5 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS
5 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS
Mohit Talwar Chief Technology Officer – Digital and Innovation
In my career, I have been very privileged to be in a role in which there is always an abundance of complex situations and problems to be solved, but also positive people looking to solve these problems together. Many would see this as a curse, but in fact, plenty of research suggests that problems are actually food for the human brain.
Ironically, although problem solving gives an ultimate sense of satisfaction and achievement, many people try to escape or actively avoid a problematic situation. Most of my top idols have been people who have worked on and solved bigger problems, some of still love solving problems for meaningful and positive reasons. My list is endless, but includes; Albert Einstein, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mother Teresa and many, many more.
There are hundreds of books and articles available already on problem solving techniques, methods, etc.; however I will not be sharing any specific step-by-step methods in this blog. Instead, I will share with you my personal approach which has enhanced my problem solving skills. This will hopefully help you to make improvements and look at problem solving from a different perspective.
For my friends in the IT and technology space, I wanted to clear the myth that problem solving is not only about solving problems which are related specifically to technical and IT systems. It could be anything, for example:
- A complex situation at work in which you have a hundred things to complete in a month’s time
- The issue of employee retention in your company
- Delivering a big project in a very short space of time and on a limited budget
No doubt there are a number of such situations, behaviours and scenarios relevant to you and your world which you would classify as problems that exist and are unsolved. You can solve complex pain areas for your business by building intelligent and innovative products to bring in efficiency. Below are a few of the many tips, experiences and observations which have helped me to improve my approach to problem solving:
1. Understand the right problem
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein
I know it sounds very simple and philosophical but believe me; many problems remain unsolved because there has not been a focused effort to really understand the problem itself. I still remember solving maths problems when I was young and every time I couldn’t solve a problem I would ask my Dad for help. He would never provide me a solution straight away, but instead ask me to go and read the question again at least three times. I used to feel frustrated, but invariably, half of the time, reading the question properly would lead me to the conclusion that I had actually been trying to solve the wrong problem. The minute you identify the correct intent of the problem, the right solution will follow. So ask yourself the fundamental questions about the problem and spend some time understanding the real problem with your team in order to solve it.
2. Get out of the “I know everything” mentality
Try and understand the fundamentals of the process pertaining to the problem area. Confirm how it works or exists in its very basic and current form. Get out of the mind-set that you know everything, because if you did, you would know the problem area, cause and its solution as well. Understand the nuances of the techniques which exist in the process. Ask all the basic questions to really understand the problem and note significant points of the process which would then bring immense clarity to the part of the problem you are attempting to solve.
3. Visualise the problem
Try and document a picture of the process depending on the problem. This may or may not be relevant, but we all know pictorial representations often help. Draw a simple diagram without worrying about technical conventions, specific constraints etc. A simple picture diagram can help visualise the most complex of problems in any area. Use any simple tool like PowerPoint, white boards, sheets, and papers and never shy away from starting to draw these on the fly if understanding a problem is becoming a challenge.
I was recently having a session with my German colleagues to understand the problem of hosting a load of new applications in the cloud, which had to integrate with on premise apps. The group and the team are very knowledgeable, and are experts in their field. However the real problem became clearer when I started drawing a picture of the existing situation. By drawing a picture to highlight the problem area and then subsequently suggesting how to tackle it, brought about clarity of thinking. I have experienced numerous situations in which drawing pictures and visuals in real-time has helped the definition of problem and thereby led to the solution quite easily and more quickly.
“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” -Steve Jobs
4. Focus on the root cause, not the symptoms
It’s very easy to get caught up in the symptoms of the problem and most problems are incorrectly attempted by suppressing these symptoms. Abstain from thinking like “The bucket gets filled with water and starts to overflow, so let me get a bigger bucket”, “High CPU usage brings the system down, let’s put more CPUs”, etc. I am not saying you should not suppress the symptoms to give you some respite until the root cause is identified, but abstain from a “fixing the symptom” mind-set. This mentality will keep you away from solving the real problem. Once you know the root cause, not only can the problem be solved, it can be prevented in future too.
5. Be simple but creative in your solution
Building a simple solution does not mean trivialising the problem which you are looking to solve. The majority of the time, complex solutions are devised for a problem if the above points i.e. understanding the right problem, understanding the fundamentals of the problem, articulating the problem and focusing on the root cause, are not considered.
Give your brain a break, try to baseline your thoughts and stop when you have understood the problem and fundamentals behind it. It is always best to de-clutter your brain and then subsequently attack and approach the problem efficiently. Take a break, then recap and work on a simple solution to the right problem you are looking to solve.
Be creative in your problem solving. This has got nothing to do with how much creative ability you have, it’s basically about thinking of solutions from a different perspective rather than a perspective with which the problem you are looking to solve was built or on how the problem came into existence. This is quite an important message and is highlighted in one of my favourite quotes from Einstein.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”– Albert Einstein