Problem Solving Strategies – How To Be An Effective Problem Solver

One thing we know for sure is that problems are always coming. The world is always changing, and uncertainty is never going to go away. But is this something we should worry about?

Of course, you can ignore that. But it will only make the problem bigger over time. You can’t hope for a life without problems. All you’ll do is delay them.

Bruce Lee used to say:

“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”.

What does it mean?

Problems are only problems if you don’t know how to solve them. You can always get new knowledge and tools to solve them. Not only are you solving your own problem, but also preventing others from happening.

Let’s face it: society wouldn’t exist without problem solving. Otherwise we wouldn’t make progress or understand each other (and we still don’t until today).

Success is integral for progress, which leads to happiness.

The same applies to businesses. These wouldn’t exist without problems to solve. And because these are unlimited, there’s always an opportunity for you.

Today, you’re going to learn what the best thinkers do to solve problems.

The First Step To Problem Solving

First Step To Problem Solving

If you skip to the strategies in this article, chances are you still won’t solve your problem. Does it mean they don’t work?

Believe it or not, we’re 90% of the time because we don’t know what the problem is. We don’t realize we have one, and therefore fail to adapt to the situation.

So what do you expect to happen as soon as you solve this problem?

Keep in mind that solving problems takes a lot of time and energy. So instead, ask yourself:

“Is there any problem if I don’t solve the problem?”

The following are five questions you should ask yourself to know when a problem is worth solving:

#1 What do I want?

The purpose of problem solving is to get you closer to a goal. But if you don’t have one, then there’s no reason to solve it in the first place. You’re already where you need to be.

Nothing you do will move you in the right direction unless you define it. What do you want?

Also, make sure you define WHY you want it. Knowing this is essential to avoid blocks.

Let’s say you want to reach your goal for a specific purpose. But later on, you find that it’s impossible to achieve your goal.

Well, if only you find another goal that meets the same purpose, then you can take this other road.

It’s called divergent thinking. It states that the solution exists and that there are unlimited paths to get there.

#2 Where am I?

It’s not enough to know what to do. Not any solution matters because we have our own EXPECTATIONS about how hard or how long it should take. Maybe you find the perfect solution, but you discard it because of your expectations.

When you can’t find any solutions you like, it typically means you set the wrong expectations for the goal. Your next step to fix this is understanding how far you are from the goal.

That doesn’t mean you can’t meet your expectations. But you may need to change your goals or sacrifice things in order to meet them.

#3 How did I get here? Why haven’t I solved it yet?

If you have made any progress, you can use it as feedback to take your next step. What do you think led you here?

Knowing what it took and how long, you now have a better idea of what it takes to reach your goal.

This is smart because it allows you to foresee problems and work on solutions before they appear.

You want to make sure you’re doing everything you know to move in that direction. Then ask yourself: Why am I not there yet? If the only reason is time/patience, is there any way I can speed it up?

For example:

  • You can pay to solve a problem so you don’t have to
  • You can work harder AND smarter
  • You can learn from others who already made it and their mistakes

#4 Has anybody solved this problem before?

This is, ironically, the best and worst way to solve your problem. Many amazing people have dedicated their lives to teaching others. And just by Googling things, you can access all the world’s information instantly.

It makes us very efficient at solving problems because others have had them before. The problem is, most of our problems are dependent on your situation. So unless they consider your scenario, the solution won’t work for you.

It’s not as simple as looking up the answers for a Math exam. Knowledge isn’t enough. You need problem solving skills.

And every time you let someone solve problems for you, you’re losing your thinking ability. The way the greatest minds invented the modern world was by developing these skills.

If someone has solved it already, great. But give yourself the chance to solve it before you learn the solution.

#5 How important is this problem?

We should approach all problems the same way. Some matter more than others. For example, your problems might be:

  • Spending too much time on irrelevant decisions
  • Not thinking enough about big problems
  • Ignoring or avoiding disagreements

In short, you need to prioritize so that the most relevant problems get the most of your attention. Here’s a simple logic you can follow:

  • Not relevant, not urgent = ignore or skip
  • Not relevant, urgent = get it done quickly
  • Relevant, not urgent = take your time to think
  • Relevant, urgent = give it all your attention

Now, how relevant a problem is will depend on its consequences. But can you allow yourself to try different solutions? If you can undo mistakes, then you can fail as many times as necessary until you solve it.

If it’s reversible, you can try trial-and-error or guessing. And if it’s wrong, try something else.

If it’s irreversible, you need to think carefully about what to do. That’s when you use all the strategies we’re going to show you.

Top 10 Problem Solving Strategies

Top Problem Solving Strategies

Visualization

“What do I know?”

When you feel confused about a problem, it’s hard to know what you do know and what you don’t? Because of that, your brain doesn’t know what information to take as true, so it bases it on assumptions. 90% of the time, that leads you to faulty reasoning or making mistakes.

Keep in mind that all this information is consuming your mental processing power. So the first is to get everything out of your head and write it down your thoughts on a paper. It allows you to think faster.

  • Make a list of what you know with no order in particular
  • If you feel lost, write down why you don’t know where to start
  • Ask other people what they think about this problem. Share your ideas with them
  • Try to imagine what you’re trying to define. If it’s too abstract, invent a metaphor

Once you have a mental image, the solution to the problems becomes more evident.

Brainstorming

“What is everything I know?”

When you don’t know where to look, you simply write down everything you know that could relate to that problem.

You then go through each item of the list and check: “does this have any relationship with the problem?” If so, that’s where the solution must be.

What if you don’t have any ideas? You do your research first. You read some books, ask the right people, and read from sources on the Internet.

When you work with teams, brainstorming is even more effective. So the more people join the research, the better.

You eventually stumble with something that makes sense.

Inverted Philosophy

“Is the opposite a good idea?”

When the problem is too complex or too abstract, it’s hard to imagine what the solution should look like. Also, how do you know your method will solve the problem?

Go back to your goal. Why can’t you achieve it? Because there’s a problem at some step. Well, the opposite of that problem is the solution.

And as it turns out, it’s a lot easier to find out what’s wrong rather than what’s right. So take the problem and write down all the things you shouldn’t do.

If you now invert these steps, you got a solution. Because we know what’s wrong, the contrary of that must be good. It won’t solve the whole problem, but it’s a great place to start.

Reverse Engineering

“What’s the end we want to achieve?”

Reverse engineering allows you to learn the exact steps to go from point A to point B. You start with the vision of what the achieved goal would look like. You start from that reality and go back one step after another until you end up where you currently are.

Because you know what you want, it’s easier to start from the end and backtrack to the present moment.

Although you may not know it for this name, people use it all the time.

  • Marketers reverse engineer to know what part of their sales funnels needs more attention
  • In Westpoint, military generals plan their operations as if they were finished
  • The Tibetan sherpas use the same tactic to find the best path to climb a mountain. They first look at the top and find the way to go down, then use it to go up safely

You can do the same when solving problems. You simply define what the solution should look like. And you reverse-engineer to see how you would start from zero.

And as you apply it, you also know how many steps are left.

First Principles

“What are the simplest truths we know?”

With complex problems, things can quickly become confusing. But you can always break it down into simpler terms. And if you keep breaking things down, you will find the fundamental truths nobody can argue about.

Here’s an example of how Jeff Bezos applies this method:

“In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.

It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, “Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher.” “I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.” Impossible.

When you have something that you know is true over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

When basing on first principles, you can see what’s essential and ignore everything else. Which makes the problem much more approachable.

In math and science, for example, everything you learn later derives from first principles. And if you didn’t get something right at the beginning, you will stay confused until you go back to the basics.

Constant Environments

“How does this change affect the outcome?”

When solving problems, we want to be as minimalist as possible. In this world, anything you do has consequences. And there’s no point in solving one problem when the solution creates a new one.

There’s some truth in the following approach:

“If I want to solve this problem, I need to recruit all the help I can. So If I try a dozen strategies at the same time, I can guarantee the problem will be solved.”

If that happens, you’ll have solved one problem and created eleven, which defeats its purpose. If you apply the same philosophy again, you get another dozen problems for each of the eleven.

As you can see, complexity becomes quickly overwhelming.

And even if that doesn’t happen, you still don’t know the solution. Which one of the twelve solved the problem? If you don’t know, you have little to no control to prevent it.

With constant environments, you simplify things with an ideal situation.

A * B * C = D

You’re going to assume all the variables are constant except one. So you only test one at a time and see what it does. If it changes nothing, then you can remove it and simplify.

If more than a variable changes the equation, then you have multiple dependencies. You now learn how they affect each other.

You then apply this knowledge in the real scenario, and everything makes sense.

Macro-Thinking

“How long does it take for the result to reflect my changes?”

Here’s a common mistake people make with constant environments. They don’t test the variables enough, so the data they gather isn’t reliable.

You first need to understand how long the whole process takes.

For example, in a math problem, you can instantly know if you’re right or wrong. You know the equation is wrong because each side has a different value. Or because you checked it in the textbook.

In real life, nobody tells you if it’s right or not. You have to compare with the results you get. And sometimes, you need to wait months before seeing the effect. For example, the problems you’re facing right now derive from all the decisions you made in the last few years.

You have to consider theocm time when comparing solutions. What works today may not work tomorrow.

Sometimes, the only way to achieve your goals is by using a long term strategy.

Imagine a certain method requires you to take two steps back but it helps you take ten steps forward later. If you only care about the Now, you will wrongly believe the strategy doesn’t work.

Observation is the key.

Mental Models

“Does this problem resemble other problems we’ve already solved?”

Problem-solving doesn’t have to be complicated. As you solve more of them, you use your acquired knowledge to solve similar problems faster. And that allows you to understand the harder ones too.

Like First Principles, mental models are truth-based tools we use to make thinking easier. And because they’re so basic, you can use them for anything. Here are some examples:

  • Less is more (AKA 80/20 rule)
  • Think long-term
  • Focus on what you know and don’t diversify
  • What’s simple is likely correct
  • Past outcomes don’t determine future results
  • Old is better than new. You shouldn’t change a system that’s working unless you seek different results

As you solve more problems in the present, future problems become easier to solve in the future. There are only so many complications that can arise, most of which are slight variations. Create a category for each problem type. You create a template to solve that group.

Whenever a problem fits with the description, you just follow the checklist. You don’t need to think much.

Order Of Consequence

“What caused this problem?”

Isn’t it frustrating to work hard on solutions, only to find out the problem appears again? Sure, you can keep working on a problem until it goes away. But unless you find a permanent solution, it’s going to come up again.

Keep in mind that you need time and energy to keep progressing. Let’s say you have a quick fix for a problem. But it always comes back the next day, so you need to spend a daily 15 minutes to solve it.

You keep progressing and find another problem. You do the same: quick fixes.

After a few dozen problems, most of your time is wasted on these tasks. You’re not solving your problems but delaying them instead. It eventually becomes unmanageable.

Solve the causes, not the consequences.

And when you make a decision, don’t just look at the most direct consequence. Each consequence creates another one, and so on.

For example, the consequence of buying a TV is spending money. The 2nd-order consequence is wasting time (because if you don’t watch it, you’re not getting value from your purchase). The 3rd-order consequence is lowered motivation and productivity (because you’re watching TV instead of working). And the 4th order? You make less money.

One thing leads to the other. This method teaches you to weigh your decisions wisely.

Double-Loop Learning

“Why didn’t my solution work, and what should I do about it?”

Do you feel bored solving the same problems? If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting the same results.

You have a solution, apply it, and get a result from it. Double-loop learning is about reflecting on that process:

Action → Results → Reflection → New Action

If you solved the problem, excellent. But if you didn’t, ask yourself: “What did I do wrong?”

You take those results as feedback and create another strategy. So you try another input and get different results. And every time you adapt, you get new information you can use to improve.

You get closer to the solution.

Avoid These Problem Solving Mistakes

Avoid These Problem Solving Mistakes

As we said at the beginning, problem solving isn’t as simple as reading these ten strategies. It’s a skill, and you’ll get better as you practice.

Here are five common mistakes beginners make. After you find a solution to your problem, check for these mistakes to validate it.

#1 Heuristic Bias

What you do today may solve the problem. But the world is always changing, which means the solution could be different tomorrow.

That means you constantly need to keep reflecting on the results you get (double-loop learning). Context changes everything.

If you change the goal, then the problem may no longer exist.

For another example, picture a man jumping. Now, picture a man jumping to take a bullet for the president.

Context.

#2 Correlation VS Causality

Cause-Effect chains are more complex than we can imagine. Just because one thing happened after another, that doesn’t mean one caused the other.

To prove this, let’s go back to the TV example we used for Consequence Orders. For instance, a person is more likely to buy the television if there’s a discount. But if you look at the 4th order consequence, this person will probably spend less time at work and potentially get fired.

One could say: “Oh, every time a store discounts TVs, unemployment rates increase.”

Both might be correlated. But that’s not what increases unemployment. The reason probably has nothing to do with televisions. Buying a TV is one of the many instances where this happens.

Here’s another shocking example. Firearms are forbidden in countries like Mexico, yet they have some of the most dangerous cities in the world. What do you think would happen if they legalized weapons?

Well, that’s what they did in Switzerland. The Government requires its citizens to own guns. Yet, they have the lowest crime rates in the world.

#3 Survivorship Bias

Let’s say you have a goal to achieve. But you’re stuck in a problem and don’t know how to fix it. So you read a few books and learn the following: “You have to learn from others who already are where you want to be.”

So you go ask the successful what to do about it. You implement the advice, and surprisingly, it doesn’t work. How did they succeed then?

Just because it worked for them, that doesn’t mean it has to work for you. Because they’re successful, it seems easy to get to their level. Or maybe there are THOUSANDS of people who followed the same steps and failed.

Here’s a quick story we can learn from:

facebook plane story

During WWII, the Navy tried to determine how to armor their planes to ensure they all came back home. They took the ones that returned and analyzed the damages.

Therefore, they decided to protect better the most damaged parts, as you can see in the picture.

But one statistician, Abraham Wald, disagreed. Because they were only analyzing the planes that came back home. So he proposed to armor the undamaged parts instead. That’s why those planes didn’t return.

If you like the concept, check The Little Black Book Of Entrepreneurship. The author uses the same point to explain why 90% of businesses fail and why you’ll learn more from them than the successful ones.

#4 A Probabilistic World

It’s become popular what Einstein once said:

“Insanity is doing the same things over and over, expecting different results.”

Well, he’s the same genius who maintained the contrary statement. If you keep doing the same thing, you certainly won’t get radically different results. But you neither get exactly the same.

The world has so many factors we don’t control. You can never guarantee an event. You can only assign a probability, which could be 99.9%, 50%, or 2%.

That means the perfect strategy will eventually fail. And the worst one possible will also succeed. Everything is possible, but that doesn’t make it likely.

You need to test for long enough to estimate the right probability. For example, a strategy can have a 70% chance of success. But that doesn’t mean it can’t fail ten times in a row.

If a bad strategy only works 20% of the time, people expect to win once for every five attempts. But you could as well win six times in a row. Or lose a hundred.

Never assume you’re right.

#5 Sunk Cost Fallacy

Living in a probabilistic world also means problems can change over time. And problem solving takes lots of energy, time, and determination, which can affect our expectations.

When you put so much effort into a solution, you almost feel entitled to solve the problem. When that happens, you start caring more about being right than trying to solve the problem. And this is a hard pill to swallow.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve invested. The moment you find your strategy doesn’t work, you have to accept it, give up on it, and choose another path. There’s no point in doing something that’s not working. The effort you’ve put into it doesn’t justify it.

For example, borrowers who owe a lot of money feel like they’re already in a losing position. So they don’t mind getting into more debt because that doesn’t seem to change anything. But instead, they should be taking the contrary approach.

3 Real-Life Examples Of Problem Solving Strategies In Action

Problem Solving Strategies In Action

We’ve covered a lot, and it may look like there’s more theory than practical knowledge. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Anybody can benefit from them, which will improve any area of their lives.

A. How to solve analytical problems

In technical careers, students have to work with lots of numbers and variables. Problems aren’t that complicated, but it’s confusing to know what each element means.

Here are three strategies broadly-used by students, engineers, and scientists (aside from the well-known Scientific Method):

a. Simplify: You can’t solve the problem until you understand what’s in front of you. So you go back to first principles, basic questions, and mental models. You should be able to explain where each variable comes from. Only then, you try problem-solving methods.

b. Guessing/Testing: You brainstorm, writing down every formula that could relate to this problem. You try to apply each of them to the context. Even if none of them work, you end up with a better understanding of the problem.

c. What-If Analysis: You no longer need to keep complex databases in your memory. You can use computers to register this information and run different scenarios. The AI will show you how the variables change for every possibility. You combine that information with your skills (pattern recognition and creativity) to find the best answer.

B. How to start a business

It’s no surprise most businesses fail, because people have a superficial idea of what a company is like. They think of all the marketing tactics when all that really matters is solving a problem for your customer. And you don’t need a genius idea. You simply find something that works and make it better, then show it to others.

  1. Choose a niche and interact with the community
  2. Find out what people are complaining about. If the problem is big, common, and hard to solve, that’s your business opportunity
  3. Find the few people who had that problem and solved it. Learn how they did it
  4. Based on your research, identify what all the successful have in common and create a step-by-step process to solve the problem
  5. You now share this with other people and sell it as the solution

C. How to solve ethical problems

Analytical problems are just numbers, and business problems are about profits/practicality. But it’s much trickier to solve ethical issues, which are the problems you encounter in politics and communities. It’s not enough to find the solution. How do you make sure everybody is happy? Three things need to happen:

  • Justice: Everybody should benefit and get fair opportunities
  • Right tolerance: Your solution shouldn’t limit someone else’s freedom of choice. Find out what those non-negotiables are
  • Utility: The solution should consider all the possible loopholes and future consequences, so you don’t have to go back and re-negotiate every single time.

Your first step is to get things straight with everybody. Commit to the truth and what’s best for the common interest. Do not avoid confrontation. Instead, make clear it’s okay to make others feel bad with uncomfortable truths. You want to engage in thoughtful disagreement to find a solution (regardless of who’s right or wrong).

  1. Get to the truth. When people’s values conflict with each other, there are incentives to take whatever version benefits you the most. Do NOT let anyone’s interest distort reality.
  2. Identify the conflict. You don’t learn anything from those who already agree with you. Instead, find the naysayers. What values are going against each other?
  3. Evaluate your options.

    a. Can both parties get what they want at the same time? If so, great! That means there’s synergy, or at least, one party doesn’t affect the other. It’s a win-win scenario.

    b. If not, can you get to a middle term? One party’s win may cause the other to lose, but everybody deserves a fair deal. So there is either no negotiation or both can sacrifice some non-essentials.

    c. Can you alternate both of them? As we said, the right answer right now may not always be the solution. Both parties can alternate their interests while keeping things fair.

The Bottom Line

Problem-solving skills are essential:

  • You achieve lasting success in life
  • You become more efficient at solving future problems
  • Save time on confusing reflection

Remember: one problem leads to another. And what got you this far may not work for the solution. It’s not about solving one problem, but never stop learning.

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