Blogpost: Problem Solving
Like so many business concepts I teach, the categories of competencies preached in “The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human” are not mutually exclusive, occurring one at a time, or independent of one another. On the contrary, they are in a constant state of interdependence – one relying upon the other for full effect.
I bring this up because, in a way, I feel “problem solving” the last of the 8 pillar competencies to be discussed in this blog, is so often overlooked as a competency in its own right, because its presence is required and often lost in the successful enactment of the other pillars. It is also often confused with the central ingredient of “creativity” (design thinking), which is “solving problems” through innovation. I am a wordsmith, much to the annoyance of those close to me, and the personal frustration of myself (it can be a painful trait to bear), but I must point out the difference between “problem solving” and “solving problems”. The former, the one examined in this post, is often engaged in reaction to a situation which has arisen, resulting from myriad sources, but often those of pure human error. The latter, “solving problems” is more of a strategically thought through solution to an ongoing or nagging problem of inefficiency. Problem solvers help get us through tangles we get ourselves into, whereas solvers of problems are innovators who look to improve upon old ways of doing things.
Solvers of problems get all the glory. They are the innovators, the people on whom biographies turn into bestselling books and blockbuster movies. Problem solvers, on the other hand, are quiet, unsung, unassuming, contemplative harmonizers who build bridges, forge goodwill between opposing sides, untangle complicated situations, and then quietly move on to the next “project”. This post is dedicated to that group of puzzle-nerds and peace-makers, and the competency they possess in abundance, but also one that we all possess and must learn to use more often. Because the problem solving competency is in us all, and, like all other competencies, our level of proficiency in it improves the more we use it.
But let’s try getting at the core of what we’re really talking about here. As I explain in the intro section of the book, where I attempt to give a broad-brush explanation of each competency, problem solving is the “figureoutable competency”. For someone who fancies himself as a wordsmith, I took an inordinate number of liberties in creating new words – although “figureoutable” has certainly diffused into our vernacular. However, as I go on to explain, it’s really the level of complexity to a given problem that makes “problem solving” a sought after competency in everything from an entry level job, to a long-lasting marriage. As Fischer, et a,l wrote in their 2014 paper, “Assessing analytic and interactive aspects of problem solving competency”, “problem solving can be understood as the ability to figure out a solution method for reaching one’s goal if no such method is obvious”. (Fischer, 2014) In other words, to actually rank as a vital competency, problem solving deals with complicated situations.
This is probably why, in various “skills for the 21st century” articles it is often referred to as “complex problem solving” or “analytical problem solving”. In some of our earlier works, as co-authors of the marketing textbook, “Mindtap for Marketing” Marc Boivin and I referenced focus group feedback we had gathered and concluded that this competency was better understood as “decision making”, yet another term used to describe the behaviour. In hindsight I find that label too limiting. Problem solving, after all doesn’t always end in a decision, like a zero-sum game, but more often, especially when dealing with problems between two humans, as a collaboration at best, or compromise at least.
You might note, if you’ve been following along these last few blogs, that collaboration is also one of my pillar competencies, and here we see the aforementioned cross pollination of one pillar with another. We shall see, however, that problem solving intersects with, or requires critical thinking in order to objectively see two sides of a story. It also walks in parallel with the competency of communication as often times the actual solution to a problem is shattered, or saved, by the level of effectiveness of one’s communication competency. How often have you thought you had brilliantly engineered an agreement between yourself and a collaborator, only to see it erode through a hastily produced email or text message (perilous problem solving mediums to be sure).
Perhaps problem solving’s closest competency ally is character – the power of choice competency. I’ll use a true, personal and somewhat humbling anecdote of how a recent problem solving situation went woefully wrong for me, and how both, my character and my communication methods were complicit in the disaster.
Both of my daughters, like a disturbingly high percentage of kids in their peer group, suffer from anxiety. Without getting into the psychology of their particular situation, let’s just say the middle stages of this third wave of the Covid 19 pandemic has been particularly challenging for them. To say that is the only source of struggle would be to simplify the problem – the first mistake we make when problem solving. They’re COMPLEX for God’s sake! That’s why they’re a problem. Fortunately, however, I have advanced beyond that stage of problem solving and have learned over the years that there is nothing “simple” about any mental illness. Still, having that deep knowledge of my daughters’ condition, fully aware of the fragile state of their well-being, the wildfire state of the world in early May 2021, I failed miserably in solving a problem presented to me on one particular evening when one of them vulnerably reached out to me for what I would later determine was a simple, single, solitary, effortless hug. Yep…colour me shamed.
Granted, it had been a long few days of helping her to regulate her anxiety, consoling her for the unfound guilt snowballing inside of her, helping her rationalizing the irrational, and co-performing coping strategies ranging from deep breathing to mindfulness. But when that one additional incremental moment presented itself to me on that one rain-drenched evening, (don’t all problems seem more delightful on “rain-drenched evenings”?) my problem solving competency collapsed inside of me like a house of cards. Sniffling and alone, she approached me one more time, after a day of repeated behaviour. But this time I had had enough. I lashed out before she could speak, telling her that “this” had gone far enough, and that she had to “get a grip”. And just like that, as mentioned previously, all of that work we had both invested into problem solving vanished in a momentary lapse of patience.
As I tried to explain to her later, literally on my knees beside her bed, I had made a choice, and it was a bad one. I had the choice of being patient and compassionate once again, or allow another voice to take over. My character competency was compromised, my problem solving competency in turn imploded, and my daughter (and I) now had a more complicated problem to solve. One of trust.
I feel compelled at least once every post, as I did in my book, to readily confess, my authoring this book, subtitled, “Being better at being human” should in no way be interpreted as a guidebook produced by someone equipped with a higher level of competency than an average human. I display utter incompetency quite frequently really. We all do. Competency based learning (the methodology I have always used to teach) and competency based living, hold no promises of mastery. There’s no such thing. The whole concept is about a perpetual pursuit of being better, but never mastering.
To possibly help us all organize the “how-to” part of problem solving, there is an actual process to it, but this of course varies from source to source. The University of Iowa’s Human Resources department, for instance, has an eight-step model (with no less than 27 sub-steps!) (NA, 2021) The state of Western Australia’s Department of Health has it narrowed down to six steps (Articles, 2021). Corporate training manuals typically boil it down to four steps, which I cite in my book repeatedly. The American Society for Quality, an international organization dedicated to the pursuit of excellence through quality, references those same generic four steps. (Learn About Quality, 2021) This, or some variation of it, tends to be the most popular model, and the one that I use in my book, if for nothing else, its practicality. These basic steps go something like this:
Define the problem
Come up with alternative solutions
Decide on a solution
Implement solution and evaluate
Compact, practical and pragmatic, it’s no wonder that it has become the go-to model, and one that if I had take the time to access earlier this week, the altercation with my daughter would have most certainly ended differently. But the problem with pragmatism is that it likes to put things in nice sequential straight lines. This is what processes are after all. But problems which require solving, are by definition – complex. They require reflection at the beginning, in the middle and once a solution has been implemented.
In her deeply insightful 1987 article, “Problem Solving and Reflective Thinking” Joan Rosen frequently cites the works of Linda Flower, John Dewey and Richard Young. Rosen was a college writing instructor at the time, diligently looking not only for sources of inspiration for her students, but ways to get them to really think through what they are trying to express through words. Here, we see another intersection between the problem solving competency and communication. Which makes sense because, if you really think about it, sometimes the very act of communicating is in itself a very complex undertaking. Anyway, the article unwittingly blasts the notion that problem solving is linear. Rosen uses Dewey’s “Five Phases of Reflective Thought” to demonstrate a process, that I believe we must really think through as we problem solve. Below is my attempt to paraphrase Dewey’s work, with apologies to scholars and the original author if my over-simplification crosses over some line of academia standards:
Instinctively think of solutions first (refreshingly impractical, huh?)
Experience and feel the difficulty of the problem (what? Who invited empathy here?)
Think through each of the aforementioned solutions as they might be applied to the problem (ok this has gone far enough…are we actually thinking of consequences?)
Elaborate on the reasoning of each solution (as in reason-why logic, check)
Test the solution either mentally or physically (and just a whisper of design thinking)
Rosen was a writing educator, not a quality control geek. John Dewey was a philosopher and psychologist. My point is that problem solving requires engagement from both sides of our brain. We must proceed through a framework that is linear, all the while allowing an abstract of reflection to spin-cycle. As I say in Episode 274 (p 310) of my book, problem solving cannot be done with a checklist, it is more like an experiment. Seek comprehension.
But there’s an added layer to this, I wish I had thought of when I wrote the book, and it comes from Rosen’s article. I’ll quote it directly here as this one is too good to paraphrase. Remember, Rosen was an educator, trained to enlighten students in the art and science of composition. She concludes her brilliant paper with the following.
Give students a process, a method for reaching conclusions and solving problems, allow them to become familiar with their own minds and hearts, give them the courage to engage in confrontation, and let them come to their own conclusions with integrity, individuality, and imagination. (Rosen, 1987)
The layer I overlooked, that “quality standards” experts overlook, that even Dewey himself may have overlooked (although his work is too vast for me to have been exhaustive) is Rosen’s notion of discomfort. To “engage in confrontation”. Problem solving is messy. Getting through complicated situations, whether with your tween-aged daughter, a disgruntled employee, or raging customer, requires us to first know we are about to enter into a confrontational environment, and we must be prepared to absorb its awkwardness. This is that pivotal “attitude” stage in the AKS competency framework, used in my book, which the problem solving competency might demonstrate most dramatically. Adjust your attitude first, then proceed to gather knowledge, before ultimately practicing the skill.
Once again, do not mistake me, as the author of a workbook on competency based learning, and living, to be the flawless practitioner of said. I am your humble, mortal, problem-prone tour guide, forever in pursuit of being better at being human.
Articles. (2021, May 6). Retrieved from Healthy WA: https://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/N_R/Problem-solving
Fischer, A. G. (2014). Assessing analytic and interactive aspects of problem solving competency. Learning and Individual Differences.
Learn About Quality. (2021, May 6). Retrieved from ASQ: https://asq.org/quality-resources/problem-solving
(2021, May 6). Human Resources. Retrieved from hr.uiowa.edu: https://hr.uiowa.edu/development/organizational-development/lean/8-step-problem-solving-process
Rosen, J. (1987). Problem Solving and Reflective Thinking: John Dewey, Linda Flower, Richard Young. Journal of Teaching Writing, 69-78.