Problem Solving: Getting Unstuck And Thinking Out Of Corners

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Problems are things that don’t work the way we want them to.

These can be as simple as having something you depend on break or as broad as a situation where there is a big gap between where you want to be and the current reality. Whether problems are full disasters or small inconveniences, they all spring from one common place–a disparity between expectations and reality.

The History Of Problem Solving

In the 1950s, William J.J. Gordon developed a problem solving process used by small groups. His methodology is still used today.

Gordon advocated problem solving begin by understanding the problem. Makes sense right? The challenge is that often people dive into providing solutions before they clearly analyze the problem.

To help identify the problem, Gordon suggested asking people to describe it. He felt that asking questions about the problem before jumping to answers is critical.

Two Types Of Problems

Generally, there are two types of problems: common problems and wicked problems.

Common Problems

These are the problems any project team faces when they are trying to invent or innovate. These problems arise from the need to find a better way to do something or fix something.

Five-Step Problem Solving Process

The five-step problem solving process works best for common problems.

  1. Understand the problem.
  2. Identify success criteria.
  3. Brainstorm solutions.
  4. Evaluate solutions and pick the best one.
  5. Implement the solution.

This process moves from understanding the problem to implementing solutions. It moves steadily from learning to solution finding.

Wicked Problems

Wicked problems are complex, interdependent problems that defy simple solutions. They are messy and complicated. Often the problem has not been faced before and is intertwined with other problems.

Many social and political problems are wicked problems. Some associations and conferences are dealing with wicked problems as a result of disruptive technology that is competing for their attendees share of mind.

Solving Wicked Problems

Wicked problem solving is more complicated and takes time.

Typically, the wicked problem solving process moves back and forth between the learning space and the solutions space. Different from the traditional stair step problem solving, both steps occur from the start of the process in a decreasing spiral of attention. During this process, the team ends with a solution that satisfies the group, not one that is a clear solution.

Here is a simple process for the wicked problem solving process.

  1. Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half horizontally.
  2. Label the top half “Learning Space” and the bottom half “Solution Space.”
  3. Start by describing the problem in the learning space.
  4. Then draw an arrow to the bottom half and imagine the solution.
  5. Draw an arrow back to the top half to “learn and explore” the solution.
  6. Drawn an arrow back to the bottom half to move the solution forward and discuss.
  7. Repeat this process back and forth until reaching a solution that satisfies the group.

Tip: just asking people if they think they are trying to solve a wicked problem can shift their perspective to a more open, solution-finding direction.

What tips do you have for group problem solving?

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