Monday, 3 March 2008

Problem Solving with Organised Thinking

Everyday life problems are of different varieties and of different degrees of complexity. Nevertheless, there are general procedures that could be applied in different cases. Organised Thinking proposes the following five steps to solve a problem:

► Representation of the problem.
► Generation of options.
► Look ahead of options.
► Evaluation of options.
► Decision making.

Representation of the problem

The representation of the problem is the key to its solution. If the representation of the problem is not accurate, one could perform the subsequent steps of the process and reach misleading solutions.

At this stage one should be able to answer the following questions:

► What is the aspect of the current situation that I wish to change?
► Which is the situation in which I would like to be?
► Do I have enough skills to solve the problem?

Sometimes, the problem we think we have is only the consequence of another more important problem. On other occasions, we do not evaluate our skills and we try to solve a problem that we cannot afford to solve. If we consider that our skills are not sufficient to solve the problem, we should rather spend time to acquire the necessary skills, or we should look for someone that has the necessary skills.

Generation of options

Usually one option to solve the problem pops up and we start consider its consequences. This procedure is not efficient because we may miss other alternatives (usually the more creative and interesting). Organised Thinking proposes spending some time generating a list of options before analysing each of the options.

By doing so, we know that if one option is not plausible we have other alternatives to consider. Given that we tend to look for data that confirms our original idea, the proposed procedure helps to produce more objective evaluations.

Look ahead of options

Looking ahead is the analysis of the consequences of choosing a particular option. A way of anticipating the consequences is to gather data: asking questions to those who experienced a similar situation, inspect statistical data, research in the internet, etc.

When the problem involves change (e.g., moving to another country or buying a new flat to live) the option of status-quo should also be considered. Otherwise, we could make two mistakes: 1) we may choose an alternative that involves change when the best option is not to change; and 2) when the options that involve change do not look promising, we may decide not to change, but not changing (an alternative that was not analysed) may be worse than all the other alternatives.

Evaluation of options

The evaluation of options consists on giving a numerical value to options in order to determine a ranking of preferences. Sometimes this value is the sum or the average of a series of values that evaluate different factors. For example, if the problem to solve is what car to buy one might analyse the following factors (space, quality of engine, price, design, etc.).

Each car under scrutiny should be evaluated using a 1-to-10 scale in each of the factors. Moreover, each factor has a different degree of importance; hence, one should assign each factor a number in a 1-to-10 scale.

For example, if the space of the car is very important to me, I would assign a 9 to the factor “space”. The next step is to multiply the value that I assigned to each car by the value I assign to each factor. For example, if I assigned a 2 to car A and 5 to car B in the factor “space”, the final value for car A in this factor would be 18, and the final value for car B would be 45. The last step consists of adding all the values to get the final overall score for each car. The decision of which car to buy should be made taking these final scores in consideration.

Decision making

In some cases the end result of a decision making process is the election of an alternative (e.g., choosing to buy a particular present for a friend’s birthday) and in other cases, once the decision is made, one should execute the decision for a long time (e.g., the election of a university degree).

In the latter case, one of the most common errors that we tend to make is not to eliminate of our thoughts the alternatives that we discarded. When we have this attitude, we tend to suffer, we do not enjoy the process of executing our decision and we do not execute it efficiently. Furthermore, this might make us abandon the option we had chosen without having learnt anything of the experience.

This does not mean that one should not monitor the execution of the decision and should never abandon the chosen alternative. It could be the case that the decision made was the wrong one and, in this case, it is better to stop it sooner than later. Rather, it means that if one abandons the option chosen it should not be due to the lack of commitment with it. Instead, one should only abandon the chosen option if a new evaluation of the situation leads one to make that decision.

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