Using a Problem Solving Approach to Make Better Decisions

There are many ways to make decisions.  I would like to propose adopting a problem solving approach, especially when dealing with big, complex problems, periods of significant changes, and situations that are new or unfamiliar.  The ambiguity and uncertainty they entail increase the chances of poor decisions.  A problem solving approach can alleviate this risk and help make better decisions. 

The approach has 3 aspects to it.  They should be applied iteratively even though they are explained sequentially.

The Problem Solving Approach

I.  Identify the right problem to be solved and the right way to solve it

A well-established field of study, behavioral decision making, investigates how people actually make decisions rather than how they should ideally make them.  There is a gap between actual and ideal for most people at least some of the time, no matter what their occupation, education, and socio-economic background.  We all make decision errors. 

One of them is falling in the plunging-in trap [1].  We tend to start solving a problem without giving much thought to whether we are solving the right one.  We take the problem as given.  Our jobs may involve managers assigning us tasks and projects and we concern ourselves with doing them well rather than questioning the validity of the work.  Successful people who see themselves as action-driven and are dismissive of thinking or those who believe in the primacy of intuitive decision making may fall into this trap when they undertake anything new or unfamiliar. 

(c) M. Kaipullai, Flickr

(c) M. Kaipullai, Flickr

Also part of plunging-in is not thinking about the process with which we should solve the problem.  What analyses should we do?  What data should we gather?  Who should be involved in the work?  And so on.  The plunging-in trap can lead to poor choices and outcomes because the problem is ill-defined or wrong. 

Therefore, central to the problem solving approach is identifying the right problem to solve and determining the right process for solving it.  Identifying it requires first immersing yourself in the situation to understand it well and then framing the problem in specific terms.

II.  Identify the beneficiaries and problem solvers

For every decision situation, identify whose problem is being solved.  The beneficiaries could be groups, population segments, or organizations.  How will they be reflected in the process of thinking, data collecting, and analyzing?  Similarly, identify who are or should be the problem solvers.  Clearly you are one but in most complex situations it may be ineffective being the only one.  Who else should be involved and how? 

Because problem solvers and beneficiaries are generally seen as self-evident, this step gets neglected.  But there are benefits to identifying both groups explicitly.  As the decision process unfolds over time, the actual beneficiary may change.  The choices ultimately made may do little to benefit the proclaimed beneficiary.

III.  Think of every decision, innovation, or initiative as a solution

 Once a decision has been made, an initiative agreed upon, or an innovation accomplished, it is useful to check its merits by viewing it as a solution and asking what problem does it really solve and whose?  Because this comes at the end of the process, it could very well be that the problem being actually solved is not the one that was intended to be solved.  Drift in purpose, problem, beneficiary are not uncommon.  It may mean rethinking the solution. 

On occasion, particularly when dealing with a new technology, invention, or serendipitous discoveries, it may mean reframing the problem.  The widely used artificial sweetener aspartame, sold as Equal and NutraSweet, was discovered accidentally in 1965 by chemist James M. Schlatter while researching new drugs for ulcers at G.D. Searle & Co.  One day, while working in his lab, he licked his finger to turn a notebook page and found it tasted sweet.  He realized his finger had traces of a compound he had synthesized.  More importantly, he had the insight that it was possibly a solution to a different problem.  The compound aspartame was subsequently sold as a low calorie substitute for sugar.  Today it is used in countless drinks and foods.  Alternately, if an invention or discovery does not solve a worthwhile problem there is little point in commercializing it (e.g., Segway). 

Labeling decisions as solutions has the added advantage of keeping them separate from the problem.  In practice, problems are sometimes framed such that they are really solutions in disguise.  For example, when a problem is stated as ‘how do we do X’ then it presumes that X is right and now it is just a matter of figuring out how to do it.  It reflects an implicit decision which may not be right.

The Problem Solving Approach

The Problem Solving Approach


The steps in taking the problem solving approach are uncomplicated and applicable across a range of situations and occupations.  However, there is far more to making good decisions and solving big problems and I will be writing further on these topics. 

Meanwhile, you can read explanations about what is a problem in this document and the nature of big problems in my previous blog post (below).






[1]  Edward J. Russo and Paul J. H. Schoemaker (1989). Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them. Doubleday Publishing.


 Copyright © 2013 Gaurab Bhardwaj