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Steps in the process
We make decisions constantly which effect our lives and the lives of others. Normally, we do not think about the problem solving process since most of our problems are solved by reaction rather than reflection. The fact that our reaction processes are the result of natural reflexes and the build up over time of small habitual and learned techniques hides the true processes involved. It is only when we are stumped for an answer or find ourselves faced with multifaceted problems demanding more than learned or habitual reaction that we acknowledge the need for more advanced tools.
The first hurdle to overcome in problem solving is the determination of the different ways in which individuals approach the problem solving process.
These approaches or dimensions are mutually exclusive giving totally different approaches to the problem - abstract vs. concrete, inductive vs. deductive, focused vs. field, traditional vs. creative. Each of us falls at a different place along each of these continua or dimensions.
So how does this help in the problem solving process? When these are combined into a paradigm, each of the categories contains excellent problem solvers albeit totally different in their approach to the process, thus allowing each individual to see what another misses. Which is why all of us need to ask for advice when faced with a major problem, or at least why most of us should. Hopefully we will find someone who comes from a different part of the paradigm and can shed light where we cannot see.
If we surround ourselves with those who fit into our corner of the paradigm created by the different categories, than we are severely limiting our ability to find the most creative solution much less define the problem with maximum clarity.
The following is not so much a discussion of the problem solving process as it is a listing of the steps we often go through in finding solutions to a problem.
Finding the Problem
Be sure that the problem is defined correctly. Many problems have been solved only to find that the real problem still exists. Or worse, that the solution produced more serious problems than existed prior to the solution. Finding and defining the problem correctly is in fact the most difficult process.
To illustrate this, take any problem with which people are familiar and ask 5 people what in fact is the real problem. And while you are at it, ask also what the solution is. Aside from some overall agreement relative to certain points, you will get back 5 basically different answers. If these are combined along with 10 other answers, you may have the basis for a start in defining the 'real' problem and even some insight into a possible solution.
Many problems, if stated correctly, become easy, or at least easier, to solve.
Assess whether the problem is in fact the problem or only part of a larger problem. We can take it as axiomatic that every problem is only part of a larger problem. However, in order to find any solution at all to a current problem, it is necessary to define some limits which relate to the problem as it presents itself in a current well defined situation.
Always assess the causes of the problem. Make a chart of the problem and all of its probable causes. Solution is often found by analysis of the causes.
Brain storming. This involves the suggestion of random access thoughts which are put forward whether fanciful or not on what the problem is and how to solve the problem. Out of far flung and ridiculous ideas often come some solutions not otherwise contemplated.
Association mapping - map all of the relevant factors - all the possible causes, all possible entities effected by the problem and how effected, all possible effects of solutions, all possible attendant factors (environmental, physical, psychological, economic, social) which surround the problem. In this way, it is possible to come up with associations and links never thought of leading to better definition of the problem and a more creative solution.
Dealing with the Problem
1 Break the problem into its subparts to more easily understand the whole.
2 Map the relations between the subparts (see http://www.mindtools.com/page2.html Excellent full explanation of powerful pen and paper techniques to problem solution including critical path analysis, decision trees, force field analysis, etc.)
Finding the Solutions return to top
Assess basic physical, social, etc. principles in the attempt to find a possible solution
For instance, in looking for a solution to a problem in the physical world, list all of the possible connections between the problem and the following physical principles: adhesion, friction, leverage, gravity, rhythm, flotation, suction, lift, vacuum, static electricity, action-reaction, Bernoulli to name a few.
In looking for a solution to a social problem, list connections and associations between parties involved, institutions, norms, laws, economic and social trends or cycles, and impacting environmental factors as a start.
Look for multiple solutions. Just finding one solution which works does not mean that it is the best solution.
Find solutions to the sub parts which together will solve the over all problem.
Set priorities as to which solutions will be tried according to time, space, ease, etc. depending on the type of problem.
Assign dependency between the different parts of the problem and solutions. The solving of certain parts of the problem or the use of specific solutions may make other solutions unnecessary.
Maintain constant feedback to assure that the solving of the sub problems does not impact negatively on the overall solution.
Set priorities in the timing for the solution of the sub problems. There is often a time dependency between solution of the different sub problems (see http://www.mindtools.com/page2.html)
Factors to take into consideration in assessing a solution
Assumptions are always a big stumbling block to the solution of a problem
The limits of our knowledge, the restrictions placed upon us by culture, habits, and learning, all limit the degree to which we can define and implement a solution.
However, much more important than the above limitations, are the limitations placed upon us by our assumptions. Our assumptions are made up of what we know or think is true, and of what works and doesn't work. If we assume that individuals will do specific things or certain types of action and reaction will occur in any situation, then we will often be in error.
Problem return to top
You are in a room with 4 other people and there is a ping pong ball inside a 6-7cm (2.5-3 inches) high steel pipe sealed tight to the floor (but not through the floor), with a diameter almost the same size as the ball. Nothing else is in the room. Mission - to get ping pong ball out of pipe within 30 minutes with no damage to pipe, ball, room, or people. (variation of example used by Adams 1974 1)
How to do this? Can you think of more than one possible way even if in the end it might not work? Make a list of possible solutions before reading further.
What is the problem?
The problem as outlined here appears to be fairly clear.
But are there other factors to take into account which in fact are part of the problem?
1 One such factor is the five people. How will they react and who will lead the group. If the self appointed leader thinks he knows the answer and refuses to let the group express its collective thoughts, than this presents a problem toward finding the best solution or perhaps any solution at all.
2 If some of the group refuse to participate or even interrupt the process, then the possible solutions are reduced.
3 If unforeseen and interfering environmental factors are present which are not part of the presenting problem, than the progress of the solution may be impeded.
4 If social or cultural norms, or sensitivities are impinged, then some solutions may not be possible.
Physical principles which might have an effect on the solution
Assess the physical principles impinging on this particular problem. As a short list, the following physical principles may have an effect on the outcome: adhesion, friction, leverage, gravity, rhythm, flotation, suction, lift, vacuum, static electricity, action-reaction, Bernoulli
According to the stated problem, what is permitted and what is not permitted?
1 no mention that the people did not have normal clothing and things in pockets, hair, etc. which could be used.
Assess the causes of the problem
The causes in the present case would appear to be fairly straight forward.
Why are you trapped with 4 other people (some of whom you don't like) in a room with a ping pong ball in the first place? You agreed to do this. Not a problem - solve it and get out.
Before acting, it often helps to rate the consequences of an act. Consequences are often more important than the solution itself. (See appendix below)
Number in parentheses indicates intuitively assessed probability that the method will work in present circumstances
Methods thought of and rejected
1 chemical reaction to create a foam and lift it out - no materials
Ideas for Creativity and Innovation - Techniques, keeping mentally fit, and helpful creative resources. A number of very good links
Mindtools.com A Planning Process for Medium-Sized Projects. Brings together many different planning and decision tools.
Whelmers pingpongbaseball dropped together
Fort Bragg K12 Very nice series of experiments on Bernoulli's Principle from the Fort Bragg Unified School District
FirstInspires.org FIRST inspires in young people, their schools and communities an appreciation of science and technology, and of how mastering these can enrich the lives of all. Corporate America provides economic and professional support to FIRST. Many Fortune 500 companies have significantly helped FIRST grow and are committed to its continued progress. Government organizations such as NASA are key partners in this worthwhile cause. FIRST represents a cooperative team effort by students, teachers, communities, corporations, and our government. FIRST Robotics Competition This competition is our longest-standing program, involving more than 20,000 high school students in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and the UK. FIRST LEGO League Starting with the FIRST LEGO League, our Jr. Robotics program introduces science and technology to elementary and middle school students using real-world challenges and hands-on learning. FIRST Place Through our mentor workshops and student classes, FIRST Place provides the environment to inspire and educate others in field science and technology.
Comments, additional methods, criticisms welcomed email
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