Problem solving is a complex psychological process through which we try to find the best way to overcome an obstacle or face a challenge. Unfortunately this process is not always linear, but it can follow very tortuous paths, throwing us into a situation of psychological anguish when we believe that there is no solution.
On the other hand, knowing the stages of problem solving will save us a lot of headaches. Giving a coherent structure to the situation that concerns us and having a common thread that guides us along the way will help us to put some order in the mental chaos generated by the problems.
Experience can be a plus or, on the contrary, become an impediment to problem solving. Psychologists from Hong Kong and Princeton universities examined how we implement problem solving strategies by asking a group of people to solve a variety of problems.
Participants were presented with a series of related squares. Each square of the matrix was made up of separate pieces and people had to remove a number of matches while keeping a specific number of squares intact. The interesting thing about these types of problems is that they generally have more than one solution, different strategies can be used and these have to change depending on the configuration of the matrix, just as is usually the case with life problems.
These researchers found that the participants went through two main stages in problem solving. At first they got carried away by the perceptual characteristics of the problem and began to explore different strategies, some successful and others not.
Later they used their accumulated experience to narrow their strategic options, focusing on those that were most successful. The problem is that the more participants trusted their strategic knowledge, the more difficulty they had in solving problems that required the application of new strategies. In practice, they suffered from some kind of functional fixation.
This series of experiments shows us that to solve a problem we need to keep an open mind, because circumstances are likely to change along the way and we need the mental flexibility to change our problem-solving strategies.
1. Identify the problem
It may seem trivial, but the fact is that identifying the real problem is not as easy as it seems, especially when it comes to a situation that involves us emotionally. In fact, when the problem generates fear or we have the feeling of not having the psychological tools to solve it, we tend to put into practice defense mechanisms such as displacement that allow us to cancel the problematic situation from our conscious mind.
Instead, being able to identify the problem is the first step in finding a solution. Many times this means that we stop looking for the culprits on the outside and look inwards asking ourselves why a situation worries or hinders us.
2. Understand the problem
Many times the problem carries with it the seed of the solution. So one of the steps to solve a problem is to make sure you understand it. It is not enough to identify the problem, it must be defined. For this we must analyze it from different perspectives.
For example, if we are trying to carry out a professional project that fails to get going, we need to clarify the reasons. Do we need more training? Are we in an excessively competitive sector? Do we have enough resources? We need to understand the source of the problem.
Organizing the information available is another crucial step in the troubleshooting process. We have to ask ourselves both what we know about the problem and everything we don't know. Ultimately, the accuracy of the solution will largely depend on the amount of information available.
3. Take a psychological distance
Most of life's major problems have the potential to generate an emotional tsunami. However, many times the emotional involvement clouds us and prevents us from thinking clearly. This is why one of the most important but least known phases of problem solving is moving away from what worries us. To take some psychological distance, we can take a few days away from the problematic environment or try to stop thinking for a while about what is worrying us.
During this time the unconscious mind will continue to work and is likely to generate creative and perfectly valid insights that lead to the solution of the problem. Distance allows us to overcome the functional fixations that prevent us from thinking outside the box, starting a mental restructuring that will allow us to see the problem from another perspective.
4. Seeking solutions and developing strategies
Each problem is different, so it will require a specific solution. A solution cannot always be reached with insight, so it will be necessary to think about possible alternatives to solve the problem. Syneptics, for example, is a problem-solving method that uses creativity to find original solutions.
The next step is to develop a strategy, because solutions that don't materialize in concrete steps are very difficult to put into practice. Therefore, we must ask ourselves how we will implement our solution. In this problem solving phase it is important to be honest with ourselves and put that strategy into practice taking into account our resources and our real availability. There is no point in designing an extraordinary strategy if we cannot apply it later.
5. Evaluation of progress
Very few problems are solved overnight. These are generally complex situations that we must patiently "dissolve" over time. Therefore, another of the phases of problem solving is to monitor the results we are obtaining. This way we make sure that we are on the right track and that we are not wasting time and energy unnecessarily.
In this last stage of problem solving it is important to be able to adapt our expectations. It's hard for a professional project to take off in the blink of an eye, so we need to focus on the small steps that indicate the solution is paying off. To do this, it is important to pause and reflect from time to time on the impact of the solution.
We also need to keep in mind that circumstances change often, so it may be necessary to make changes to the initial solution. This requires great mental flexibility to change course when we realize that the strategy is not as effective as we would like.