You have a problem when your current situation differs from your desired goal. You want to be rich, but your checking account balance is circling the drain. You want to date that gorgeous person, but you get tongue-tied whenever you even think about it. You are running late for work, and your car won’t start. In each case, what you want and what you have are decidedly different.

Problem solving is nothing more and nothing less searching for means to reduce the differences between your goal state and your current state. Yes, that’s right: All problem solving, at bottom, is search. When there is a clear procedure that will take you from the one to the other, we call that a well-defined problem. Making scrambled eggs is a well-defined problem. For the first, you simply follow a recipe, and voila, you’ve got breakfast. 

If there is no clear procedure, we call that an ill-defined problem. Unfortunately, most of life’s important problems are ill defined. How do you make enough money to save for retirement, how do you avoid war, or how do you get that girl or guy to go out with you? These are all ill-defined problems because they don’t have clear goal states (how much is “enough” for retirement?) or they don’t have clear solution paths (how do you attract the interest of someone you find attractive?). 

In 1945, the brilliant mathematician, George Pólya (1887–1985) wrote the quintessential text for solving problems, aptly titled How to Solve It. Here is how he summarized the problem-solving process. 

1. First, make sure you understand the problem. You do this by developing a representation of the essential aspects of the problem. You do that by searching your knowledge base for information that seems to you to be solution-relevant. 

2. After understanding, then make a plan for solving the problem. This will also usually involve searching one’s knowledge base for solutions that are appropriate for the problem as represented. 

3. Carry out the plan by executing your solutions. 

4. Look back on your work and ask “how could it be better?”

That is how it should be done. But most people make one huge mistake that derails the entire process, making it far less likely that they will succeed. What is that mistake? 

They skip the first step.

Regardless of the domain, inexperienced problem-solvers tend to jump right to the solution stage of problem solving, with typically disastrous consequences. They often use a trial-and-error strategy in which the first solution that comes to mind is put into play. Because they didn’t take the time to fully understand the problem, their solution attempts fail when foreseeable glitches arise. 

In contrast, experts tend to spend more time developing a full understanding of the problem, comparing what they currently know about the problem with what they need to know in order to get a complete picture of the situation. Because they spend more time in the problem representation stage, they are more likely to derive successful solutions, and to spend less time overall in generating a successful solution. 

Here are three tips for executing step one like an expert. 

1. Organize knowledge correctly. Often, novices have all the knowledge they need to solve the problem at hand. They just can’t get to it because their knowledge is organized in ways that make it difficult to see the connection between the current problem and what they already know.

Experts organize their knowledge in problem schemas that include relevant information about a type of problem and the procedures for solving problems of that type. This means that when experts think about problems, relevant information is automatically activated in memory, along with relevant solution procedures. In contrast, when novices think about a problem, their knowledge is too general and too scattered throughout memory, making problem-solving a tedious trial-and-error search. For example, a novice salesperson will focus on the general goal of “make the sale”, and will apply sales techniques in willy-nilly or fixed fashion to reach that goal. An experienced salesperson will focus on the specific goal of understanding what the customer needs and wants, and in developing a trust relationship with the customer. As a result, the experienced salesperson spends less time “working” the customer or showing them things in which they have no interest. 

2. Ask the right questions. If you’ve ever done a Google search, you know that the quality of the search results depends entirely on the quality of the keywords you use. Garbage in, garbage out. This in a nutshell, is the key to developing a strong understanding of a problem—asking the right questions. 

Experts are more likely to ask the right questions because their domain-specific knowledge is organized more efficiently. Continuing with the previous example, an expert salesperson’s schema is organized around understanding customer wants and needs. As a result, he or she will spend more time asking specific questions about those needs and wants, and then tailoring subsequent choices to match the answers given. Sometimes the customer isn’t aware that there are product features that may be attractive to them. For example, they may focus on price yet be unaware that a higher priced item carries a better warranty. Because the salesperson has taken the time to impress upon the customer that their needs and wants matter, a relationship of trust is established that makes it easier for the salesperson to introduce these relevant features without putting the customer off. In contrast, novice salespeople will often deluge the customer with more product features than they can possibly remember and process, or will try hard-sell techniques that create an atmosphere of distrust. 

3. Work forward from known to unknown. Because of the way expert knowledge is organized, experts solve problems by working forward from the information given (or information obtained) to arrive at a viable solution. Novices, on the other hand, tend to work backwards because they are focused more at arriving at a quick solution that at ensuring that they fully understand the problem. As a result, the typically have incomplete problem-solving schemas that are full of irrelevant information. This slows down the problem-solving process, and makes it less likely that a viable solution will be reached—or remembered! 

For three more tips on how to be a better problem solver, see this article Dr. Art Markman.

References:  Pólya, George (1957). How to Solve It. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Dr. Denise Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge University Press).

About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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