How can I hone my problem solving skills?
January 21, 2009 6:12 AM   Subscribe

What questions do you use to stimulate your thought processes when you have a problem?

When I have a problem, I tend to imagine I'm talking to an expert in the field of whatever it is I'm doing, and ask them questions about what I'm doing wrong.

For example, I have a problem in a relationship. I imagine I'm talking to a therapist about it, and try to think about what questions they would ask me about the relationship, to help me solve the problem. I find this works really well, as it forces me to think about the issue, and verbalise the problems, which tends to stir up more ideas and potential solutions.

Unfortunately, I'm not an expert in any field, so the questions I ask myself tend to be limited. And seeking an actual expert isn't always convenient or warranted. Of course, if an expert was warranted, I would contact one. It's just that most of the time, one isn't. I don't want to call Nigella Lawson every time my sponge cake doesn't rise.

I'm familiar with the concept of flow, and seem to be using it when I'm in a problem solving state, for what that's worth. I do collaborate with others when the situation calls for it, and I do research online.

My questions are these: how can I enhance this "concept"? What generic questions could I ask myself to get my thought processes working? Are there any other things I can do that will get my mental "fixing a problem" juices flowing?

Any personal experiences are welcome.
posted by Solomon to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried using a concept map or mind map to explore the relationship between your thoughts or challenges?
posted by adjockey at 6:50 AM on January 21, 2009

Try to gain a bird perspective, try to lay out all possibilities to access the problem. Even the silly, crazy, unlikely, nearly impossible ones.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:58 AM on January 21, 2009

What generic questions could I ask myself to get my thought processes working?

One strategy that works in almost all situations is to describe the problem or situation, and then ask a why question about a specific part. For sponge cake, you might ask yourself why you put it on the bottom rack of the oven rather than the top rack. Or why the sponge cake took twenty minutes to bake when it usually only takes fifteen minutes. If you don't know the answer to a why question, then you can figure it out logically, do research, ask someone, use trial and error, etc.

The point is that most problems are complicated, and asking why questions helps you make sure that you understand all of the nuances.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:07 AM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

"What if?" is the single most helpful question I can come up with. It helps as brainstorming and also serves a nerve-calming function (what's the worst that can happen? Ok, and what if that DOES happen?).
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:03 AM on January 21, 2009

You could try Oblique Strategies.
posted by devnull at 8:06 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

"There must be someone who'd disagree with how I've been thinking about this. What would that person say to me? How would I respond?"

Also, you'd love the Creative Whack Pack.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:20 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

We oftentimes give better advice to others than to ourselves, because we can maintain better objectivity about another's dilemma.

When I grow concerned that I may not be perceiving or dealing with a personal challenge effectively, I envision the situation happening to a close friend. What advice would I give my friend about how to handle the dilemma?

I often find that the advice I'd give to a friend differs -- sometimes markedly -- from the course I'm considering for myself.
posted by terranova at 8:54 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

ok, please forgive me if this seems ambiguous, broad, and really not helpful, but i truly feel my answer could really help you.
its been 6 or 7 years since i read it, but somewhere in the first half of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pirsig adresses this very concept of figuring out how to best think about problems you are trying to solve, especially when they seem particularly baffling and unsolvable. the most specific thing that i can think of is that he mentions something about a "knife," and how you can use that knife to slice things (concepts, not physical things) up in different ways.

(not to say that he doesnt touch on this conceot throughout the book)
posted by gcat at 9:26 AM on January 21, 2009

I find that formulating multiple perspectives helps to gain a broader understanding of an issue, for example, approaching something with all the benefit of the doubt, or as an optimist/pessimist, as a hidden opportunity, as different people in your life, as a child, etc.

For general thinking, something I learned in grade 4 still serves me in good stead today, SCAMPER - Substitute, Combine, Add, Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse, just running through those elements for different parts of a problem to try and map out different possibilities and solutions.

Also asking what's the most (insert adjective) way of approaching the problem... could be compassionate, understanding, efficient, difficult.

Hope it helps!
posted by perpetualstroll at 9:57 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are certain questions I ask repeatedly:

1) What's the story?

"Story" can be taken metaphorically, but the point here is to continually drive my mind back to the basic goal* of the project. The "story" might be "making cupcakes" or "fixing the garage door." It might also be the story of a novel I'm writing. The point of asking this question is to root out gratuitous elements.

This question is #1 for a reason. It's the most important question. I ask it over and over.

There's a companion question, which is "What am I doing that's not part of the story?"

*projects should have a goal -- not goals. If they have goals, see if you can refine the project so that it has a single direction. Otherwise, maybe it's really two or more projects.

2) How can I take myself out of the picture?

This is really just a specific version of the first question, but it's the most important specific. Ego is the enemy of projects. The point of fixing the garage door isn't impressing people with your mechanical skills; it's getting the garage door to work. Many gratuitous details creep in because you're trying to promote myself, not embarrass yourself, save yourself trouble, etc. You have to continually remind yourself that you're not important. What's important (to this project) is the garage door.

Serve the project, not yourself.

3) How can I make it uncool?

The other derailer -- which is really just a more specific version of the previous derailer -- is the desire to throw in bells and whistles for the sake of coolness. This happens because most of us confuse problem solving with being original. The goal isn't to be cool or original, it's to solve the problem. If I find that I'm solving the problem in a cool way, that's not necessarily bad. It may just be that the best way to solve it is also really cool or original. But I'm always suspicious of coolness. I always sniff it to see if it really belongs.

Steal: if George's way of solving the problem is the best way, do it that way. It's not about being original -- it's about solving the problem the best way possible.

4) Who needs to be managed?

Is there a person or force that is likely to derail the project? What I can do to remove or lessen this obstacle?

4b) Have I confused removing an obstacle with the project itself?

I might get so involved in fighting with my boss about the correct color for a design, that I run the risk of forgetting that project is about designing something, not fighting with my boss.

5) What can I cut?

This is another way of phrasing question #1. How much can I whittle away and still be "telling my story"? If there are five parts and I can remove three of them and still tell the story, I probably SHOULD remove those three. At the very least, I should justify to myself why I am keeping things in the project that don't strictly speaking need to be there. If the answer is "because they're cool," see #3.

6) Do I have an outlet for gratuitous elements?

It's hard to "kill all your darlings." So you shouldn't have to. They have no place in your project, but that doesn't mean they should die. The just need to move to another country. You'll feel much better about them if you know they're not dead -- just in the witness protection program. So keep a notebook where you can transfer cool derails or fears that your project will make you look stupid. Or have a weekly bitch session with a friend or collaborator.

7) Am I taking power breaks?

A power break is one in which you force your mind completely off the project. It's not sufficient to quit working and stare out the window, because you might find your mind drifting to your project. You need a total break, so your subconscious processes can work without being derailed by your conscious ones. You need a total break so that you can come back to the project and look at it from a fresh perspective.

So make sure that you have something engrossing nearby: an episode of "Lost," complicated wedding plans, whatever. Anything that is too engrossing to allow yourself to think about your project. (I find this is especially important before bed. It's a killer to work intensely right up until bedtime. This might even stop me from sleeping. Instead, it's key that I watch an hour of TV before bed, read a chapter of a novel or have an intense conversation with a friend.)

7b) Have I left a cliffhanger for my post-break return?

Right before taking a break, make sure you leave a lose end open. If you're writing a novel, leave the last sentence (so far) unfinished. It will be much easier for you to jump back in if you return to "John took his cat to the" than it will be to jump back to "John took his cat to the vet." The former allows you to ease back in without the need for immediate, complex problem solving.

8) Can I sub-divide?

I ask this over and over. The smaller a problem is, the easier it is to solve. Programmers know this really well, but I rarely hear it talked about in other fields. As a programmer, you don't try to create packman. You divide packman into sub-problems and solve each one. Maybe one problem is making the dots appear. But even that might be too big a chunk. Maybe you should first figure out how to make a single dot. You should keep dividing and dividing until the project is a series of baby steps, each one very simple to solve on its own. If a part is too complicated to figure out, ask yourself if you can divide it into two parts. This is not something you do once at the beginning of a project. You keep doing it and doing it. You will continually find that you've missed ways you can sub-divide.

I sometimes find I have to force myself to do this: I may think, "all I have to do is complete step B, and I'm done." But when I start on B, I realized that it should be divided in to B1, B2 and B3. That sort of sucks, because now I have to do three things instead of one. But I need to suck it up and do it. I'll thank myself later. If B is one complex object and it breaks, it will be very hard to fix. B2 -- a simple object -- will be much easier to fix.

And do the simple steps first. If B2 is easer that B1 or B2, do B2 first. That will be one thing out of the way.

9) Another question from programming: have I named everything well?

If you're fixing the garage door, step one should not be "pick up a tool and remove the cover of the battery casing." It should be "pick up a pocket knife and remove the cover of the battery casing." If you're writing a novel, the name of a section should not be called "Chapter Two." It should be called "Marvin proposes to Alice." (In the published version, "Chapter Two" is fine.)

If I'm having trouble naming something, it usually means I don't fully understand it. Time for some brainstorming, research, a break or sub-dividing.

I often rename things, because my original names turn out to be wrong or not specific enough.

10) More tools:

a. Am I stuck or confused?

If I'm asking that vital question "What is the story?" and I realize I don't know or don't fully know -- or if I'm stuck on something -- I have several options:

- brainstorming (by myself or with others).

- making lists (I love doing this). And I keep re-categorizing them, moving items from one list to another. When I'm about to direct a play, I sometimes put all the words in the script into categories. It forces me to think about each work and realize common themes. In general, I love lists: to-do lists, resource lists, etc. When Stephen Sondheim has a new song lyric to write, he starts by making lists of words that relate to the song's theme. He uses a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary to help him. You don't have to make lists in a vacuum. You can use reference materials and friends.

- take a power break (described above).

- research. Are you good at it? It's a skill in its own right. Learn how to research. And don't be lazy. Google is great, but it's not the be-all and end-all of research.

- seek out semi-random inspiration: for instance, I love google images. I'll type in words that relate to my project and see what pops up. Flickr is good for this, too.

b) Have I eliminated all needless distractions?

Sure, you should turn off the TV. But, more important, you should never have to hunt for a tool or go without one. Are all your tools at arms length? If you have an idea, do you have to hunt for a piece of scrap paper to write it on? Fix that problem. You don't want to expend mental energy on that stuff.

My most important tool is always my scratchpad. If I'm working on part A, I may suddenly have an idea that applies to part B. I don't want to forget it, but I also don't want to be distracted by it. I need a quick way to offload it for later.

c) Does your project have a beginning, middle and end?

This is a natural, appealing way to think about a problem or story.

d) Is it sensual?

How many of the five senses can you tickle? We experience through our senses. If you can solve the problem in such a way that it's sensual, it will be more effective. (If I'm writing a story, am I only appealing to vision? Have I remembered to mention how the hero's apartment smells?)

e) Is it concrete?

Abstractions are not your friends. They're much harder to think about that concrete objects and actions (nouns that name real-world objects and verbs that describe what they do). Sometimes you must use abstractions, but often you can make things more concrete. If you can't do this directly, see if you can use a concrete metaphor to make the abstraction more easily graspable.

f) Have I tried to explain my project to someone else?

We're social animals. Use that fact. If you explain your project to your husband or wife and he/she doesn't get it, you may have a problem. How can you make it clear? If it's unclear to someone else, that may be because it's unclear to you.

h) What happens if I remove a "vital" part?

Making an omelet? How would you make one if you didn't have any eggs? In idle moments, this is a worthwhile speculation.

The budget for your indy film is $10,000? What if you only had $2000?

i) Am I obeying the Spielberg principle?

Stephen Spielberg once said that directing is about stepping in and stepping back, stepping in and stepping back. My version of stepping in is sub-dividing. My version of stepping back is "What is the story?" Make sure you continually alternate between these two lenses.

j) Am I obeying the Milch principle?

David Milch doesn't believe in many of the things I've suggested. He doesn't like outlining, lists, etc. He's said that everything he does that isn't writing is a waste of time. So he just writes. I don't always work this way, but I think it's a valuable tool. Sometimes you just need to jump in and do it. Edit later.

k) Am I pondering or doing?

If there's anything you can reasonably try, try it? Don't try it in your head. Avoid, "I could do X, but I'm sure that wouldn't work." Instead, try X. Even try X when you're absolutely 100% sure it won't work.

l) What am I avoiding because it's a pain in the ass?

I might have left the photos in the den or they might be in the garage. But I don't want to look for them in the garage, because it's a mess.

I should look in the garage.

m) What am I avoiding because it's unlikely?

I really really doubt I left the photos in the garage. However, memory is fallible. I should look in the garage.

n) Have I included mystery?

This isn't applicable to all projects, but it's applicable to many. Mystery is very important. It tickles the mind in a unique way. If I'm writing a novel, have I tied up all the lose ends? Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I should find a way to suggest that there's something just around the corner.

Leave them wanting more.
posted by grumblebee at 10:15 AM on January 21, 2009 [9 favorites]

Instead of imagining you're talking to an expert, imagine you are talking to someone who is not an expert, or a child.

I sometimes do this when I have too many possibilities and need to cut the fluff and get to the crux of the issue.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:17 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I often write out (or think out) detailed instructions for the task at hand. Having to think it through that carefully usually reveals what I've missed.
posted by tkolar at 10:20 AM on January 21, 2009

I take a dump or a shower, but not both. Yes, that is a serious answer. All my good solutions to problems come from the bathroom.
posted by valadil at 10:48 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

What works best for me is to put problems on the back burner. Be confident that somewhere in your brain there's a solution to this problem, but don't stress out about finding it. In fact do your best to forget all about it, go about your day. When you return to the problem you'll often find that the solution has gathered in the back of your mind.

It's not magic though. To get it to work you have to have an accurate view of what the problem is, examine it thoroughly but without looking for the solution. Just looking at the problem as an interesting phenomena. If you're not getting the behavior you expected, explore what behavior you would like to have and what other ways you can make that happen. Ask lots of questions but don't get distracted by answers. Many people fail to find solutions because they're too focused. If you hit a switch and the light doesn't come on, the real problem is that you can't see well enough to read, and that problem can be solved by having a working lap, or learning braille moving somewhere with more sunshine, or putting of your reading until the next day.

Then forget all about it, go off and do something else unrelated and let your brain run its good pattern matching filters and scrub your memory with all of those questions. If you get an "ah ha!" don't act on it, just make a note of it and assume you're dead wrong. Don't limit yourself, especially when you don't have the problem in your face.

When you come back start exploring the problem again from the beginning, but this time with an eye towards finding the solution. Since you're familiar with the problem you mind is no longer cluttered with the questions, your brain will have filtered out the dumbest ones (you're not learning braille) and brought the most likely ones to the front and maybe some new information that you forgot, like how that lamp is plugged into a switched outlet and a guest at the party accidentally turned it off last night.

If the problem is more complex, rinse and repeat. Try everything that seems reasonable, make what progress you can, ask some new questions, then go off and come back at it tomorrow.

If the problems has a strong emotional component then journaling is probably the very best way to get down to the bones of the problem. Putting the problem and related issues into words helps reframe the issues and cane make things much clearer.

Quite a few times I've found the answer to a problem simply by trying to write a clear and concise AskMe question.
posted by Ookseer at 10:50 AM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

"What assumptions am I making?"

We have so many built-in assumptions about pretty much everything that we often forget to challenge them.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:42 AM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I like trying to figure out things as if I was helping a child so I think in simple and basic terms. Using your sponge cake example:
Ok, We baked a cake and it didn't rise. What makes a cake rise or what makes it spongy instead of dense.
Air or pockets of air.
How do cakes get air in them?
Well, I whip air into the egg whites and then fold them gently into the mix. That helps put air in it.
Could there have been a mistake there?
Um... some egg yolk might have gotten in, that might have messed it up a little.
How else does a cake get air?
Well I put something like baking soda or powder into it.
How does that make air?
Well there's a chemical reaction, right, with the powder and the wetness of the cake and the heat in the oven.
So how could a mistake have been made there?
I could have mis-measured the baking powder. or the cake could have been too wet, or not wet enough. Or the heat could have been too hot or too cold.
Ok, is there any other reason a cake wouldn't rise? How come a souffle falls?
Oh, sometimes a loud sound or jolt causes a vibration and all the bubbles escape before they are set up.
Ok, we have about 5 ways that could be responsible for the cake not rising. Which one is most likely? Go back over when you made the cake and think if any of these things could be a factor. Remember, maybe you didn't make the mistake. Maybe the baking powder was too old to do the chemical reaction. Maybe the oven's temperature is off or the altitude makes the timing/temp different. Maybe the batter sat out for too long (or not long enough). Maybe someone opened the oven door too soon and let the heat out too early.

In this example, baking is reduced to it's basic chemistry and examined step by step. It helps to pretend you are helping a child because it's ok for children to learn and make mistakes without getting angry or annoyed with them. Sometimes I just do this in my head or aloud. With tougher problems, I write it out on paper so I don't get lost or forget something. I hope this helps.
posted by CoralAmber at 12:36 PM on January 21, 2009

When I have a problem I will talk about it to myself out loud. I talk as if I'm conversing with a friend. That process helps me organize my thoughts. It also gives me a sense of objectivity. When I hear the problem with my ears, it’s almost like I'm listening to a friend and it allows me to entertain another perspective. From there I just talk it out until I feel better, have the problem resolved or have some plan of action. This has helped me solve all kinds of problems in every area of my life.
posted by aquariangirl06 at 12:46 PM on February 25, 2009

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