Problems are often opportunities in disguise for learning and improvement. Good problem solving skills empower our personal or professional lives and they seldom come naturally. And effective problem solvers consciously learn and nurture their skills to apply across a range of areas. Whether it is to improve your productivity, resolve a conflict, or an issue, there is one important factor which is very essential and that is having a problem solving mindset. It is as important as growth mindset is to navigate through leadership challenges.
There is no use talking about the problem unless you talk about the solution. — Betty WilliamsTweet
Problem solving vs avoidance
Often when confronted with a problem, we are likely to adopt either of the these two approaches. One is to stop-it approach that seeks to come up with solutions to solve the actual cause of a problem, so that the problem no longer exists. We try to prevent, eliminate or reduce a particular problem occurrence. Conversely, when we try to avoid or ignore an existing problem, we take a mop-it approach that focuses on the effects of a problem. This involves coming up with treat it solutions to treat the damage caused by the problem, . But treat-it solutions are not going to be as effective as stop it solutions.
Other mop-it approaches are tolerate it, where the effects are taken for granted and measures are taken to put up with the effects of the problem. or adopt is redirect-it approach where the problem is deflected. These are more of an avoidance approaches where we tend to take measures to endure the effects instead of trying to solve. Avoidance only makes the problems worse and lead to other problems. They increase stress and reduce productive efficiency of an individual or a team or a workplace.
Obstacles in problem-solving
Problem solving mindset is the fundamental foundation for effective problem solving. Some of us lack this foundation during problem solving because of the following factors:
- Bounded rationality. Many times, we come up with solutions based on the simplified models that involve essential features from problems and avoid complexity. When we operate from bounded rationality, we become limited in our problem-solving approaches. As a result, we fail to make best choices and fall back on easy or existing solutions.
- Satisficing: Our tendency to choose or adopt the first satisfactory option that we come across do not lead to most optimal solutions. Most often, we look for solutions that had worked for us before. There may be better solutions, but we simply ignore searching for a best solution. Sometimes, we do this when the alternative solutions may not prove worthy enough because of the costs or other resources involved.
- Groupthink: This is a phenomenon in which the norm for majority of opinion overrides the realistic approach towards solving a problem. When groupthink presses for conformity, one tends to ignore creative solutions as unpopular views. This might lead to ignoring risks and in being overly optimistic. Discrediting views that are in contrary to groupthink or believing that their decisions are morally correct, negative stereotyping those outside the group, and perceiving everyone agrees with the group’s decision leads to ineffective or poor problem solving.
- Confirmation bias. The tendency to search for only information that supports your preconceived notions often obstructs problem-solving. Our initial perceptions and ideas about a problem often direct our search for a solution that is biased towards our initial perceptions. This makes us avoid considering different perspectives, and looking for evidence to disprove our initial ideas.
- Insufficiency of information. When a problem arises, we consider upon the first explanation that comes to mind and stop thinking about the problem. When insufficient thought is applied to the problem, we fail to analyse a problem beyond the immediate response. Not spending time thinking about alternative ideas or inability to frame the problem properly often lead to considering the first idea as the solution.
- Fixation: when we are unable to see a problem from a different or fresh perspective, we again fixate on initial perceptions and structure of the problem that determine how we go about solving it. This is the tendency to see from a fixed mindset or point of view.
- Biases of personal beliefs. A misunderstanding of information, overconfidence, inability to study a problem objectively with all available accurate information and not using objective reasoning to reach a reasonable solution are other obstacles in effective problem solving.
How to develop a problem solving mindset
Often, the word problem solving has negative impact on our minds as we start to focus more on the problem and suppress the mind to come up with a solution. However, once you acknowledge it as a part and parcel of life and work, this will help you focus more on the solutions. When your mind is prepared, you will do better at solving it. This is why developing a problem solving mindset helps you adopt a solution-focused approach to come up with possible solutions. Here are some skills to practice to become an effective problem solver.
- Responsibility is both a skill and an attitude for good problem solving. You can approach problems with an attitude of responsibility or with an attitude of avoidance or excuse. When you choose to ignore a problem, or avoid, it doesn’t go away. Instead, it builds up again eventually where you are forced to deal with it again. Responsibility on the other hand, empowers you to approach a problem with a solution-based way of thinking. Acknowledging how your choices and decisions have led to a particular problem and asking, How did I contribute to the problem? leads you to focus on solutions.
- Emotional intelligence. When problems arise, it is easy to lose control over your emotions. You may be prone to negative emotions like anger, distraught and confusion. It is important that you feel and experience your emotions, but it is also important not to base your decisions on emotions. The ability to recognise and understand your emotions, and how they impact your solution-making process is an important part of developing a problem solving mindset. Ask yourself, What are my strengths and weaknesses? How do I react to problem situations? Do I rush to conclusions before I know all the facts? Do I learn from my mistakes? Self- evaluation improves self-awareness which is a building block of emotional intelligence.
- Active listening. Being a good listener is one of the important skill for practising problem-solving mindset. When listening to someone talk about a problem, we tend to immediately suggest a solution using our own perspective. Most of the times, we respond to our own needs or perspectives rather than listening to other people’s ideas or perspectives. When you genuinely listen to people, and take an interest in what they say, this helps build a rapport with the person you are speaking to. Do not listen with an intent to have your opinions validated, instead listen to seek different perspectives. Effective listening requires you to suspend your judgment, withhold criticism, and listen with an open mind instead of settling down with what you think you know or understand.
- Problem solving mindset. When you view problem as burdensome, you tend to avoid. No one wants to deal with uncertain circumstances or those that are frustrating, overwhelming or difficult. However, changing your mindset to view problems as opportunities or a way to grow, you will be less stressed about a situation. The more you accept that problems are inevitable, the more willing your approach will be to deal with them. Having worst case scenarios and negative consequence of not solving certain problems can help you think objectively.
Obtaining problem solving mindset means having certain behaviours that are necessary for problem solving. For instance, willingness to take risks, and considering failures are not a bad thing is an important characteristic when it comes to solving problems. Some other include:
- Being flexible. Being flexible to consider more than one perspective and having the ability to adapt to the unexpected challenges is an essential quality when it comes to probing for different possibilities. Look at a problem from a different angles after defining to gain a better, more accurate perspective. Develop a wide range of ideas while considering your available resources. Are the solutions feasible? How did the solution measure against your goal? Come up with multiple ideas and organise your information.
- Open-mindedness. Being open-minded keeps your inquisitiveness intact to search for answers anywhere so as to consider all options. The ability to be open to different possibilities, unconventional ideas and creative solutions helps you develop problem solving mindset. The ability to be able to think outside of the box helps you to innovate ideas and to apply non-conforming methods. Be proactive in your solution- seeking. Ask right questions concerning the problem, such as what, when, where, how, who and so on so as to come up with most accurate solutions.
- To tolerate ambiguity. People who are uncomfortable with the uncertainty or not having a solution ready at hand may end up satisficing, which is the tendency to take the first adequate solution that comes to mind rather than considering wide range of options. Whereas tolerating ambiguity allows you to deal with the not so perfectly defined problems that have low potential, imperfections, and probabilities that may or may not work. It also allows you to tolerate the range of options that should be considered. This is especially useful when working on problems in groups while brainstorming a large number of ideas, no matter how surreal they may be.
- Being curious. Having an active observation of all the facts and asking yourself, What biases are narrowing my range of solutions? What are my assumptions? Why is this solution the best and not the other one? leads you to be more curious at coming up with new potential solutions. To encourage curiosity in team — or in group think, reframe your initial hypothesis into a question. This tends to come up with right root cause and multiple solutions. For and against reasoning by dividing a group into opposing teams also results in overcoming traditional or a conventional pattern to a more creative and evidence based approach.
- Develop a broader perspective. Analyse the problem through multiple perspectives rather than fixating on one or two ways that have gone wrong. Look beyond the common or typical solutions to experiment or to gather unique insights to figure out optimal solutions. Complex problems often require you to see beyond familiar patterns and perceptions. Come up with all possible solutions , weigh pros, cons and opportunities to make more informed decisions. Design thinking and perspective thinking are another powerful propel solving tools to get a broader view of a problem.
- Ask the right questions. Right questions naturally focus our mind on thinking strategies that help expand the possibilities to find solutions to the problems. They lead you to existing gaps and what is required to know and how to fix them. Phrasing questions constructively can help shift perspective and how you view the problem. ‘What is not perfect yet?’ ‘What am I willing to do in order to solve the problem,’ ‘What is the best solution I haven’t considered yet?’ ‘What is the opportunity in this problem situation which I am missing?’ Solution -seeking questions constantly change your focus from exacerbating the problem to seek solutions.
- Positive reframing. This involves thinking about a negative or challenging situation in a more positive way. This could involve seeing an upside to a negative situation that you had not considered. Positively reframing also includes weighing the evidence for your interpretation of a situation. For instance, examining the assumptions you are making about how other people are thinking, feeling, or likely to behave. You might evaluate how likely a negative outcome occurs, think about your past experiences as to how many times it had turned out to be true, or whether you could handle if it did turn out to be negative.
- Try to know the details of a problem. A definition is a good starting point. Questions like what caused the problem? What are the dimensions, and what happens if it remains unsolved helps you to dig deep. Thinking in the form of ‘why’s’ let’s you see the solutions that are either readily available or in terms of new possibilities. Instead of looking for methods or patterns that have worked for you in the past, be determined to figure things out by asking, ‘why things are the way they are” “what conditions or reasons in play?”can guide you to new alternatives.
Questions for self reflection
So, How do you practice problem solving mindset in your everyday life?
When you work on problems, how often do you check:
How the problem is framed?
Whether or not you have all the information you need to fully understand? And is it the right problem you are working on?
How curious do you get to know different view points in context to the problem you are solving?
What is your emotional quotient in problem situations?
What methods do you apply in overcoming your own biases and prejudices in problem solving?
Even when you plan well and prepare, problems always come up in our personal or professional life situations. In such circumstances, your problem-solving mindset will enable you to adopt a particularly open and curious mindset, and adhere to a systematic approach to search for solutions, even for the most complex Problems. It helps you to solve problems under any circumstances, achieve your goals, and to resolve quality issues or conflicts. Try and practice problem solving mindset in your everyday life to Identify problem situations, come up with possible solutions, and taking appropriate course of action to resolve.
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