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12 Ways To Solve Just About Any Problem

Updated on June 13, 2011

Note: This hub is a continuation of a series of articles on creative problem solving. To see the preceding article, click here.

1. Does this problem need to exist? Make no assumptions – go back to the beginning

As we saw with electric cars above, not all problems need to exist. Sure, we can innovate and find new ways to power private vehicles. Or, we could remove the need for them to even exist, and use our cognitive and physical resources elsewhere.

So, when faced with a problem, run through this process – either internally, or with a group.

Is this actually a problem?

What happens if you simply ignore this problem? What are the effects downstream? What are the causes upstream? Can this problem be solved or offset by manipulating – removing or increasing – the inputs that cause it, or the outputs that result from it?

Is this the problem to solve?

Look upstream from the problem. Look downstream from the problem. Realise that most problems were once solutions themselves, and so thus now occur in a chain of problems. Is the problem you are focused on now the one where you energies are best spent? What about the problem that caused the problem you’re now attempting to solve? Can you solve a multitude of problems by following the trail upstream as far as possible? How far can you go upstream? Will you make more efficient usage of resources by working upstream from the problem you are attempting to solve?

All these and more are incredibly essential questions to ask yourself when solving a problem. This is because it is all done before you even get to the process of finding a solution. The more work you do at this stage – and the better the quality of your thinking at this stage – the more effective your work will be when it comes time to find a solution.

In many cases you may find a dramatically better solution to the problem at hand using this method, and one that will require vastly less effort and resources, simply by taking the time to sit down and get to grips with the problem and the environment in which it occurs.

2. Work on the assumption that you can solve the problem, and you will solve it. No matter how hard the problem seems, START: find something you can do

No matter how difficult a problem is, if you don’t even believe that you can solve it, then it’s already beaten you!

It’s easy to be dumbfounded by the complexity of some problems that face us. In a situation like that though, sometimes the complexity of all of the variables involved is too great to come to grips with immediately, and all you can do is find the best solution that comes to mind, and run with it.

In time, circumstances will reveal the parts you got right, and the parts you got wrong. However well you’ve gone with finding a solution is less important than the fact that you have already begun the process of solving the problem.

If you never start though, the problem will never, ever get solved.

3. Simplify...

Most problems are complex, and often that complexity hides the handful of elements in a problem that truly matter – the pressure points if you will.

Simplifying a problem down to an almost absurd level - as a problem solving tool – can be incredibly useful in revealing these essential elements.

In arguments it’s often called “being glib.” That is, you seek to simplify – often with the motive of ridiculing your opponent’s point of view – their position.

Sometimes an effective way to simplify a problem is to “argue it out” with other people. Each of you take opposing positions and let fly at each other. Get emotional – for the more you do, the more likely you’ll “hit gold” with your simplifications.

Alternatively, try explaining the problem to another person who has no grasp of the situation or the factors involved. If the problem truly is complex, then the exercise of explaining it to another can be incredibly useful in helping you sort out the essential from the superfluous.

4. Do the problem backwards / Reverse the details

Reversing the problem or attempting to work through it backwards is an incredibly useful way to discover the crucial relationships between a whole pile of complex variables.

How can you reverse a problem? If it is a physical or mathematical problem, try exchanging the inputs for the outputs while leaving everything else the same. Observe the relationships that come out of that reversal – is there anything particularly odd that you can notice?

Additionally, reversing the problem can be a helpful strategy when you have no idea where to start to solve a particular problem. Choose an answer – any answer, and see what it takes, what you actually have to do to the problem, to make that answer work. In this process you will discover exactly what elements of the problem are subject to change or alteration, and which are not.

5. Go to extremes

Sometimes the essence of a problem can be hidden in the complexity or minuteness of the variables involved, making it hard to even grasp the problem, let alone attempt to solve it and then find a solution.

The answer – in part – is to take what you have to extremes. Magnify the conflict and difference that is the essence of the problem you are facing by magnifying the factors involved. Don’t be shy – the larger the exaggeration, the easier the essence of the problem will be to see, and the more profound your insights are likely to be!

6. Make a diagram or try to visualise the problem

Can you represent the problem in a flow chart? What about a free form creative drawing? Try this activity as a group to multiply the different perspectives you’ll get on the problem, and what people perceive to be the most important elements.

In doing so you’ll see the problem from a different angle, and also have a much firmer grasp on the relationships between its constituent parts.

7. Look for analogies

No problem occurs in isolation from the context of its occurrence or the circumstances which caused it.

As we saw before, so many problems themselves start life as solutions to a problem even prior to them. That said, in solving the problem at hand you can be sure that the themes or elements with which you are grappling have been dealt with by other people before you, in other situations and circumstances.

Try to find similar problems to the one you are grappling with now. How were they solved before you? Try also looking for similar themes or elements to the problem you are solving now. You might find them in a completely different industry or field of study to the one you are in now, and the way in which those themes and elements are managed in that alternative are may give you insights into your own problem.

8. Substitute – use different terms. Take out (or add) emotional elements

Sometimes a problem can be difficult to grapple with because the elements and stakes involved are too technical, too impersonal. This can make it hard to solve a problem because you cannot concentrate or relate to the elements enough to even be able to effectively relate to the problem itself, let alone attempt to solve it.

See what happens if you substitute all of these bland elements for terms that you can relate to – terms that matter. It can be hard to figure out why X + Y = Z, but if you think of it like Tom + Judy = ? Maybe adding a personal element can help you to think of the problem in different terms, allowing you to get closer to solving the problem.  

9. Ask yourself what you would do if you could solve the problem?

What would you do if the problem was already solved? No, I don’t mean “go and get an ice-cream” type of answerJ

Rather, play a hypothetical game with yourself or the group that you are in. If this problem was solved, what would happen to the inputs and outputs of this situation? What would the flow on effect be to the other problems or processes which surround it?

By examining the impact of the solved problem, you may get a better grasp of the problem with which you are now dealing.

Look at the data behind the problem, and see if it leads you naturally in a particular direction...
Look at the data behind the problem, and see if it leads you naturally in a particular direction...

10. Look for trends

Does the data that provides the context for your problem indicate any trends? Are these trends immediately apparent? Do these trends lead you towards a solution already? Is this the most efficient solution?

All of these are great questions to ask yourself when solving a problem. Remember, it’s not just the problem itself that you are grappling with, but the context that makes it a problem also. Be aware of the trends and changes in that environment and you may glean some helpful hints about how to solve the problem at hand.

11. Trial and error

Less a technique and more a quality of good problem solving strategies, trial and error is about persistence.

You will almost never find the best answer to a problem on the first attempt. Often you will find an answer, though it is very unlikely to be the most efficient one.

The difference between solving a problem effectively, and simply finding a solution lies in this crucial distinction: a good problem solver will try and fail repeatedly until they have exhausted all possible options.

Which takes us into...

12. Keeping an open mind!

When it comes to solving problems effectively, nothing is more harmful to your prospects of finding the most efficient solution than a closed, rigid mind.

No matter what anyone ever says, everything can be changed. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes a huge amount of work and creative thinking to find the way in which a previously unchangeable variable can in fact be changed. But know that it is possible.

Maybe changing the unchangeable will not work in the final, practical solution that you arrive at. But in the problem solving stage, it can be very helpful indeed to consider all options as possible!

Go forth and solve...

Problem solving then, is about a combination of all of the above techniques. It’s more than a rigid framework or set of procedures – it’s an outlook based in quality, considerate, creative and flexible thought.

So get solving! There’s no shortage of problems around the world for you to start with – aim high, think big, stretch yourself in ways you’ve never been before, and the world will become a much better place.

How do you like to solve problems? What are your best tips? Let us know below...


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    • profile image

      Greg Z Fainberg 

      5 years ago

      Check out

      for a FREE copy of my book titled "How to Solve (Just About) Any Problem: Timeless Practices for Solving Problems Better.



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