What type of problem solver are you? (infographic)

Have you ever noticed how people like to create problems? Everything from stirring up unnecessary rivalry in the office to buying a book of sudoku puzzles on the commute home. Why do we insist on challenging our minds and feelings like this?

A big part of it is evolution. Our minds are a major aspect of what sets us apart from dumber, happier animals. We started with 1+1=2, moved on to long division, and hey-ho – now half the population is strung out on sudoku.

Of course, there is a distinct enjoyment in dealing with a lot of problems. In fact, humans have figured out that anything can be a problem if you look at it hard enough. That’s part of the reason we’ve come so far. Instead of seeing the natural world as a set of limits to live within, we have dealt with it as a series of problems needing solutions. (Never mind the infinite new problems these solutions have caused).

On a daily basis, solving problems that arise and those that we set ourselves is satisfying, challenging, sometimes even fun. Longer-term, it keeps our minds fit and ready to slow the onset of old age. All in all, it’s kind of daft we don’t spend more time at school explicitly looking at the problem of problems, and how to solve them.

Sure, we face math problems and other indirect problem-solving elements at high school. But problem-solving per se is mostly considered a professional skill, to be developed ad hoc on the job. Thus, it stands to reason that if you want to excel professionally, it is worth putting in some extra time to developing your solution-finding skills.

To do so, the first trick is to find out where your skills currently are. According to one system – highlighted in this new visual guide to problem-solving (featured below) – there are three levels to conquer. Three types of problem-solver.

The first is the intuitive type. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Unfortunately, intuition is often just a nice word for guesswork. Intuitive types may be good at guessing, but they’ve learned to rely on their instincts in a way that is not sustainable – because guesswork can always go either way. That’s not to say that your instincts are not valuable to the problem-solving process, but depending on them without a framework to research and test your solution leaves you vulnerable to making silly mistakes. Intuitive types also have an awful habit of doing things by themselves, which is a shame when there is so much wisdom, expertise, and inspiration around us.

How to improve as an intuitive type? Embed your intuition in a system. Write down a set of steps for solving problems methodically. Start by setting a minimum consideration time, to stop you jumping ahead with your instinct. Then set a deadline, to stop yourself procrastinating. Include periods of research, collaboration, and analysis in your decision-making process – and allow time to assess the results after the solution has been implemented, so you learn from it in future.

If your problem-solving approach is more stop-start than this, varying between intuitive guesses and quickly-abandoned systems, you might be the ‘inconsistent type’ of problem-solver. Maybe you lack confidence. Maybe you lack discipline. Maybe you lack confidence and discipline. Or maybe you were just never really shown how to solve the kind of problems you face.

Start by following the instructions for the intuitive type: frame your instincts in a system! But then try different proactive systems to find what works for you. Brainstorming is a great way to force yourself to engage in a problem and to quickly conjure up some ideas to put to the test before deciding on the best solution. The kind of brainstorming you try depends on the kind of thinker you are. Outside inspiration is a good place to start. If you’re a words-person, pick some random words and see where they take your train of thought in connection with the problem you face. If you’re a visual person, do likewise with images – try a random image search with terms connected to your problem. Set yourself a deadline for completing this stage, though, because it is easy to let it transform into a procrastination black hole. Write or sketch your ideas as you work, to force your brain to process them and give them value – it is too easy to start simply dismissing ideas when you grow tired and jaded.

When you reach that deadline, it is time to be more methodical. Assess each potential solution for its strengths and weaknesses. You might list the pros and cons of each solution, or come up with a series of categories in which to score them out of five. You can then add up the score of each category for each solution to see which one comes out on top. Another method is to picture a number of bad outcomes and, for each one, trace the story backwards to see what went wrong.

The third type of problem-solver is a bit closer to solutions-nirvana. They are known as the ‘systematic type’ because their process is deliberate, methodical, and reflective. The systematic problem solver starts by trying to define the problem at hand, evaluates potential solutions, confers with others, plans how to implement the chosen solution, and analyzes how it went afterwards so that they know how to prevent or deal with similar problems in the future.

But nobody’s perfect. Problems are diverse and often messy, and the more tools you have in your problem-solving toolkit the better prepared and more adaptable you will be to cope with different kinds of problems as they arise.

The Cause and Effect Analysis (CEA) Method is one example of this kind of problem-solving system. It was developed by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa and introduced in his 1990 book, “Introduction to Quality Control.” You might have seen it around: the CEA method involves the drawing of a fishbone-like structure (hence the system’s alternative names, the Herringbone or Fishbone Diagram).

The CEA method has two stages. First you look back to analyze the mistakes you or the problem owner have made in the past. Analyze what went wrong but also analyze successes you’ve enjoyed, to build a framework for pre-empting upcoming opportunities.

Next, look into the future to anticipate potential scenarios and think about solutions in advance, using what you learned in the first stage. Figure out not just how to preempt problems but how to plan for success.

In this way, you draw explicit connections between what has happened in the past, what made it happen, and how it will affect the future. In other words: cause and affect!

The fishbone diagram I mentioned is what you come away with. The fish-head represents the problem to be solved (and you should write it down in a couple of words on your diagram). Then, along the sides of the fish, you add a bone for each of four categories of ‘cause.’ Those categories are: people, machines, material, methods (or whichever categories work for you). Each ‘bone’ should then sprout smaller connecting bones, each smaller bone being a cause further back in time. Essentially what you end up with here is a complex flow chart of cause and effect (but you can read more details of how to work with it here.)

With this kind of tool in your toolkit, even the systematic type of problem-solver can improve their solution-finding ability. Because there’s always another problem around the corner in this life, right?

This flowchart will tell you what type of problem solver you are (+ how to get better at it)

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