INTRODUCTION

A problem is a task or situation that requires a solution. For example, what is 2 + 3? is a problem. A very easy problem. Also, what is the purpose of life? is a problem. A very difficult problem. 

Solving a problem successfully involves several considerations. We will go over these considerations in the Solving Problems series. Let’s begin. 

NATURE OF PROBLEM SOLVING

Problems coordinate basic functions

For example, you coordinate your vision, hand and mind while solving 2 + 3 on a paper. Similarly, you coordinate the images in your head with your thoughts and feelings while solving the purpose of life. There are some basic functions which need to be developed before you can solve a problem. Basic functions such as attention, memory, feelings, fine motor skills etc. 

Problems are about one or more goals

Whenever you have a problem, there is a goal at stake. With the 2+3 problem, maybe you need the answer for a math homework. With the purpose of life problem, maybe you need the answer for some meaning in your life. With every problem, there is a goal. Maybe, more than one goal. 

When the goal (or goals) is not readily accessible, skills come into play

While solving the purpose of life, the goal may be to find meaning in your life. But, in your day-to-day, you don’t really see that goal. That goal is just a dream in your head that might one day come true. In that case, you’re going to need skills. Problem solving skills to work through the problem patiently until the goal becomes more apparent in real life. 

Problem solving is affected by emotions

Emotions. The great bane of human existence. Fear, anger, sadness, excitement, envy… these are some emotions that regularly derail focused problem solving. 

THE TWO MAIN PROCESSES IN HUMAN PROBLEM SOLVING

Problem Orientation

This is basically how you look at the problem. It’s a matter of getting the right perspective on it, such that the solution seems clear. With the 2+3 problem, a preschool child might orient it as 2 + 3 = ? or 2 apples + 3 apples = how many apples? These orientations would help the preschool child find the solution. With the purpose of life problem, you could orient it like so:

1) Purpose and impact
2) Productive social relations
3) Financial security
4) Accomplishment
5) Talents and tricks
6) A life of substance to look back to when you’re older.  

Orienting problems for a better perspective is the first step to human problem solving.

Problem skill selection and application

For the 2+3 problem, the skill required is addition. You select that and you apply it. For the purpose of life problem, some required skills are money-making capabilities, ability to make valuable contributions to social relations, career mobility skills etc. You select and apply as needed. 

THE STAGES OF PROBLEM SOLVING

  1. An initial state.
  2. A goal state.
  3. Moves that get you from the initial state to the goal state.
  4. Intermediate problem states on the way to the goal. 

THE PROBLEM SPACE

The problem space consists of all the pieces of a problem. The initial state(s), the goal state(s), the simplifying assumptions, the simplifying heuristics (cues to make you think in the right direction), the moves/actions you can make/take and the intermediate problem states. All these pieces are represented in your head in a space called the problem space. 

TYPES OF THINKING INVOLVED IN PROBLEM SOLVING

Requirement acceptance

Accepting whatever is required. If it’s hardwork, so be it. If it’s willpower, so be it. If it’s pain tolerance, so be it. If it’s coding, then… So. Be. It. Whatever it takes. Problem solving starts with requirement acceptance.

Productive thinking

Think only about things related to the solution, and not the problem. For example, with 2+3, thinking about the addition is productive, whereas thinking about how hard addition is for you is not. There are times, however, when processing your emotions for a while is the most productive thing to do, all things considered. 

Thinking outside the box. 

This is basically being able to think even if the problem is unlike anything you’ve seen before. For example, purpose of life might be a problem unlike anything you’ve seen before. But, you should still accept the requirement, which is break it down, maybe? It’ll take a decent bit of thinking outside the box. Thinking outside of things that typically strike you as solutions. 

TWO BASIC THINKING PROCESSES

Analytical thinking

The answer is in the question/premise. For example, with the 2+3 problem, the question itself tells you what to do. 

Synthetic thinking

The answer is not in the question/premise. For example, the purpose of life problem. “Purpose” tells you nothing about where you need to look or what direction to think in. You have to “synthesize” the available information, and construct the solution. 

THREE BASIC TYPES OF PROBLEMS

Arrangement problems. For example, puzzles. 
Inducing structure problems. For example, chess. 
Transformation problems. For example, life. Transform the info into usable insights. 

CHARACTERISTICS OF DIFFICULT PROBLEMS

Intransparency. Unclear what the problem is. 

Commencement Opacity. Don’t know how to start/commence.

Continuation Opacity. Don’t know how to continue.

Polytely. More than one goal. 

Inexpressiveness. Unexpressed problem specifics. 

Opposition. Things get in the way during the attempt. 

Transcience. Problem keeps changing with time. 

Complexity. Way too many pieces. 

Enumeration. Too many background processes to track. 

Connectivity. Can’t find a conceptual connection between individual pieces/specifics. 

Heterogenity. Seemingly unrelated parts among the problem’s representation. 

Temporal aspects. Time constraints. Durational decay in focus etc. 

Phase changes. It takes too much reimagining to think of more than one path to the solution.

Unpredictability. The goal keeps changing.

SUMMARY

In this post, we went over several aspects of problem solving. This is only part I. There are more still to come. Hope you enjoyed reading. Let us know about your own problem specifics in the comments!