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The context of problem solving

Where the problem solving process appears to fall down, the most frequent cause is not in the problem solving effort itself, but rather in the critical steps that lead up to the problem solving. The critical steps concerned involve

  • a) Identification of what issues are to be considered as ‘problems’ to solve
  • b) Exploring and finally deciding on how to think about the problem
  • c) Assigning responsibility, naming the team, allocating resources, setting the schedule, and naming key stakeholders
  • d) The actual effort to solve the problem, understand its cause, design some corrective action, and implement the solution
  • (Talley, 2013)

Talley (2013) states that after observing hundreds of problem solving efforts in a wide variety of settings he has found the most common ‘problem solving discussion’ is actually a debate over proposed solutions. One has to be aware of the hazards faced in such a situation. These are aptly summarised in the phenomenon of the Abiline Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (Harvey, 1996) where groups in organisations take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. Symptoms of the paradox include the inability to manage agreement and not the inability to manage conflict. This is reflected in organisation members individually agreeing in private about the nature of the situation or problem facing the organisation and what steps would be required to cope with the situation or problem. However, the group members do not accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another, thereby leading one another into misperceiving the collective reality. Under such circumstances, group members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do.

Problem solving skills

Problem solving skills are important in order to determine the source of a problem and in finding an effective solution.

Some key problem solving skills include:

  • • Active listening
  • • Research
  • • Communication
  • • Creativity
  • • Analysis
  • • Reasoning
  • • Decision-making
  • • Dependability

For example:

Active listening

A consultant will need active listening and communication skills when interacting with clients and will also need relevant domain knowledge related to the problem in hand. A consultant will also need to know when to bring in someone with more specialised knowledge relating to a client’s problem.


Research skills refer to the ability to gather information about a problem. Some research will need to be undertaken in order to define and solve problems. A search of the World Wide Web may suffice or it may be necessary to conduct field research or an extensive review of the literature relating to the problem. Having research skills is essential when having undertaken problem solving. It will be necessary to

Problem solving 35 identify the cause of the problem and be knowledgeable about the various factors that relate to it. It may also be possible to obtain more information about a problem through discussions with other team members and consulting experts in the field.


Knowing how to communicate the nature of the problem and possible solutions to others is of paramount importance. It is also essential to know the appropriate communication channels when assistance is required.


Many problems require creative insights in order to solve them. If a person has a flair for finding creative solutions then that is a valuable asset. However, skills in creative problem-solving and using its techniques may compensate for any deficiency in natural creativity.


Analysis involves examining a problem from all angles. It may include recreating the problem to understand the steps that caused it, and reviewing data that may provide additional details about the problem. Analytical skills help understanding of problems and effectively develop solutions. It will also be necessaiy to have analytical skills to help distinguish between effective and ineffective solutions.


Reasoning is the ability to use information that has been obtained by research, analysis, and experience to identify steps and draw conclusions. It includes deductive reasoning, which is working backwards from a known conclusion to identify what happened, and inductive reasoning, which is applying evidence that has been obtained to reach conclusions about possible solutions.


It is necessaiy to reach a decision about how to solve problems that arise. Such decisions may have to be made quickly, so it usefill to have a well-rehearsed set of procedures to follow. Having good research and analytical skills can be of enormous help when there is a shortage of experience in those trying to grapple with a problem. One has also to consider that it may be necessaiy to pass the problem over to someone more capable of solving it.


Solving problems in a timely manner is essential. Individuals who can be trusted to both identify and then implement solutions as fast and effectively as possible are highly valued assets.

36 Problem solving

How to improve problem solving skills

Practice evaluating problems

Evaluate problems from every angle and learn everything you can about each one. Read online help articles, talk to other people who have experienced each one of the problems, and collect as much information as possible.

Isolate the factors

Taking each problem one at a time, isolate different causal factors in that problem to determine what is the source of the problem.

Practice problem solving

Puzzles and practice scenarios are good ways to improve problem solving skills

How to acquire creative problem solving skills

Research has shown continuously over the past 50 years that people can be taught, encouraged and coached or counselled to be more creative. Four basic creative strengths and skills can be easily taught:

  • 1 Fluency - ability to produce many ideas (many of which may be fairly similar or have the same kind of theme)
  • 2 Flexibility - ability to produce a varied mix of ideas (none, or few, of which are similar or share the same kind of underlying theme)
  • 3 Elaboration - ability to add detail, depth, mixtures of viewpoints or perspectives
  • 4 Originality - uniqueness, novelty, newness, creativeness (new), or innovativeness (improvement of existing)
  • • Fluency can be developed by holding creative thinking sessions at which ideas for a hundred different uses for everyday objects (sponge, toothpick, eraser, brick, paper-clip, etc.) should be generated. After reaching this number, move on to work-related objects
  • • Flexibility can be improved by listing 50 different kinds of uses for everyday objects and then moving on to work on related challenges
  • • Elaboration can be developed by describing something (hobby, TV show, tree, cat, athletic event, etc.) in considerable detail, using all the physical senses

• Originality can be learned by picking one common object and listing many new uses for it

Regular practice in each of the above activities can lead to the acquisition of improved creative skills.


  • 1 Using the common-sense approach to problem solving work, show how you would deal with the following situations:
    • • Major fire on the first floor of a five-story office block
    • • Discovery of irregularities in expense claims of several of the firm's travelling sales staff
    • • Several cases of sexual harassment in the offices by departmental managers
    • • Finding new offices for an expanding back office of employees
  • 2 How does the procedure recommended by the Bransford and Stein model differ from the common-sense approach?
  • 3 Repeat the exercise in Question 1 using the nine-stage process for creative problem solving.

What differences do you notice?

The formal problem solving process seems to be too simplistic a view of what actually takes place in reality. Can you account for this? Explain.

  • 4 Why should a debate over proposed solutions to a problem be a source of difficulty?
  • 5 Some key problem solving skills are indicated in the text. Can you add any other skills to the list?


Bransford, J.D. and Stein, B.S. (1993) The Ideal Problem Solver, New York: W. H. Freeman.

Hargadon, A. (2003) How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Harvey, J.B. (1996) The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (paperback), San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kahnemann, D. (2012) Thinking Fast and Slow, London: Penguin.

Simon, H.A. (1996) ‘Bounded rationality’, in J. Eatwell, M. Milgate and P. Newman (eds), The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, London: Macmillan.

Talley, J.L. (2013) ‘Problem solving process: context of problem solving’, available at: littp:/, accessed 26 April 2013.

38 Problem solving

Van Gundy, A.B. (1993) Techniques of Structured Problem Solving, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Further reading

Robertson, S.I. (2001) Problem Solving, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

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