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Three Problem Solving Strategies

A strategy is a general "plan of attack." There are perhaps hundreds of specific techniques for solving problems, but relatively few basic strategies for putting those techniques to work. Here are three good problem solving strategies to try.

Problem Solving Triage

Medical emergency personal use triage as a strategy to decide which patients get their attention. They ask, "Who here will die regardless of treatment?" "Who will survive regardless of treatment?" and "Who will survive only if they get treatment?" The latter are treated first, of course.

In the numerous problems of life and business, the important triage questions are:

1. Which parts of the problem are unlikely to have solutions of any value?
2. Which parts of the problem aren't too serious and can wait?
3. Which parts of the problem are likely to yield the most valuable outcome if solved?

To use this problem solving strategy then, you have to break a problem into it's components and work on those in the third category first. Only once these are solved do you work on those in the second. The parts that seem unsolvable can be given another look after these others.

For example, if your problem is disorganization in your office, the smaller problems of which it is composed might include, "too messy," "not enough space, " "not enough time," "hard to find things," and "too many projects." That last one may be unresolvable for the moment (category 1), so you ignore it for now. A mess may not be a big problem of itself (category 2), so you start with the problem with the most biggest payback: "not enough time." Procedures and habits which free up time mean getting more work done, and having more time to work on the other components of the problem.

Use a Group of People

Some problems just aren't very likely to get solved on your own. In these cases, you may need to use a group of people. This can be in the form of brainstorming initially, to get more ideas. Then you can assign various parts of the problem to individuals.

For example, if your problem is "finding new ways to raise funds for your environmental group," you might have one person research and list all the various ways that non-profit organizations raise money. Another person can look at various business strategies that might be used. A third person could look at what your group has done in the past, to see which methods worked best.

Systematically Use Many Techniques

This may be the easiest of these problem solving strategies. You just systematically apply ten or so of your favorite techniques to the problem. Make a list of those that have worked best for you, and then use each one to get as many ideas as you can. Later you can sort through them to see which are most usable.

Suppose, for example, your problem is "designing a better car." Use the first problem solving technique on your list. It might be the "assumption challenging," which involves challenging all assumptions, like the one that a car needs tires. Then you move to the next technique, which might be "changing perspective." By the time you work through ten techniques, you'll have a lot of potential solutions and ideas. This may also be the most fun strategy.


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