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Problem Solving: How to Solve Just About Any Problem Effectively

Updated on July 10, 2011
Some problems just aren't worth solving!
Some problems just aren't worth solving!

Problem solving is a vital skill.

More and more it is becoming obvious that the ability to solve problems is a skill set all of its own. We are beginning to realise that problems cannot always be solved best by the people in whose field in which they occur, and that sometimes a fresh set of eyes – and perspectives – are infinitely more useful.

Effective problem solving doesn’t just happen by accident though.  It’s a process – and a learnt one at that. The good news is that it’s not that complicated to learn. It does require work, and a commitment to keep an open mind and continually develop the skill, though.

With more problems than ever, the planet urgently needs people to develop innovative and inclusive ways to solve problems – and in every field of endeavour.

Problem solving: Sometimes the simplest solution is the best!
Problem solving: Sometimes the simplest solution is the best!

Solving Problems is not the Same as Finding Solutions

The principal error that most people make when attempting to solve a problem is that they confuse solving a problem with finding a solution.

Rather than attempt to grasp the problem on its own terms, many people move straight into a process of finding solutions - bypassing the most crucial stage of the problem solving process: for the easiest way to solve a problem is to make it unnecessary to exist.  

Many problems themselves began life as a solution to a previous problem. Example? Automobiles. Once an excellent solution to the problem of moving vast numbers of people over large distances, automobiles have become a problem for the planet, being a major source of atmospheric pollution and injury.

Yesterday’s solution is now today’s problem.

In fact, the case of automobiles is an excellent example of problem solving gone wrong.

Consider for a moment, the electric car...

Electric Cars: How to Solve a Problem that Doesn’t Need to Exist

Global warming – by anyone sensible – is an accepted, real and imminent threat to our future as a species. Private, individual transport accounts for a monumental amount of atmospheric pollution, and is thus – by conventional wisdom - a logical place to start for anyone who hopes to solve the problem of global warming.

Enter the electric car.

On the face of it, this seems like a great idea. Fossil fuels are the problem? Remove them from the equation. Problem solved.

Or is it?

Unaddressed are a range of related and underlying problems: congestion, distributed living, supply chains,  power generation. Sure – your car might run on electricity – and we can all agree that the reduction in fossil fuel usage is a step forward – but where does the electricity come from? A coal power plant? What about the food in your fridge? Beans from Kenya, mushrooms from Japan? Electric cars don’t solve a problem: they only solve one face of a single, larger problem. Electric cars are a solution – but they’re certainly not the best, or even the most efficient.   

It’s possible the problem doesn’t just lie in automobiles as a device, but that the real problem lies in the underlying concept of mass, private, individual transport. We’ve built a society predicated on the right of people and goods to travel large distances – allowing us to spread ourselves out across vast areas. This concept underpins the “necessity” of large scale spending on infrastructure, global logistical networks, and vast, sprawling urban developments.

Similarly, we can then take the concept of mass, private, individual transport and analyse it to see what underpins it. It turns out that the major factor that contributes to the “necessity” of mass, private, individual transport is the “necessity” of travelling to our place of work.

It’s become obvious that the requirement for employees to even attend an office or place of work is a hangover of the factory mentality of the industrial revolution. Huge sectors of the economy – certainly most of the labour force in developed worlds – do not actually need to be physically present to perform their work.  The problem then isn’t one of finding alternative fuels for vehicles, but addressing the circumstances that require us to need them in the first place.

So by analysing the problem a little more holistically, we’ve gone from simply finding a substitute fuel for private cars, to addressing the underlying problem of the “factory mentality” that causes millions of people to travel large distances every day for the most spurious of reasons.

So, in the context of electric cars, we need to ask ourselves: Have we really solved the problem – or merely delayed its resurfacing to a future point in time? This author would suggest that in this instance, the answer is very much the latter.

By taking a holistic approach – analysing the upstream and downstream of a problem, looking at the process in which the problem occurs and the circumstances that cause it to even be regarded as a problem, we are significantly closer to genuinely solving the problem, rather than innovating our way into a more complex problem in the future.

Real, effective problem solving is elegant. It’s that light bulb moment that, when you first see it makes you think “why didn’t I think of that before? It’s so obvious!” It’s holistic – an approach to the world that recognises that everything occurs in the context of everything else. No problem exists independently of the environment – our planet – in which it occurs. Everything is connected – and in more ways than you can possibly imagine.

Here then, are a series of strategies that will help you solve just about any problem you could ever come across...

Continue to: 12 Ways to Solve Just About Any Problem


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    • profile image

      Greg Z Fainberg 4 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.


    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 7 years ago from SE MA

      I think that we will see a shift away from autos. I do most of my work at home now and seldom go on-site anymore - the Internet has made that possible.

      Did you see this?