Understand the problem

une-logo-500pxJohn Malouff, Ph.D., J.D., earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1979 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Arizona State University in 1984. He currently works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia. He has co-authored five books and several dozen articles in scientific journals. He writes a blog on Using Psychology in day-to-day life.

Link to original documentProblem Solving Strategies

Clarify the problem.
It is easier to solve a specific problem than a vague one. So clarify the problem before you start looking for a solution. If your problem is that your spouse tells you that you are not supportive enough, find out what he or she means by supportive. If your problem is that your mother can’t get the new VCR to work, determine what doesn’t happen that she wants to happen. If your problem is a math homework question, read carefully the question (usually at the end):Is the answer supposed to be in metres or centimetres, rounded or not, square or not, etc.

Identify key elements of the problem.
Problems come to us with varying amounts of important and useless information. Focusing on useless information distracts us and wastes time. So identify the key elements of the problem before you start looking for a solution. If the problem is that of a couple who come to you for counselling because they argue continually, ask them what they argue about, when, and where. If the problem is that your bike squeaks when you ride it, determine what part squeaks.

Visualize the problem or relevant process or situation.
Sometimes we can see the problem and all its important details right in front of us. This helps us understand the problem. Other times we can’t see important elements because they have already occurred or are not visible. In these cases, it is valuable to visualize important elements of the problem. So, if you want to predict the future of the universe, visualize the big bang and the ensuing events. If you want to open a lock without a key, visualize the lock mechanism. If you want to determine how a murder was committed, visualize events that would explain the physical evidence.

Draw a picture or diagram of the problem or a relevant process or situation.
Visualizing a problem can aid understanding. However, we can keep only some much visual information in our minds at once. Hence, it is often useful to draw a picture or diagram. So, if you want to calculate when two airplanes will collide, draw their paths and speeds. If you plan to assault a house where a terrorist holds hostages, draw a picture of the room, doors, windows, hostages, etc. If you want to speed up delivery of goods to retailers, draw a diagram showing the steps in the process.

Create a model of the problem or a relevant process.
Creating a model of a problem or relevant process helps us focus on essential elements and gives us the potential to alter the model and see what happens. For instance, if you want to minimize harm to individuals in auto accidents, create a computer model of the structures and forces involved. If you want to build a Mars rover, build a model. If you want to reduce international strife, create a model of causes.

Imagine being the problem, a key process, or the solution.
Imagination can help us understand a problem by visualizing it. More understanding can occur in some cases if we go farther and imagine being the problem, a key process, or the solution. So, if you want to understand space and time, you can imagine, as Einstein did, riding a light beam. If you want to help a person who is very paranoid, you can imagine being that person and seeing the world as he does. If you want to get a hit in a big baseball game, you can imagine going up to bat, seeing the ball clearly, and swinging crisply while you step into the pitch, etc.

Simulate or act out a key element of the problem.
Understanding complex or vague problems can be difficult. Simulating or acting out some key element of the problem can be productive. For instance, if you are calculating probabilities of some event happening, you can simulate the situation and observe outcomes yourself. If you want to help someone become more socially successful, you can act as that person does and observe the consequences. If you want to determine why a spacecraft exploded, simulate its flight, and try ways of recreating the explosion.

Consider a specific example.
Problems often come to us in the abstract. Creating a concrete example helps us explore the problem just as we might explore a specific example of dinosaur bones to understand dinosaurs. So, if you want to determine what makes a person psychotic, consider real people who have become psychotic. If you want to learn how to calculate the volume of a sphere, use a specific radius, such as one metre, and apply the formula. If you want to determine why frogs are dying right and left in your community, examine dead frogs.

Consider extreme cases.
Considering extreme cases is a type of considering a specific example. Here the example is chosen to test the limits of a relevant parameter. Sometimes this gives insight into important processes. So, if you want to determine whether level of intelligence affects retention on a police force, consider officers with the highest and lowest intelligence on the force. If you want to determine what happens to black holes in the long run, consider black holes that continue for infinitely long or black holes that suck up everything in the universe. If you want to determine how temperature affects the flow of electricity, consider a temperature of absolute 0.

Acquire knowledge about relevant domains.
If you want to understand and solve an electrical problem, it may be necessary to learn about electrical systems. If you want to solve the problem of how to keep humans free from solar-wind harm on the way to and from Mars, you may need knowledge of various domains of science, engineering, and medicine. Great knowledge of relevant domains sometimes helps experts solve problems that others cannot.

Change perspective.
If you want to reduce crime in a community, look at crime from the perspective of criminals and victims. If you want to convince a hostage taker to surrender, take that person’s perspective. If you want to avoid being bitten by a vicious dog, take the dog’s perspective.

Consider levels and systems.
If you want to prevent skin cancer, consider events that trigger the cancer at the level of the external environment, the intercellular level, and the intracellular level. If you want to reduce school violence, consider systems such as communities, families, and individuals. If you want to predict the weather, consider local conditions and approaching fronts.