To overcome any challenge of intermediate or advanced difficulty, you’ll want to have an adequate number of problem-solving strategies at your disposal. Some of the following problem-solving strategies are well known, while others were derived from the TRIZ methodology, the Six Sigma methodology, advanced brainstorming techniques, and situational analysis frameworks.
Here are 12 problem-solving strategies that can be used to solve almost any kind of problem and overcome your toughest challenges:
Many of the most complex problems are tough to solve because they contain contradictions. To solve those problems, you have to find out how to resolve those contradictions. This often results in unique, innovative solutions.
There are primarily two types of contradictions: technical contradictions and physical contradictions.
A technical contradiction is a situation where an improvement in one component of a system results in the worsening of another component. To fully solve a technical contradiction, we target two desired outcomes simultaneously, instead of choosing a trade-off between one desired outcome and the other. This often results in achieving a breakthrough solution.
Example: “If I increase the power of the car’s engine, then the car’s max speed will increase, but the car will burn fuel at a faster rate.”
To resolve this contradiction, you would need to find a way to enable an increase in the car’s max speed while not burning fuel at a faster rate.
A physical contradiction is a situation where a component within a system needs two characteristics that are the opposite of each other. Stating a problem as a physical contradiction forces us to consider how to adjust “something” or part of “something” in order to meet the opposite requirements and therefore solve the problem in novel way.
Example: “To stop rain, an umbrella must be large and to be carried, an umbrella must be small. An umbrella must be large and small.”
To resolve this contradiction, umbrellas were designed to allow users to open and close them mechanically depending on whether it is raining or an umbrella needed to be carried somewhere.
Ideal Final Result
Ideal Final Result (IFR) is a description of the best possible solution for a problem situation, regardless of the resources or constraints of the original problem. It’s a great place to start when beginning to solve any problem because it provides a general direction to focus your goals.
Root Cause Analysis
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem-solving used for identifying the root causes of problems. The removal of a root cause prevents an undesired event from occurring. Very often, complicated problems have multiple root causes. A great way to uncover those root causes is to divide a problem into sub-problems and discover the root causes of each of those sub-problems.
Divide the Problem into Sub-Problems
Instead of thinking, “how can I solve this challenging problem,” try instead asking, “how can break this problem into parts that are easier to solve.” It’s easier to address multiple sub-problems one by one then to address them all at once when they’re combined and reinforcing each other.
Upgrade Relevant Skills, Knowledge, and Resources
When a difficult problem confronts you, you have to determine whether you have the sufficient skills, knowledge, and resources to solve this problem. If not, you’ll need to build the capabilities required to achieve this feat. There are numerous ways to accomplish this.
- Learn sets of skills relevant to the problem
- Study, imitate, and consult with experts in relevant fields
- Research topics that directly relate to your problem
- Use the best, available tools and resources to increase your capabilities (i.e., software, outsources services, freelancers, and tangible products)
Functional Models and Trimming
A Functional Model illustrates how components in a system and its supersystem function and interact with each other. It’s one of the most effective ways to pinpoint which component interactions in a system are counterproductive and ineffective in order to solve a problem precisely.
An example of a functional model in a matrix format:
Vary your Approaches, Strategies, and Tactics
Brainstorm as many alternative approaches to solving a problem as possible. As in chess, it is better to have five options to choose from at each move than to think five moves ahead. In most battles, the army with more viable options to choose from tend have a competitive advantage. Here are a few benefits of varying your approaches:
- You’ll obtain more information about how to solve the problem
- You’ll have more viable solutions to choose from
- You’ll be more likely to end up with a solution that is optimally effective
- You can combine approaches to create multi-faceted approaches
Evaluate Alternatives to Original Goal
If the original goal is too cumbersome to achieve, there might be an alternative goal that can give you equivalent or sufficient benefits. In some circumstances, fulfilling an alternate goal first might be the fastest route to solving an original goal. That’s because achieving the alternate goal will give you skills and experience (that you wouldn’t have otherwise) that may make it easier to achieve the original goal.
Solve Similar Versions of the Problem
Sometimes the best way to solve a difficult problem is first to solve problems that bear some similarities to the original problem but are easier to address. Solving alternate problems will give you new skills, knowledge, and experience that will make it easier to solve the original problem. The more alternative problems you solve, the more capable you’ll become at solving the original problem.
Generalize the Problem
Generalized problems encompass a wider class of problems that include your specific problem.
Generalization is the construction of problems sharing similar characteristics and functions within a single construct. For example, many types of flowers exist, but they are all assembled in a single construction: flowers. Generalization gives you more flexibility and leeway in regards to idea construction compared to trying to solve specific problems.
Challenge your Pre-Conceived Notions and Assumptions
Sometimes, assumptions seem so obvious that you may never think to challenge them. They seem absolute because you never considered the validity of other perspectives. But be warned: relying on ill-conceived assumptions can prevent the formulation of solutions that are optimally practical, realistic, and useful. If you view problems from the foundation of incorrect assumptions and premises, your solutions will usually be ineffective.
The Phoenix Checklist provides context-free questions that enable you to look at a problem from many different angles. Sometimes, problems aren’t as easy to understand as they may seem at face value—especially problems that are inherently multi-faceted. These questions will help you clear ambiguities and pinpoint the unknown unknowns associated with a problem.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed this framework.
The Phoenix Checklist is comprised of two components:
- A list of questions used to define problems
- A list of questions to define the plan to solve the problems
You can find the list of questions here.
- Cameron, G. (2010) Trizics: Teach yourself TRIZ, how to invent, innovate and solve ‘impossible’ technical problems systematically. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Trizics-yourself-impossible-technical-systematically/dp/1456319892 (Accessed: 22 February 2017).
- Michalko, M. (2006) Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative-thinking techniques (2nd edition). Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Thinkertoys-Handbook-Creative-Thinking-Techniques-2nd/dp/1580087736/ (Accessed: 12 February 2017).