We might spend weeks or even months obsessing over how to write that term paper, get out of debt, or win back the love of our life. But instead of obsessing, let’s look at some effective problem solving techniques that people in the know rely on.
Ideation Vs Evaluation
It’s important to first understand and separate two stages of creativity before we look at effective problem solving techniques. Ideation is like brainstorming. It’s the stage of creativity where we’re looking for as many possible solutions as we can think of. There’s no judgment or evaluation of ideas at this stage. More is more.
After we’ve come up with as many solutions as possible, only then can we move onto the evaluation stage. This is when we analyze each possible solution and think about what works and what doesn’t. Here’s when all those good ideas from ideation rise to the top and the outlandish and impractical ones are abandoned.
7 Problem Solving Techniques That Work
Everyone has different ways of solving problems. Some are more creative, some are more organized. Some prefer to work on problems alone, others with a group. Check out the problem solving techniques below and find one that works for you.
1. Lean on Your Squad
The first of our seven problem solving techniques is to surround yourself with people you trust. Sometimes problems can be solved alone, but other times, you need some help.
There’s a concept called emergence that begins to explain why groups may be better for certain kinds of problem solving. Steven Johnson describes emergence as bottom up system organization.((Steven Johnson: Emergence)) My favorite example is an ant colony. Ants don’t have a president or boss telling them what to do. Instead, the complicated organization of the ant colony comes out of each individual ant just fulfilling their biological destiny.
Group creativity can also take on an emergent quality. When individuals really listen to, support, and add onto each other’s ideas, the sum of that group creativity can be much more than what any individual could have created on their own.
Therefore, if you are struggling to solve a problem, you may want to find a group of people with whom you can collaborate, so you can start riffing with them about possible solutions.
2. Regulate Your Emotions
The next of the problem solving techniques is to be honest about how you’re feeling. We can’t solve problems as efficiently when we’re stressed out or upset, so starting with some emotional self-awareness goes a long way in helping us problem solve.
Dr. Daniel Siegel famously tells us to “Name it to tame it.” ((Dr. Dan Siegel: The whole-brain child)) He’s talking about naming our feelings, which offers us a better chance of regulating ourselves. I have to know that I’m stressed or upset if I want to calm down quickly in order to get back to a more optimal problem-solving state.
After you know how you’re feeling, you can take steps to regulate that feeling. If you’re feeling stressed out or upset, you can take a walk or try breathing exercises. Mindfulness exercises can also help you regain your sense of presence.
One thing that good problem solvers do is listen. They collect all the information they can and process it carefully before even attempting to solve the problem.
It’s tempting to jump right in and start problem solving before the scope of the problem is clear. But that’s a mistake.
Smart problem solvers listen carefully in order to get as many points of view and perspectives as possible. This allows them to gain a better understanding of the problem, which gives them a huge advantage in solving that problem.
4. Don’t Label Ideas as Bad…Yet
The fourth of the seven problem solving techniques is to gather as many possible solutions as you can. There are no bad ideas…yet.
Think back to the two stages of creativity. When we are in the ideation stage, we shouldn’t be evaluating each other’s ideas, input, and possible solutions.
When we evaluate, judge, and criticize during the ideation stage, we inadvertently hamper creativity. One possible outcome of evaluating during ideation is creative suppression.((American Psychological Association: Creative mortification))
When someone responds to someone else’s creative input with judgment or criticism, creative suppression can occur if the person who had the idea shuts down because of that judgment or criticism.
Imagine you’re at a meeting brainstorming ways to boost your sales numbers. You suggest hiring a new team member, but your colleague rolls their eyes and says that can’t happen since the numbers are already down.
Now, your colleague may be 100% correct. However, their comment might make you shut down for the rest of the meeting, which means your team won’t be getting any more possible solutions from you.
If your colleague had waited to evaluate the merits of your idea until after the brainstorming session, your team could have come up with more possible solutions to their current problem.
During the ideation stage, more is more. We want as many ideas as possible, so reserve the evaluation until there’s no more ideating left to do.
Another trick for better ideating is to “Yes And” each other’s ideas((Play Your Way Sane: And What?: Yes And)) In improvisation, there’s a principle known as “Yes And.” It means that one improviser should agree with the other’s idea for the scene and then add a new detail onto that reality.
For example, if someone says, “I can’t hear over your loud music,” the other person needs to go along with that idea and then add onto it. They might say, “Sorry, I’ll turn it down, but I don’t think everyone else here at the club will appreciate it.”
Now the scene is getting interesting. We’re in a club, and the DJ is going to turn the music down. Playing “Yes And” with each other made the scene better by filling in details about who and where the improvisers are.
Yes Anding also works well during ideation sessions. Since we’ve already established that we shouldn’t be evaluating each other’s ideas yet, Yes Anding gives us something we can do. We can see the merits of each other’s ideas and try to build on them. This will make all of our possible solutions more fully realized than a simple laundry list.
5. Approach Problems With Playfulness
Approaching problem solving too seriously can exacerbate the problem. Sometimes we get too fixated on finding solutions and lose a sense of playfulness and fun.
It makes sense. When there are deadlines and people counting on us, we can try to force solutions, but stepping back and approaching problems from a more playful perspective can lead to more innovative solutions.
Think about how children approach problem solving. They don’t have the wealth of wisdom that decades on this planet give. Instead, they play around and try out imaginative and sometimes unpractical approaches.
That’s great for problem solving. Instead of limiting ourselves to how things have always been done, a sense of play and playfulness can lead us to truly innovative, out-of-the-box solutions.
6. Let the Unconscious Mind Roam
This may seem counterintuitive, but another technique to try when you become too fixated on a problem is to take a break to let the unconscious mind take over for a bit.
Our conscious brain can only handle a limited amount of information at a time. Plus, it’s energetically exhausting to use our conscious brain for problem solving. Think about a time when you were studying for a test. It’s draining.((Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow))
But we’re in luck. There’s another part of our brain that isn’t draining and can integrate tons more information at a time—our unconscious.
This is why you come up with your best ideas in the shower or on your way to work or while you’re jogging. When you give your conscious brain a break, your unconscious has a chance to sift through mounds of information to arrive at solutions.
It’s how I write my articles. With my conscious brain, I think about which article I’m going to write. My problem is how to write it, so once I think carefully about the topic, I take a break. Then, the structure, sources, content, and sometimes phrasing happens in fits and starts while I’m not thinking about the article at all. It happens when I’m lying in bed, showering, and walking in the woods.
The key is to get in the habit of practicing this alternation between conscious and unconscious problem solving and to absolutely not force solutions. Sometimes, you just need to take a little break.
7. Be Candid
The last of the problem solving techniques happens during the evaluation stage. If we’re going to land on the best possible solution to our problems, we have to be able to openly and honestly evaluate ideas.
During the evaluating stage, criticism and feedback need to be delivered honestly and respectfully. If an idea doesn’t work, that needs to be made clear. The goal is that everyone should care about and challenge each other. This creates an environment where people take risks and collaborate because they trust that everyone has their best interest in mind and isn’t going to pull any punches.
In order to come up with the best solutions for problems, ideation and evaluation have to be two distinct steps in the creative process. Then, you should tap into some of the above techniques to get your ideas organized and your problems solved.
Hopefully, these seven problem solving techniques will help your problems be less…problematic.