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Problem Solving Skill

Finding the Right Problems to Solve

Problem solving skills are normally seen as reactive tools. That’s to say, they’re applied to existing problems, once these have been identified.

However, problem solving can also be done pro-actively. The application of key questions to existing situations, even in the absence of obvious problems, can still yield benefits.

Asking why and why not, is perhaps one key to innovation and improvement.

Consider this little known but momentous exchange:

Having snapped the last photograph, Edwin reminded his daughter that she’d have to wait until the the roll of film was developed. The usual processing time was one week and for almost everybody this seemed acceptable. Everybody, that is, except the child.

Problem solving skill

“Why,” she asked, “do I have to wait a week to see my pictures?” After all, a week can be a long time for a young child. Edwin could have responded like countless parents faced with this most ubiquitous of childhood questions.

“Because that’s just the way it is.” Instead, Edwin Land chose to say “why not?” His daughter’s simple question sparked a challenge that had never occurred to him. “How might I make a camera that creates instantaneous pictures?”

Within about an hour, he had formulated several solutions. Within approximately four years, Edwin Land had commercialized a product. The Polaroid Land camera was the world’s first camera capable of taking photographs which developed within minutes.

“Problem Solving Skill: Finding the Right Problems to Solve”

This is part of our series of management tips based on a comprehensive Seven Step Problem Solving Process. We argue that finding the right problems, and defining problems as opportunities, are two crucial steps missing from many problem solving processes. How do you see problems as opportunities? That is the subject of our articleThe Power of Positive Thinking: 5 questions to transform problem solving. The first step though is to find the right problems to solve!

So finding the right problems to solve is an invaluable problem solving skill and comes first in our seven step problem solving process. This can be done by firstly asking questions about the current situation. Follow this with questions about the likely future. The result: pro-active problem solving, which may just open the door to creativity and innovation.

Frustration and unrest with the current situation is often a good place to start. Use the first table below to evaluate current issues and to brainstorm any possibilities which could arise from those. The second table contains questions which might help you to identify future possibilities. Remember, the key to this problem solving skill is to ask: why not? Just as this same question is routinely asked by innovative experts such as Toyota:

  • Why not?
  • Two words that are filled with possibilities.
  • They can turn a challenge into an opportunity.
  • An obstacle into an inspiration.
  • It’s a question we ask ourselves at Toyota every day.
  • Because we’re continuously looking for new ways to improve what we do.
  • By asking tough questions.
  • Can we make a car that has zero emissions?
  • Can we improve the economy of a community?
  • Can we enrich the lives of people around us?
  • Why not?

Possibility Questions: Dealing with the Present

Possibility Questions: Looking to the Future

This questionnaire is adapted from Min Basadur’s “The Power of Innovation”.

You will also find the Edwin Land story in this book, which is full of advice, tips, techniques and a clear process for making innovation work.

Basadur recommends a three stage process:

  • Problem Finding Activity
  • Problem Solving Activity
  • Problem Implementation Activity

Tips for Implementation

You could either work through the possibility questions on your own, or discuss them with your colleagues. If you decide to use this activity with your team, here is a possible process:
Aim: to identify problems worth solving.

Hand-out the “current questions table” and ask colleagues (in groups) to talk through the questions.
Capture ideas from the groups, allowing each to feedback the results of their discussions
Repeat the process for the “future questions table”.

Summarise your findings by asking which problems offer the greatest opportunities, and are worth solving.
List the potential focus areas, recording any insights, ideas or initial solutions.
Conclude with a round-up of the ideas and possibilities. Decide on follow-up actions or meetings, so that everybody leaves knowing what will happen next. Arrange a follow up meeting, a creative session for idea generation. Or maybe ask for volunteers to further investigate ideas you’ve already captured and produce a feasibility report.

Remember, it’s not enough to just ask “why not”. This only becomes a problem solving skill when the next step is action!

Click on the link for a free problem solving skill downloadable pdf. Use it with your team or as a structured process for your own thinking.

You can see our complete set of management tips for problem solving in our article: Seven Step Problem Solving Process . You may also find the structured questions in our Problem Solving Activity will compliment this tool for finding the right problems to solve.

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