Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that if he had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes thinking about the problem and the remaining 5 minutes thinking about solutions. This quote aptly illustrates a crucial point. Before we jump into attempting to solve any problem, we should first spend some time and effort to understand the problem. In view of that, here some approaches to problem solving that even Einstein will be proud of.
Redefine the problem: The story is told of when a Toyota executive asked his employees to brainstorm on ways to increase productivity; all he got in return were blank and confused stares. But then he redefined the problem and told them to tell him ways to make their jobs easier; the amount of suggestions he got can best be imagined. Words carry implied meanings and can affect the way we look at a problem. A problem might appear hard to understand or solve until we change the way we look at the problem, and changing the way the problem is defined can help us change how we perceive it.
Chunking Technique: This technique is originally associated with improving memory, but we can borrow it for solving problems. Almost every problem is part of a greater problem and is made up of smaller problems, therefore breaking it into smaller chunks can help us understand and manage it better. Breaking a problem into smaller problems, each of them more specific than the original can help us get better insight into what the problem is about.
Think laterally: The Chinese have a saying “You do not lift and tilt to get water from a well”. Sometimes the most obvious solution might not work, most times, try changing your approach and look at the problem from a different perspective. Facing the problem head on might not be the best idea. Every problem has more sides than an octagon and you can approach it from any side. Try to imagine how others will see the problem and look at it with their eyes. Even if it feels silly, a fresh and unique approach can sometimes bring about a new solution.
Challenge Assumptions: I once heard someone say, that unlike cars, no problem is limited edition. What the person was trying to point out is that no problem is new or unique, it must have happened to someone somewhere in one form or another. If this is true, it means that there must be certain existing assumptions attached to certain problems, but many of these assumptions could be wrong and will only make your problem solving process misguided. Test these known assumptions for validity and while some of them are actually true, you may notice that some of them were self imposed.
Make it Simple: As humans, we have the tendency to overcomplicate issues. Try simplifying the problem by taking away all the frills and details so you can look at the basics. Sometimes the results we need are very simple that we tend to overlook them.
You might not be like Einstein that spend 55 minutes looking at the problem, but adopting the techniques above, might give you some of his results.