The Problem with Problem Solving

clean Water WEB SMLReading through the 37+ pages of research for this article, it became clear to me that the problem with problem solving is that there are too many ways to solve problems! Logic leads us to the conclusion that if there are so many ways to solve problems, why aren’t more problems being solved or better yet, why aren’t problems being prevented? One issue has to do with the way we think about problems.


The Way We Think

OK, I know some people don’t think at all. Some experts posit that many of us are linear thinkers. This is cause and effect thinking. This is the idea that there is one cause and one effect. A typical example is your car stops. The reason your car stops is that there is no gas in the gas tank. The reason there is no gas in the gas tank is that you didn’t put any gas in the gas tank. But organizational psychologists like myself want to go deeper. We like to get to the root of a problem. This is called Root Cause Analysis. Why didn’t you put any gas in the gas tank? Or as those of us who coach like to ask, “What got in the way of you putting gas in the gas tank?” The reasons could be that the person is a procrastinator. Those of us who study psychology know that procrastination can manifest itself because of deeper issues. In addition, procrastination can be the cause of other issues, such as time management. The problem only grows larger, because we procrastinated and now the time to solve it gets in the way of our time to accomplish other things. So, one way to solve problems is to be a better thinker.

Thinking Better

We often associate better thinking with better decision making. Decision making and problem solving are kissing cousins or in some families, identical twins. Better thinking takes time. Just as there are many ways to solve problems, there are apparently many ways to become a better thinker. Techniques from everything from find a quiet space, to break out of the pack, get a better night’s sleep, and on and on. So, I thought I would go to The Foundation for Critical Thinking. Surely, they have a concrete formula for thinking, decision making, and problem solving. One of the first things I saw was 10 categories for different professional areas like teaching, the medical profession, and engineers. So, does that mean that whatever profession you might be in, you will have to think differently to solve problems? OK, so now, we have not only the many ways to solve problems such as the 5 Why Analysis, Brainstorming, the Fishbone Technique, The Pareto Method, Systems Thinking, and now do we need to know which of these works best for which professional area? No wonder problem solving is so difficult. Further, there are other areas that influence both the problem we are trying to solve and the problem-solving process. The problem-solving models above are also good for drilling down to the root cause.


For organizations, there are outside influences such as the market, customers, politics, and compliance issues. For a person, it might be the family, friends, or co-workers. If we solve a problem one way, it might adversely or positively affect some outside entity. Then there are inside influences as well. For example, every person in an organization has their own agenda. One person may want a problem solved one way, while another wants it solved another way. In addition, we all have biases, egos, “tribal” considerations, and biases. Some people are stubborn, others open minded. The bottom line is that we all bring a lot of baggage to problem solving. The scary part is that even after you have worked your tail off, maybe spent money in the process, and just know that you have come up with the best solution, there may still be glitches.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

No one knows everything and even your best problem-solving group, or methods will often fail to uncover that one little thing that can add yet another problem. Here’s an example. An organization was attempting to find a low-cost way to bring clean water to third world countries. The method to find a solution was given to the InnoCentive network to offer an incentive to anyone who could come up with a solution that could offer a water storage product that was light weight, high-capacity, easy to use, recyclable, and affordable for the extremely poor. A German inventor was the winner of the $15,000.00 prize. The final product consisted of two plastic bags that folded up to about the size of a brief case and was lightweight enough that it could be transported over rough terrain even where no roads existed. The product made it through the manufacturing process and was put in local stores so that local merchants would make some money. However, people were hesitant to purchase the product because they just couldn’t believe that such a small package could hold 125 gallons of water! That, my dear readers, is a clear example of why problem solving is such a problem.

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