When you’ve got issues, having a problem solving model at hand is essential.
Ideally, that model should be easy to remember and quick to implement.
The problem is this:
Not all problems are the same. There’s no such thing as a problem solving chart or diagram that is going to apply to all situations.
So instead of forcing every issue you’re facing into some bogus Six Steps of Problem Solving Formula, let’s get real.
Let’s look at a number of multi-step problem solving formulas. Once you have this list, you can pick the models most likely to work and enjoy much better results thanks to variety.
The 9 Best Problem Solving Models And Formulas
As you go through this list, consider taking notes. As you do, jot down different times when these different approaches might help you.
Remember: not all problems are created the same, so the exact problem solving steps you follow need to be suited to the task at hand. Flexibility based on knowledge of what’s available is a key part of objective reasoning.
This point is important because there are some steps to follow before we even look at any models.
- Recognize that a problem exists and give it a name
- Represent the problem in the best possible medium (writing, graphics, video)
- List your goals for solving the problem states
- Generate and evaluate possible solutions
- Select the best possible solution
- Execution the best possible solution
- Analyze and determine if the solution you’ve chosen solves the problem
This process is sometimes confused with the standard problem solving model. But in actuality it is the meta-level understanding you need before using any particular model.
One: The Standard Problem Solving Model
As mentioned, many people consider the steps I just listed the standard model for solving problems. They may even simplify it into a problem solving chart like this:
I would suggest making your initial approach much more robust.
Two: The Dynamic Problem Solving Model
The Dynamic Problem solving model breaks the process into much more distinct phases.
In phase one, we want to spend as much time as possible going deep into the problem. Look at it in as many ways as possible and from as many perspectives and contexts as you can.
- Understanding the problem
- Name and describe the problem, ideally in multiple media
- Explore its contexts
- Study similar examples
- Research opportunities for interviewing people who have solved the problem before
Next, you want to bring in as many idea generation steps as you can.
- Generate ideas by
- Mind mapping
- Rating the solutions
Once you have visualized and gathered your ideas by brainstorming them onto paper or using a mind map, there are many ways you can gamify.
For example, you can:
- Ask “what if” questions
- Ask what Isaksen et al. call “wouldn’t it be nice if” or “wouldn’t it be terrible if” questions
- Hold a contest for the best solution (internally and externally to your organization)
- Go for a walk and try not to think about the problem and solutions and then write about your experience in withholding
Rating can be performed in various ways. You can divide the solutions you can up with into grades such as A+, A, B, etc. Or you can give the solutions you’ve gathered ratings from 1-10 and have as many people participate in the process as possible.
For the final stage:
- Plan and prepare your approach
- First choose and accept the path and ensure all team members are on the same page
- Design the actions you’re going to take
- Schedule the time for implementation and review design
- Schedule the time for review
This 3-stage problem solving model is far more robust than the standard solution.
Three: The Brief Problem Solving Model
Isaac Newton reportedly said that in order to solve a problem, you just need to think about it constantly. But sometimes you don’t have all the time in the world.
Famous scientist Richard Feynman reflected on the scarcity of time when he described the following model:
1 Write down the problem.
2 Think really hard.
3 Write down the answer.
Sometimes finding the best possible solution really is just this simple.
To expand a little on how this model might work in practice, you can:
- Describe the problem broadly and without granular details
- Briefly describe the best possible outcome and ideas for achieving it that come to mind
- List the benefits of having it solved to create inspiration and momentum
If you’re in a hurry, this problem solving example will often work very well.
Four: The W.R.A.P. Problem Solving Model
Of all the faster problem solving model examples I’ve seen, the W.R.A.P. formula presented by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Decisive is my favorite. Although not immediate, it’s quite fast.
W.R.A.P. stands for:
- Widen your options
- Reality test
- Attain distance
- Prepare to fail
The final point is especially important because we often don’t take time to consider what we’ll do if the solutions we choose do not perform to expectation.
Five: Analyze For Advantage
Sometimes you just want to find the most advantageous outcome.
To do so, follow this model:
- List the advantages you want as a result of solving the problem
- List the existing assets, resources and advantages you have right now
- List your current limitations, including any fears
- List how you can refine your existing assets to combat those fears
- Plan for maximum advantage based on your newly optimized assets
Six: Examine Pros and Cons
Although simplistic, a great model to follow in a hurry is to simply list the pros and cons.
All you need to do is write pros and cons at the top of a piece of paper and draw a line down the center.
As you list the pros and cons, your mind will probably start branching out and coming up with solutions so that the cons cannot take over.
Seven: Find the Forces
Often when we try to solve problems, we’re not looking deeply enough to find the one root cause. Even if we are, we can fail to find solutions because we’re so focused on finding just one source of the problem.
Often, there are multiple forces or factors at work in causing a problem. To get started finding them, you can follow this model:
- List all the people involved
- List all the technologies involved
- List all the situations involved
- Describe the ways in which these different “forces” act upon creating the problem
- Write out various scenarios in which changes are made to the different elements
- Try to predict and previsualize various outcomes based on changes you could make
Eight: Peer into the Unconscious
Synectics appeared in the 1950s and assumed that many people struggle to solve problems because the solutions remain outside their conscious awareness. However, their unconscious mind might know the solution and be “hiding” it from the mind for various reasons.
Robert Langs proposed a similar thesis, and wondered if the unconscious mind wasn’t something like an antivirus system of the mind.
This idea is not so far-fetched, even though it can be strange to think that the mind would hide the perfect solution from you if it truly knows it.
In Mindshift, Barbara Oakley discusses research showing how the insular cortex can cause a pain response when a person is faced with certain tasks.
This suggests literally what her book title proposes: a shift of mind.
There are many ways you can do this, and books by her, Langs, and the people behind Synectics are a great place to start for examples of various problem solving models that deal with this level of your mind.
Nine: The Problem Solving Situations Model
Discover Projects offers a great way to ensure that you find the right model for solving your problems. It involves identifying the problem correctly in the first place.
They suggest there are at least 6 types of problems:
- Type I problems: Known by the person with the problem, but only one solution is known.
- Type II problems: A problem that is known by the person presenting the problem and the person hired to solve it, but the method of solution and solution are known only by the presenter.
- Type III problems: the problem is known by the presenter and the solver; more than one method may be used to arrive at the solution, which the presenter knows.
- Type IV problems: the problem is known by the presenter and the solver; the problem may be solved in more than one way; the presenter knows the range of solutions.
- Type V problems: these problems are clearly defined and the problem is known by the presenter and the solver; the method and solution are unknown by the presenter and the solver.
- Type VI problems: these problems are not clearly defined or are undefined, have little if any structure, and are complex; the problem is unknown by both the presenter and the solver; the method and solution are unknown by both the presenter and the solver.
When you do this kind of problem identification analysis (where relevant), many more solutions will arise than you would otherwise perceive.
The greatest aspect of this model is that it helps you find out who might have the solution.
Another way of thinking about this approach is basically what Dan Sullivan is getting at in his Who Not How problem solving model. If you’re able to figure out who can solve the problem, chances are that person also knows how to solve it.
The Best Problem Solving Model Of Them All
Please don’t feel that what I’m about to say is a trick.
It isn’t. It’s the ultimate solution.
The best problem solving model of them all is the one you practice.
And practice means committing the model to memory, using it consistently and optimizing your approach along the way.
For an easy and fun way to commit any model to mind quickly, I invite you to get my FREE Memory Improvement Kit:
It’s a model of a different kind that helps you remove the issue of forgetting from your life.
Once you’ve done that, you can follow multiple paths to solving the vexations of everyday life quickly.