Problem solving is the process of working through every aspect of an issue or challenge to reach a solution. Decision making is choosing one of multiple proposed solutions — therefore, this process also includes defining and evaluating all potential options. Decision making is often one step of the problem solving process, but the two concepts are distinct.Collective problem solving is problem solving that includes many different parties and bridges the knowledge of different groups. Collective problem solving is common in business problem solving because workplace decisions typically affect more than one person.
Problem solving, especially in business, is a complicated science. Not only are business conflicts multifaceted, but they often involve different personalities, levels of authority, and group dynamics. In recent years, however, there has been a rise in psychology-driven problem solving techniques, especially for the workplace. In fact, the psychology of how people solve problems is now studied formally in academic disciplines such as psychology and cognitive science.
Joe Carella is the Assistant Dean for Executive Education at the University of Arizona. Joe has over 20 years of experience in helping executives and corporations in managing change and developing successful business strategies. His doctoral research and executive education engagements have seen him focus on corporate strategy, decision making and business performance with a variety of corporate clients including Hershey’s, Chevron, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, Intel, DP World, Essilor, BBVA Compass Bank.
He explains some of the basic psychology behind problem solving: “When our brain is engaged in the process of solving problems, it is engaged in a series of steps where it processes and organizes the information it receives while developing new knowledge it uses in future steps. Creativity is embedded in this process by incorporating diverse inputs and/or new ways of organizing the information received.”
Laura MacLeod is a Professor of Social Group Work at City University of New York, and the creator of From The Inside Out Project®, a program that coaches managers in team leadership for a variety of workplaces. She has a background in social work and over two decades of experience as a union worker, and currently leads talks on conflict resolution, problem solving, and listening skills at conferences across the country.
MacLeod thinks of problem solving as an integral practice of successful organizations. “Problem solving is a collaborative process — all voices are heard and connected, and resolution is reached by the group,” she says. “Problems and conflicts occur in all groups and teams in the workplace, but if leaders involve everyone in working through, they will foster cohesion, engagement, and buy in. Everybody wins.”
To understand the necessary skills in problem solving, you should first understand the types of thinking often associated with strong decision making. Most problem solving techniques look for a balance between the following binaries:
- Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking: Convergent thinking is bringing together disparate information or ideas to determine a single best answer or solution. This thinking style values logic, speed, and accuracy, and leaves no chance for ambiguity. Divergent thinking is focused on generating new ideas to identify and evaluate multiple possible solutions, often uniting ideas in unexpected combinations. Divergent thinking is characterized by creativity, complexity, curiosity, flexibility, originality, and risk-taking.
- Pragmatics vs. Semantics: Pragmatics refer to the logic of the problem at hand, and semantics is how you interpret the problem to solve it. Both are important to yield the best possible solution.
- Mathematical vs. Personal Problem Solving: Mathematical problem solving involves logic (usually leading to a single correct answer), and is useful for problems that involve numbers or require an objective, clear-cut solution. However, many workplace problems also require personal problem solving, which includes interpersonal, collaborative, and emotional intuition and skills.
The following basic methods are fundamental problem solving concepts. Implement them to help balance the above thinking models.
- Reproductive Thinking: Reproductive thinking uses past experience to solve a problem. However, be careful not to rely too heavily on past solutions, and to evaluate current problems individually, with their own factors and parameters.
- Idea Generation: The process of generating many possible courses of action to identify a solution. This is most commonly a team exercise because putting everyone’s ideas on the table will yield the greatest number of potential solutions.
However, many of the most critical problem solving skills are “soft” skills: personal and interpersonal understanding, intuitiveness, and strong listening.
Mattimore expands on this idea: “The seven key skills to be an effective creative problem solver that I detail in my book Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs are: 1) curiosity 2) openness 3) a willingness to embrace ambiguity 4) the ability to identify and transfer principles across categories and disciplines 5) the desire to search for integrity in ideas, 6) the ability to trust and exercise “knowingness” and 7) the ability to envision new worlds (think Dr. Seuss, Star Wars, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.).”
“As an individual contributor to problem solving it is important to exercise our curiosity, questioning, and visioning abilities,” advises Carella. “As a facilitator it is essential to allow for diverse ideas to emerge, be able to synthesize and ‘translate’ other people’s thinking, and build an extensive network of available resources.”
MacLeod says the following interpersonal skills are necessary to effectively facilitate group problem solving: “The abilities to invite participation (hear all voices, encourage silent members), not take sides, manage dynamics between the monopolizer, the scapegoat, and the bully, and deal with conflict (not avoiding it or shutting down).”
Furthermore, Jaffa explains that the skills of a strong problem solver aren’t measurable. The best way to become a creative problem solver, he says, is to do regular creative exercises that keep you sharp and force you to think outside the box. Carella echoes this sentiment: “Neuroscience tells us that creativity comes from creating novel neural paths. Allow a few minutes each day to exercise your brain with novel techniques and brain ‘tricks’ – read something new, drive to work via a different route, count backwards, smell a new fragrance, etc.”
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