Everybody can benefit from having good problem solving skills as we all encounter problems on a daily basis; some of these problems are obviously more severe or complex than others. It would be wonderful to have the ability to solve all problems efficiently and in a timely fashion without difficulty, unfortunately there is no one way in which all problems can be solved. As you will discover as you read through our sections on problem solving the subject is complex. However well prepared we are for problem solving there is always an element of the unknown. Although planning and structuring will help make the problem solving process more likely to be successful, good judgement and good luck will ultimately determine whether problem solving was a success.
Relationships fail and businesses fail because of poor problem solving, often this is due to either problems not being recognised or dealt with. Solving a problem involves a certain amount of risk - this risk needs to be weighed up against not solving the problem.
"The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with,
but whether it is the same problem you had last year."
John Foster Dulles, Former US Secretary of State.
This series of articles aims to provide a simple and structured approach to problem solving. The approach referred to is generally designed for problem solving in an organisation or group context, but can also be adapted to work at an individual level. Trying to solve a complex problem alone however can be a mistake, the old adage: "A problem shared is a problem halved" is sound advice. Talking to others about problems is not only therapeutic but can help you see things from a different point of view, opening up more potential solutions.
Problem solving is closely linked to decision making - we recommend you read our pages on Decision Making.
What is a Problem?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) defines a problem as:
“Something hard to understand or accomplish or deal with.”
All problems have two features in common: goals and barriers.
Problems involve setting out to achieve some objective or desired state of affairs and can include avoiding a situation or event.
Goals can be anything that you wish to achieve, where you want to be. If you are hungry then your goal is probably to eat something, if you are a head of an organisation (CEO) then your main goal may be to maximise profits. In the example of the CEO the main goal may need to be split into numerous sub-goals in order to fulfil the ultimate goal of increasing profits.
If there were no barriers in the way of achieving a goal, then there would be no problem. Problem solving involves overcoming the barriers or obstacles that prevent the immediate achievement of goals.
Following our examples above, if you feel hungry then your goal is to eat. A barrier to this may be that you have no food available - you take a trip to the supermarket and buy some food, removing the barrier and thus solving the problem. Of course for the CEO wanting to increase profits there may be many more barriers preventing the goal from being reached. The CEO needs to attempt to recognise these barriers and remove them or find other ways to achieve the goals of the organisation.