?
b. Which approach is the most realistic to accomplish for now? Do you have the resources? Are they
affordable? Do you have enough time to implement the approach?
c. What is the extent of risk associated with each alternative?
(The nature of this step, in particular, in the problem solving process is why problem solving and decision
making are highly integrated.)
5. Plan the implementation of the best alternative (this is your action plan)
a. Carefully consider "What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?"
b. What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving the problem? What systems or
processes should be changed in your organization, for example, a new policy or procedure? Don't resort to
solutions where someone is "just going to try harder".
c. How will you know if the steps are being followed or not? (these are your indicators of the success of your
plan)
d. What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?
e. How much time will you need to implement the solution? Write a schedule that includes the start and stop
times, and when you expect to see certain indicators of success.
f. Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?
g. Write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as your action plan.
h. Communicate the plan to those who will involved in implementing it and, at least, to your immediate
supervisor.
(An important aspect of this step in the problem-solving process is continually observation and feedback.)

6. Monitor implementation of the plan


Monitor the indicators of success:
a. Are you seeing what you would expect from the indicators?
b. Will the plan be done according to schedule?
c. If the plan is not being followed as expected, then consider: Was the plan realistic? Are there sufficient
resources to accomplish the plan on schedule? Should more priority be placed on various aspects of the plan?
Should the plan be changed?

7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not


One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved or not is to resume normal operations in the
organization. Still, you should consider:
a. What changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in the future? Consider changes to policies and
procedures, training, etc.
b. Lastly, consider "What did you learn from this problem solving?" Consider new knowledge, understanding
and/or skills.
c. Consider writing a brief memo that highlights the success of the problem solving effort, and what you learned
as a result. Share it with your supervisor, peers and subordinates.

Example:
A 15 year old girl returns home after school in a quiet beach-side village on the south coast of NSW,
Australia. The house is empty - she is distraught and in great anguish because her boyfriend has just broken off
their relationship. She gets her father's shotgun, loads it, puts the muzzle in her mouth and pulls the trigger.
A tragic waste of life - she did not realise that a solution could be found to her emotional distress.
Problem-solving skills can be developed and they are essential for the resolution of many stressful experiences.
It is irrational to assume that every problem can be solved. However, solutions, or compromises, can be found
for most problems if the time is taken to examine them logically, creatively and thoroughly. Many people
simply do not take the time to explore all the options. A quick-fix mentality makes problem-solving difficult
because the deeper issues are rarely confronted.
The following problem-solving technique invites you to approach the problem through a series of questions. If
you are serious about solving a problem then you will. Take the time to make a written response to these
questions. Writing helps to clarify thoughts and it also gives you a permanent record of your ideas and solutions
to which you can return from time to time for reassurance and clarification.
1. What is the real problem to be solved?
It is very important that the problem should be fully and adequately defined. The underlying hidden issues
should also be explored so that they can be sensitively dealt with in the context of the more obvious problem
features. If the problem is not carefully identified then it is extremely difficult to find satisfactory solutions.
(Sometimes actually identifying the problem is the key to its solution.) Therefore define the stressor or stress
reactions within a full context. Ask are there any underlying issues that also need to be addressed?

2. What is the ideal solution?


Try to define what you would consider to be the ideal solution. Many alternative solutions may emerge in the
process. In fact it is helpful to have as many alternatives as possible. This process may be time consuming and
sometime exhausting but it is absolutely necessary.

3. What options do I have?


Apply action possibilities to the goals set in Step 2. Some goals may have to be eliminated because they are
unrealistic. Others may have to be modified. Some can be achieved. Be specific in defining the possible
solutions. Try to be creative when considering options. Develop some really crazy ones just to get your mind
stimulated. Mix and match various ideas just to see where they lead. All the historic problem solvers from
Archimedes to Einstein have been noted for their feats of bringing to bear, on difficult problems, concepts and
principles from apparently disparate fields of knowledge.

4. What might happen if I put these options into practice?


Consider the consequences of taking certain steps. Imagine and consider how others might respond if they faced
a similar situation. Make realistic assessments and do not avoid painful answers. Write down the consequences
and face them no matter how difficult that might be in the first instance. It is possible to make considerable
progress once reality is confronted. Strength can be drawn from reality. Evaluate the pros and cons. Rehearse
strategies and behaviors by means of creative imagination.

5. What is my decision?
This is often the most difficult step of all. Consult with others; discuss the options facing you; draw on good
advice. Having considered all the alternatives then make a decision. Don't waffle or procrastinate. This will only
aggravate the problem rather than solving it.

6. Now Do It!
Apply action to the problem. Set up an action timetable and take the first steps. Keep things moving. Try out the
most acceptable and feasible solution. Apply the necessary resources.

7. Did It Work?
Re-examine the original problem in light of the attempt at problem solving. View any possible failures or
disappointments as needed feedback to begin the problem-solving process once again.
Problem Solving Techniques
Robert Harris Version Date: January 5, 2002

As with creative thinking, flexibility is a crucially important feature in problem solving. Many of these
techniques you will begin to use regularly for each major problem you address. Others you will use selectively.

Assumption Articulation
A first and frequently overlooked step in problem solving is to identify the assumptions you are making about
the situation. Many of the assumptions will be hidden and unrecognized until a deliberate effort is made to
identify them. Often it is the unrecognized assumption that prevents a good solution. However, before we get
too critical of assumptions, we should note their value and necessity. So we begin there.

Assumptions are Necessary


Assumptions and constraints are necessary for three reasons:
1. They set limits to the problem and thus provide a framework within which to work. These limits might
include constraints of possibility, economics, or some other desired narrowing.
2. Assumptions reflect desired values, values that should be maintained throughout the solution. For example, in
punishing criminals, we assume that we are still concerned about their humanity, so that, say, torture with
electric prods will not be considered as a possibility for punishment.
3. Assumptions simplify the problem and make it more manageable by providing fewer things to consider and
solve. A problem with no assumptions is usually too general to handle.

Assumptions are Often Self-imposed


In spite of the necessity of having assumptions, many assumptions produce self-imposed limits. That is, the
impossibilities or fixed constraints in a problem are often not imposed by nature or the laws of physics, but by
ourselves through our understanding of the situation or through the desire to focus the problem.
In assumption articulation, then, our goal is to identify the assumptions being made and to determine the
following:
1. Is the assumption necessary? If not, can or should it be dispensed with?
2. If the assumption is not necessary, is it appropriate? That is, many rather arbitrary assumptions and
constraints are nevertheless desirable.
For example, when we say, "We have only two weeks to solve this problem," those two weeks may be entirely
appropriate as an outside time limit for generating and implementing the solution, simply because the
problem's importance in relation to the rest of life warrants no more than those two weeks.

Examine the Assumptions Behind your Problem


1. Make a list of assumptions. As you think about your problem, force to the surface every given, taken for
granted, assumed fact about the situation you can think of. Many, if not most, assumptions do not really fit into
categories like those in the checklist below. Instead, most assumptions are statements about reality that we
believe to be true. Many of them are "obvious" and we normally would not think to question them. Yet that is
exactly why we so often get blocked when we try to solve a difficult problem.
For example, the design of women's swim suits was long constrained by limited technology. How can we make
a new design that will stand up to the rigors of swimming in salty or highly chlorinated water? Only a few
fabrics are strong enough and printing or decorations don't hold up well. The completely obvious and
absolutely unquestionable assumption being made here is that most women do a lot of swimming in their swim
suits. Of course, dummy, why else would they buy them? Some brave soul, who was probably called a fool,
decided to
question this assumption and do some research. It was discovered that 90% of women's swim suits never get
wet (except perhaps in the laundry). This was quite a revelation for suit designers, because it opened up a
whole new world of materials and designs that would stand up to sunning but wouldn't take swimming. Who
would have thought that anyone would buy a swim suit marked "dry clean only"?
When you have thought of all the miscellaneous assumptions you can, you might find it helpful to use a
checklist of assumption areas like this:
A. Time. How quickly or slowly am I assuming it will take? Can the solution be sped up or can more time be
found somewhere?
B. Money. Are the limits of money I'm assuming necessary? Can I find more money? Or, more creatively, can I
do it for less money or no money? Can I get someone else to pay? Money is a common block to the solution of
many problems. We say, If only I had the money, I could do it. Often, however, we can find ways of
accomplishing the same thing with less money or with none or with other people's money. Don't let the money
psychology block you. Example: We need computers and hard disks but we don't have the money. Possibilities:
donated funds, find lower price, get manufacturers or dealers to donate the parts.
C. Cooperation. Am I assuming that certain people will be in favor of the solution, support it, help implement it,
when in fact they might not? Or am I assuming that certain people will be against it when they might not be?
D. Physics. Are the laws of physics interfering? The problem is "impossible" of solution? What at first seems
physically impossible may on reflection not be so after all. Remember the pear in the bottle, "moving" the
Statue of Liberty, or even launching rockets out of the atmosphere.
E. Law. Is the solution blocked by law? Can the law be changed, circumvented (for moral purposes only), or
even broken (for the right cause)? Maybe it can be reinterpreted to permit the solution. Example: Bible clubs in
high schools. According to one high school's interpretation, the Freedom of Association law permits students to
get together to pray but not to advertise their prayer group. Can this regulation be skirted by word of mouth
advertising or by holding a prayer meeting right after another non-prayer meeting?
F. Energy. We can devote only so much energy to any given solution. Is the amount assumed to be appropriate
or maximum really so? It's better to expend a little more energy to solve a problem well the first time than to
have to redo the entire thing after a half-energetic solution.
G. Cost/Benefit. How much is it worth to solve the problem? Costs can include an investment of time, energy,
money, emotion, or other resource--mental effort, eyesight, whatever.
H. Information. Is the information available correct? This assumption often proves wrong. Double check the so-
called facts surrounding the problem. Note that in most cases, more information can always be obtained. Are we
assuming that all available information or all pertinent information is at hand? New information often changes
the entire appearance of the problem?
I. Culture Binding. Is the solution being limited because of attitudes in the culture or practices of recent history?
How did or do other peoples solve the problem? These ideas that are socialized into us often go unexamined.
Why do we balk at eating squid or dogs? Up until about seventy-five years ago, it was common for men to
marry women fifteen or twenty years younger than themselves. Now we consider that unusual and some people
even consider it wrong, just as we consider older women marrying younger men unusual.
2. Focus your assumption identification on the crux or sticking point of the problem. You may be making an
unnecessarily limiting assumption about something right at the point of blockage.
For example, let's say your problem is to clean the mineralization off the water faucets in the bathrooms of your
house. You have gone to a hardware store or home center and tried every cleaner in the housewares
department but nothing has been satisfactory. You think, "I've used every household cleaner I can find."
Examine your assumptions: I'm assuming that household cleaners are found in the housewares department. Is
that true or necessary? What about other kinds of cleaner that might be found in the automotive, plumbing,
hardware, or garden department? Also, what about products not even described as cleaners but that might
clean off the mineralization? The solution you finally come up with is to use an automotive chrome bumper
cleaner or perhaps some household vinegar to clean off the mineralization and then to apply some car wax to
the chrome to protect it from future build up. Your assumptions about store locations, product names and types
and uses have all been challenged and found not necessary.
3. Look over your written statements of the problem and your lists of constraints and write out a list of the
assumptions behind each item. In these three steps, you'll have a three-part list:
A. General assumptions. These are the assumptions you make without thinking or realizing that you have made
them. Some of them are necessary, but some may not be. Write out even the most obvious ones.
B. Assumptions at the crux. These assumptions are usually made consciously, but are not often examined
critically to determine whether they are necessary or not. Again, write them out so that each one may be
examined and tested individually.
C. Assumptions determining the constraints. These are the assumptions about cost, time, effort, size, results and
so forth that you make in order to establish the boundaries of the solution. Most of them are desirable.
Sometimes one or more of them will be made too hastily, though, so that they deserve reexamination as well as
the other kinds.

An Example
Let's say you are the manager of a factory that makes portable electric generators. Your product is largely bolted
together at final assembly by workers using air wrenches. The wrenches, like those you hear screaming in auto
repair shops, make a lot of noise, hurting the workers' hearing and job satisfaction. Your problem is, "How can
we reduce the noise made by these air wrenches?"
Note that as with most problem statements, the problem as stated implies certain solutions. If you simply
accepted the problem as stated, you would probably think of some possible alternatives like these:
• Put silencers or mufflers on the wrenches
• Build a sound proof room for the wrench assembly
• Install curtains around the assembly area to soak up the noise
• Install a sound “canceler”
But instead of this, you decide to do some assumption articulation. Here are some of the assumptions being
made:
1. Air wrenches are noisy.
2. We must use air wrenches to put the parts together.
3. People must use the air wrenches.
4. We must use wrenches.
5. The fastening must take place in this area or in this factory.
6. Bolts must be used to hold the pieces together.
7. The employees don't like the noise.
As you think about these assumptions, some new ideas come to you:
1. Air wrenches are noisy. Are all air wrenches equally noisy? Can we buy a quieter brand? Is there a "silent air
wrench" being sold?
2. We must use air wrenches to put the parts together. Why not use manual wrenches, or electric wrenches, or
hydraulic wrenches?
3. People must use the air wrenches. Why not use robots? Can we use the wrenches less? Rotate employees so
that each one uses the wrenches just a little each day.
4. We must use wrenches. Why not use other tools? Nut drivers?
5. The fastening must take place in this area of the factory. Why not move it outside? Subcontract it? Put it in a
special soundproof room?
6. Bolts must be used to hold the pieces together. Why not rivets? Spot welding? Adhesive? Screws? Clamps?
Mold some of the pieces together so they need not be bolted or fastened at all?
7. The employees don't like the noise. Get employees who like noise? Who don't hear it (like deaf people)? Give
them ear muffs? Play loud music to mask the noise?
Note that ideas like robots, deaf employees, adhesive bonding and so on would not be suggested by the original
form of the problem statement, which is based on several perhaps unnecessary assumptions. A little assumption
articulation breaks our thinking out of these restraints and allows us to see some new possibilities.

Techniques for Approaching a Problem


Here are several ways to attack a problem, each way designed to clarify the problem, suggest alternatives, or
break a fixation. You will want to experiment with the applicability of these for various situations.

Entry Points
An entry point is, as Edward de Bono has said, "the part of a problem or situation that is first attended to." In
our linear, traditional problem solving mindset, this usually means a particular point--usually the most obvious--
on the front end of the problem. However, there is no reason that some other point cannot be chosen as an entry
point, nor is there any reason that the problem cannot be approached from the middle or even the end. Let's look
at each of these.
1. Front end entry points. Most problems are attacked on the front end first, which is to say, by stating the
problem. However, there is really more than one front end because a give problem can be attacked from any one
of several angles. Too often we assume that the first front-end angle that comes to mind is the method of
approach, the only way to attack the problem. But that is not so.
Example problem: How to keep rain off of you while you walk on the street.
Possible entry points:
1. Inadequacies of current umbrellas. (Suggestion: "improve the umbrella" as a problem direction.)
2. Irritation of having to carry an umbrella. (Suggestion: "develop easily portable umbrella.)
3. Let the government do it. (Suggestino: public works items like awnings, free taxis and underground
corridors.)
4. Let the individual do it. (Why not just get wet? Why does getting wet matter? What are the problems? Do
they really need to be solved?)
5. Walking. (Why walk? Why not ride? Conveyances?)
6. Street. (Why go out on the street in the first place? Why not stay at home? Keep out of the rain? Solve the
problem that made you go onto the street in the first place. E. g. to get a video, why not TV or cable movie or
read a book or make popcorn and talk about rainy days?)
Notice here that what seems to be just one problem actually has several possible entry points, and
depending on the point chosen, entirely different solutions will result. Edward de Bono comments about the
importance of choosing an entry point:
Usually the obvious entry point is chosen. . . . There is no way of telling which entry point is going to be
best so one is usually content with the most obvious one. It is assumed that the choice of entry point does not
matter since one will always arrive at the same conclusions. This is not so since the whole train of thought may
be determined by the choice of entry point.
Example problem: ATC's cause many injuries and deaths each year.
Possible entry points:
1. They tip over easily. (redesign them?)
2. They are not toys. (license users? require age minimums?)
3. Riders don't know how to use them safely. (educate riders?)
4. Many head and spinal injuries result. (roll bars? seat belts?)
Problem: How to have secret conversations in the bugged embassy in Moscow. Possible entry points:
1. conversations can be heard (notes, sign language, special room)
2. diplomats must share information (disinformation?)
3. the whole building is bugged (leave building? erect internal room?)
2. Beginning at the end. When a particular solution state is clearly defined, a problem can often be more easily
solved by starting with the solution and working backwards toward the problem, filling in the necessary steps
along the way.
The classic example is the problem: Divide a triangle into three parts so that the parts can be put together to
form a square. That's very hard. But if you start from the solution end, with a square, it's easy to divide it into
three parts all of which form a triangle.
Example: How do you count the number of people in a stadium that's over ninety percent full? Count the
number of empty seats and subtract from the number of seats in the stadium. Easier than counting people.
Example: How do you improve your relationship with your parents when you're not quite sure what's wrong
with it--what the problem is? Start at the end, with the solution. Envision how you want the relationship to be
and work backwards toward a discovery of the problem.
Whenever the solution or goal state is clearer than the problem, then changing the entry point to the end may be
the best approach. Start with the goal or solution and look for ways to work back to the problem.
3. Somewhere between the beginning and the end. After all, there's no law that says you have to start at one end
or the other. So why not start in the middle?
Ancient Greek epics typically start in medias res, in the middle of things, and later go on to fill out preceding
and succeeding action. You can do this in problem solving. It's, again, sort of the "ready, fire, aim" approach.
For example, say you want to put up a new building. Why not assume that the funding and planning have
already been done and begin with the construction phase, which contractors to hire, etc. Then work in both
directions--backward toward planning where to put the building and how to get the money, and forward toward
arranging for tenants.
Note that you can really begin at any point on this alleged continuum, with location, tenants, architect, and work
in both directions:
building type---architect---location---contractors---tenants
Movies are put together this way all the time. The "obvious" order is
idea---script---producer---actors---studio---filming
but many movies get actors first, then a producer, then a script, etc.
Beginning in the middle has some risks, but it's especially good for getting things done quickly and for
beginning to do something even when you're not quite sure of either the problem or the solution. It's the kind of
thing that will sometimes get you labeled as rash and hasty and sometimes as brilliant and visionary.

Rival Hypotheses
A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a collection of data. A rival hypothesis is an alternative explanation
for the same sets of data, another way of explaining the same results or events. Often the hypothesis is a
statement about causation: the data indicate that X caused Y or that B occurs when A is present. It is critically
important to remember, however, that in the realm of hypothesis and explanation, the data do not speak for
themselves; they must be interpreted. The act of interpretation involves many difficulties, including those of
experimenter bias, the confusion between correlation and cause, and non-random sampling.
Dangers of Having only One Hypothesis
The danger of limiting ourselves to one hypothesis to explain a collection of phenomena is twofold.
1. Some evidence will be ignored. If we are focused on a single hypothesis, we will overlook as not relevant any
information that does not bear on the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. However, such information might bear
on the truth or falsity of some other hypothesis.
For example, if our hypothesis is that suspect X burglarized the Turner's house, we will focus on evidence that
helps to establish or disprove our theory. As a result, we will probably overlook the fact that the story told by
the Turner's son does not add up. That's just an ignorable anomaly. If, on the other hand, one of our hypotheses
is that the Turner's son might have faked a burglary and stolen the missing items himself, then the difficulties in
his story will not be overlooked.
2. We may become emotionally committed to our hypothesis. The idea of falling in love with a pet theory is not
limited to problem solving, of course. Wherever it happens, the lover begins to search for and select out only the
evidence that supports the hypothesis, ignoring or subconsciously filtering out information that argues against
the pet.
For our example, here's a story: An experimenter carefully conditioned a flea to jump out of a box when a bell
was rung. Then he pulled off the first pair of the flea's legs. The flea still jumped out of the box. So he pulled off
the second pair of legs. The flea could still jump out. Finally, he pulled off the last pair of legs. This time, when
the bell was rung, the flea didn't jump our of the box. The experimenter concluded that his theory was correct:
"When all the legs of a flea have been removed, it will no longer be able to hear."
To avoid these two problems, then, we should attempt to generate as many rival hypotheses as possible for each
set of data, and then test each of them against the known facts.

Rules for Generating and Testing Hypotheses


1. The hypothesis should account for all possibly relevant data. An explanation that covers only part of the data
or that is in conflict with a major fact, is not a good explanation. Remember, though, that especially early on, all
explanations will have problems and will fact some seemingly conflicting data. Facts are refined and clarified as
better information becomes available. So don't throw out all but "perfect" explanations; you won't have any.
2. Simpler explanations are usually to be preferred over more complex explanations. This is the principle of
Occam's razor, discussed inHuman-Factor Phenomena in Problem Solving.
3. More probable explanations are usually to be preferred over less probable ones. Many things are possible;
fewer things are probable. It is possible that ancient astronauts built the pyramids, but it is more probable that
the Egyptians did.
4. The consequences following from the truth of the hypothesis must match the facts. If, for example, you
hypothesize that a bomb destroyed an airplane and caused it to crash, you will expect to find bomb residue as a
consequence of this hypothesis.
When you first read how facts match a theory, you might be tempted to think, "Why, yes, that must be it."
However, when you make the effort to research (or even take a few moments to generate on your own) a few
rival hypotheses--alternative explanations--the original hypothesis becomes suddenly less persuasive. As with
many other things in life, When you have a choice of only one, it seems to be the right choice; but when you
have a choice of many, your taste improves. There is even a Biblical passage relevant to this issue: "The first to
present his case seems right, till another comes forward and examines him" (Proverbs 18:17).
When you begin to examine a proposed explanation for some data, ask yourself, "What other variables are
involved that might also account for the result?
Role Playing
Role playing consists of several techniques, having in common the use of the mind to imagine a different
reality, to change what you have to what you want.
1. Mental Practice. Before attempting a solution or doing something--taking a test, driving to a new area,
writing a paper, asking for a raise--practice the situation mentally.
For example, Abraham Lincoln imagined what he would do and say as president before he was ever elected.
Dr. Charles Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame always mentally practiced his surgical operations before doing them--
he would find a quiet spot and then go through the whole procedure in his mind: cutting, asking for
instruments, examining, suturing. Many athletes rehearse their upcoming performances mentally to gain
confidence and familiarity with the moment of performance.
Visualize the problem and your solution to it and you'll be able to solve it or do it better. One woman imagined
driving on the left side of the road, turning, passing, merging, etc. before taking a trip to England. When she
finally got to England, she found that she could drive easily--it was already a familiar experience.
2. Becoming another person. The second form of role playing is to imagine that you are someone else--involved
in either the solution or the problem.
A. Problem Person. Imagine that you are the litterbug, the reckless, drinking driver, or the short tempered, hard
to live with friend. What makes you this way? What might improve you? What are the nuances of your
personality?
B. The Solver. Imagine that you are an expert who can solve the problem with your special knowledge. What do
you know and what do you do? Solutions take direction from past experience. They derive from what is already
done or known. We go with the familiar and use what we have learned--or what we imagine we have learned or
experienced.
For example, suppose you must build a canal. Imagine first that you are not a canal builder but a pipeline
maker. How would he build the canal? (Perhaps by using reinforced half pipeline sections?) Now imagine that
you are a tunnel maker. Now how would you solve the problem? (Perhaps by using an inverted tunnel?) Now
imagine that you are a swimming pool builder. How would you solve it? (Perhaps by using steel rebar and
spray-on gunite?)
3. Mental metamorphosis. In this kind of role playing, you change yourself into the problem thing--become a
bearing, a helicopter, an electric current, a germ. Michael Faraday imagined that he was an atom under pressure
and thereby developed his electromagnetic theory.
For example, suppose you want to find a solution for rusty and leaking gasoline tanks. Imagine all the
attributes of the situation: the metal tank, its color, temperature, touch, the leak in it, the sound of the dribble of
gasoline as is plops to the sandy soil under the tank. What does it feel like to be a tank in the sun, to feel your
side leaking, to smell the wet sand/gasoline combination under you? What do you taste like? When the service
man puts the wrench on your valve, how does it feel? Do your insides itch as they rust? What would help that?
A coating? Does the gasoline running down your side bother you? What would soak that up or seal it off?

Modeling
A model is a representation or pattern of an idea or problem. That is, a model is a way to describe or present a
problem in a way that aids in understanding or solving the problem. Models serve several purposes:

The Purpose of Modeling


1. To make an idea concrete. This is done by representing it pictorially or symbolically. We are very visually
oriented creatures, and it is easy to bring about understanding or conceptualization through an image--much the
way analogy works, only now you use a picture, drawing, map, boxes, circles. A drawing can show a
relationship, connection, arrangement, hierarchy, and so forth much more quickly than words alone can.
Another use of representative modeling is to enhance creativity by converting an idea into something that can
be experienced by the senses. "Okay, this salt shaker is our blocked plan, and these French fries are the people
opposing the plan by holding up the rules--this napkin--in front of it. Well, what can we do? Lift the salt shaker,
move it around, over, through, empty it."
Many a problem solver has drawn on a napkin, arranged the food on his plate, scratched a stick in the sand,
sketched a form of some sort, or even played with some children's blocks.
2. To reveal possible relationships between ideas. Relationships of hierarchy, support, dependence, cause,
effect, etc. can be revealed by constructing a visual model.
For example, what is the relationship between faith and reason? This can be shown by one block on top of
another (a hierarchy), one circle inside another (one concept as part of the other), two blocks side by side, one
each on a balance, and so on. Each model suggests a different relationship, each easy to remember.
A fact that needs special emphasis is that the model one uses for understanding will have a profound effect on
perception and conceptualization. In fact, to a large extent, a model will determine your perception of an idea or
problem and control your thinking about possibilities, relationships between parts, and so on. That's why
multiple models are often highly desirable: they allow a person to think of the same concept in several different
ways without the unconscious controlling influence that a single model might have.
Another example: The saying, "Ready, fire, aim" seems funny and illogical to most people because they
automatically assume a rifle or pistol or arrow model, and with such a model, the saying doesn't make sense.
These people are trapped by their own thought processes and automatic modeling. However, if we construct a
different model--that of a machine gun, fire hose, laser beam, flame thrower, heat gun, fire extinguisher,
blowtorch, hammer drill or whatever, then the saying makes great sense after all.
We have to be careful, then, how much we let our models control our thinking.
3. To simplify the complex to make it manageable or understandable. Almost all models are simplifications
because reality is so complex. The whole economy, weather system, human personality, geological structure of
the earth, air flow over airplane wings--all are too complex to be treated as is, so models are constructed that
present simplifications that can be treated. Simplification is both benefit and danger, and when dealing with a
model, one must always be sure not to forget that the model and reality might not match perfectly--and
sometimes not well at all.
4. The main purpose of modeling, which often includes all of the above three purposes, is to present a problem
in a way that allows us to understand it and solve it. That is, by seeing the problem in a different form or from a
different angle, we can gain the insight necessary to find a solution. We take a problem and simplify it, make it
visual, and provide a familiar pattern.

Types of Models
1. Categories. Models can be put into one of two categories, conceptual and structural. Of the types listed
below, many of them can fall into either category depending on the use made of them.
A. Conceptual. Models used for concretizing or reifying an idea, used to aid conception or understanding. These
can be ultimately symbolic or arbitrary, whatever is necessary or useful. Also models to aid memory or teaching
and relationship models.
B. Structural. Physical models of physical structures--oil refineries, DNA helixes, buildings, architectural
model, a new kind of record player or bicycle. A model is almost always constructed before a prototype is made
for a product and models are usually made for all large construction projects.
2. Types. These are not fixed and exclusive boxes--they often overlap, as in visual symbolic.
A. Visual. Draw a picture of it. If the problem is or contains something physical, draw a picture of the real
thing--the door, road, machine, bathroom, etc. If the problem is not physical, draw a symbolic picture of it,
either with lines and boxes or by representing aspects of the problem as different items--like cars and roads
representing information transfer in a company.
Visual models are among the most effective because we are highly visually oriented beings. Remember
Confucius' saying that is now a cliche but a true statement nonetheless: A picture is worth a thousand words.
B. Physical. The physical model takes the advantages of a visual model one step further by producing a three
dimensional visual model. Again, you can use a real model or a symbolic one.
C. Mathematical. Many problems are best solved mathematically, by using calculations for speed, area,
projected income, national unemployment. Thinking beyond three dimensions visually or four dimensions
physically is very difficult. But with math, ten or fifteen dimensions are no problem. Ideas of speed,
acceleration, and accelerating acceleration are often more understandable mathematically.
Example problem: Whom to hire. A mathematical model, such as a decision matrix, enables the thinker to
quantify subjectivity and to be sure that all considerations (or criteria) are taken into account to the degree
desired. The expected value calculation is another mathematical method of making a choice based on probable
effects and preferred outcomes.
D. Metaphorical or Symbolic or Analogical. Remember what we said about metaphor and analogy, that the
unfamiliar becomes understandable by comparing it to the familiar. That's how this kind of modeling works.
Both understanding and structure can be established for a problem by using a metaphor or symbol. Here are
some examples useful kinds:

General Paradigms
1. System model. A system is a collection of interrelated elements working together to accomplish a common
goal. The parts are input, processing, [storage], output, feedback, and control. Example systems are house
heating system with thermostat, circulatory system.
Example problem: Interpersonal relationship improvement.
input: words, actions
processing: reactions
output: happiness, mutual support or discontent
feedback: communication (words actions)
control: change of processing (reactions and actions and output)
2. Design model. Design is planning with a concern for pattern and overall harmony. Component parts are
identified and worked together into a whole. The key to design consideration is to plan so that the result to be an
effective presentation. (For more details on design, see Chapter 7.)
Example problem: Vacation. Design a vacation
Sketch out parts--what should be included in a vacation? How will one part affect other parts? How does travel
method affect sightseeing? Boat, rail, plane, care, walk, bike ride, etc.
3. Construction model. This model emphasizes sequential building. Part by part.
Example problem: Term paper. How can I build this paper? Foundation? Walls? Roof? or Beginning, ending,
drawings, outline, other parts? Order of information?
4. Recipe model. This model emphasizes ingredients and proportions, with perhaps some consideration given to
minor items that add "spice" or "flavor" to a project. The Japanese seem to use the recipe model in making
many of their consumer products, from stereos to cars. Many cars include a toolkit, first aid kit, sometimes a
trouble light--things that American manufacturers sometimes think of negatively as gimmicks or gadgets. The
recipe model could be a list or formula for success. Great in advertising, products with features, certain kinds of
fiction, etc.
Specific Metaphors:
1. Garden model. How is problem or solution like a garden? Vegetative, growing, expansive, fruitful, weedy,
nurturant, bug infested, etc.
2. Machine model. How is problem like a machine? Parts working together, parts worn or broken, energy input
or driving force, work output?
3. Symphony model. How like a symphony? Conductor? Harmony? Soloists? Percussion? What is the music
they are playing? What orchestrates the interaction of the parts?
4. Human body model. How like a body? What makes it move? What is life energy? What are hands, feet,
mouth, eyes, ears?
5. Vehicle model. Ship, plane, boat, car, train, blimp, bike, skateboard. What powers it? Who are passengers?
Where going? What are its wheels?
Other metaphors useful for modeling are sculpting, movie making, an island, the ocean, a computer.

Using Criticism and Suggestion


Making use of the observations of critics to improve a plan or idea is a fairly obvious technique, but one that is
not often used simply because most people don't like criticism. Our ideas are our precious children and to be
told that they are ugly or defective is painful and offensive.
However, it is possible to work around the ego sensitivity we have by renaming our criticism seeking into
"suggestion seeking" and by viewing the procedure as a formal technique for exploiting the minds, experiences,
and ideas of other people. What better way to get other viewpoints than to ask real, other people?

Basic Guidelines
Remember that in problem exploration it was suggested to talk over a problem with others to get insight into it.
Well, now we come to the preliminary solution idea and do the same thing. Here are some suggestions:
1. Choose in advance a fixed number of people you will talk to, to reduce fear and make the process more
formulaic (which will make it less ego damaging). Four to six is usually a good number.
2. Frame your request for criticism in a positive way, so that the criticizer will have to suggest improvements
rather than just point out defects.
For example:
A. I have an idea to sell concentrated or dehydrated apple juice. Can you think of some ways to improve it?
B. I'm asking several of my most thoughtful friends how I can improve this idea for making concentrated fruit
drinks. Can you think of anything?
C. I'm working on the problem of reducing shipping costs for drinks by concentrating or dehydrating them. I
wonder if you could help me find a solution? Here's what I've come up with so far. (This puts the other person
in a solution mindset rather than a criticism mindset.)
3. Ask all kinds of people, not just people knowledgeable in the area. Ask children, even. Remember the value
of mind stimulation, where an idea may not be directly useful but may suggest something else.
4. When you get more confidence, you can ask for an analysis of defects or inadequacies.
For Example:
A. What am I missing? What am I not thinking of? What am I not taking into account?
B. What don't you like about this? What's wrong with it? How would you have done it differently?
5. Use the dual method of asking for suggestions. There are two ways to operate the idea and suggestion
technique.
A. Ask each person to improve the original plan or suggestion. Go to several people and propose the same plan
and ask for input about it. This way you will get several different responses to the original.
B. After each suggestion, alter the idea to incorporate the suggestions and criticisms, and then present the new
idea to the next person for suggestion and criticism. That way, the idea builds and improves with each criticism.
The drawback is that certain other fundamental suggestions may be eliminated because the subsequent
suggesters don't see the original idea.
It is important for you as a creative thinker to see yourself as independent and separate from your ideas. Don't
get your ego so involved in an idea that you will be unwilling to alter it if you discover or are told about needed
changes. And don' be unwilling to abandon it if you discover a better idea. Keep a whole sackful of possibilities
that can be rotated or combined to form the best solution, and put your pride in solving the problem, the result,
not in the particular solution path you are currently thinking of.

Searching Techniques

Heuristic Methods
A heuristic is a guide, a rule of thumb, a learn as you go strategy, typified by trial and error. It involves choice,
hunch, knowledge, and a lot of creativity. It's the way most education works. However, no heuristic can
guarantee a solution. A heuristic simply increases the probability of finding a solution. An example heuristic
method follows.
1. Trial and error. The trial and error search involves the non use of directional information. That is, the search
proceeds without any sense of choice or likelihood of one path over another. Trial and error can be made much
more efficient if it is systematic rather than blind, that is, when a record of attempts and failures is kept so that
the same path or solution is not tried more than once. So take good notes.

Algorithmic Methods
There is another kind of technique called an algorithm that can guarantee a solution. An algorithm is a list of set
procedures, a recipe, a formula, or set of exact directions--computer programs and math formulas for finding
volumes and areas are algorithms. There are a couple of common search algorithms:
1. The maze algorithm. This algorithm guarantees that you will be able to solve or walk through a maze. All
you have to do is follow the same wall all the way through. In practical terms this means put your hand on the
wall and keep it there as you walk through. Either hand and either wall.
2. The split-half method. This powerful technique is used for finding a problem or phenomenon along any linear
system. It is used by electricians, plumbers, mechanics, electronics technicians and others to find trouble in
equipment. (e.g. faulty doorbell, leak in pipe). The method involves going immediately to the halfway point in
the linear system and checking to see if the problem or a symptom of the problem appears there. If it does, the
problem is in the first half of the system. If it doesn't, the problem appears in the second half. Next, the
investigator goes to the half of the system where the problem is now know to occur and checks at its halfway
point to see if the problem or symptom appears there. The answer eliminates another quarter of the system. Note
that in just two steps, two checks, three quarters of the system has been eliminated from possibility. The halving
continues until the problem is located. This is much faster than random checking or than by starting at one end
of the linear system and proceeding toward the other end.
Example uses:
• Someone is stealing oil from our trans desert pipeline; where?
• Our packages are arriving from Germany all beat up; where are they being damaged?
• Somewhere along the manufacturing line our product is getting dented on the corner; where is this
occurring? Somewhere between here and Sacramento the river is being polluted; where is this
happening?
• Somewhere in our spy network information is leaking to the Soviets; who is doing it?
• Somewhere in the process of transmitting data from the factory floor to the main office, information is
being lost or garbled. Where is this happening?
Note that many systems are or can be perceived as linear, whether the thing moving through them is water,
paint, food, information, television sets, smog, whatever.

Other Techniques
Here are some general techniques for help in solving problems.
1. Public Solution. Post the problem on a bulletin board or circulate it in a newsletter, memo, or whatever
written medium is in use in your organization or group. Make a note that suggestions and solutions are solicited
and that ideas should be sent to you.
This technique causes public discussion of the problem at an intellectual rather than personal level. If your
problem is employee absenteeism, poor quality parts, financial difficulty, or something similar, the public
discussion will tend to focus on solutions rather than on blame attribution. If the problem does not derive from
people difficulty, as in how to pack light bulbs more safely or how to hold books upright on partially filled
library shelves, posting the problem can hook solutions that may have been applied to a similar problem
elsewhere. And of course, the basic strategy behind posting a problem is that it gets several minds working on
the problem, both independently and in discussion with others. People in the organization will talk about the
problem in their idle moments.
During group problem solving discussions, posting a problem on the board is useful because it (1) stimulates
interest and discussion in the problem, (2) makes people willing to take responsibility for the problems of
others, and (3) develops problem solving attitudes in all members of the group.

Problem Solving Hints and Wisdom


1. Take time to examine and explore the problem thoroughly before setting out in search of a solution. Often, to
understand the problem is to solve it.
2. Breaking the problem into smaller parts will often make solving it much easier. Solve each part separately.
3. The resources for problem solving are immense and ubiquitous.
4. You can always do something.
5. A problem is not a punishment; it is an opportunity to increase the happiness of the world, an opportunity to
show how powerful you really are.
6. The formulation of a problem determines the range of choices: the questions you ask determine the answers
you receive.
7. Be careful not to look for a solution until you understand the problem, and be careful not to select a solution
until you have a whole range of choices.
8. The initial statement of a problem often reflects a preconceived solution.
9. A wide range of choices (ideas, possible solutions) allows you to choose the best from among many. A
choice of one is not a choice.
10. People work to implement their own ideas and solutions much more energetically than they work to
implement others' ideas and solutions.
11. Remember the critical importance of acceptance in solving problems. A solution that is technologically
brilliant but sociologically stupid is not a good solution.
12. When the goal state is clear but the present state is ambiguous, try working backwards.
13. Procrastinators finish last.
14. Denying a problem perpetuates it.
15. Solve the problem that really exists, not just the symptoms of a problem, not the problem you already have a
solution for, not the problem you wish existed, and not the problem someone else thinks exists.
16. A maker follows a plan; a creator produces a plan.
17. Creativity is the construction of something new out of something old, through effort and imagination