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What is Problem Solving?

What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do?

“What is problem solving?” may seem a straight forward question to answer, but if we were to ask the question differently, how would you answer: “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”

To explain problem solving we’ll look at some possible answers to this question and in doing so think about what problem solving is not to better understand what it is.

We began our article “definition of problem solving” by recognized the obvious: that problems are problematic. With a problem it isn’t clear what needs to be done, something may not be right, or something has gone wrong, or there is something that is unsatisfactory or perhaps there is a gap between what is expected and the reality of what is actually happening.

In other words you know something needs to be done, but you don’t know what to do.
So what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

What is problem solving? Here are 5 possible responses to what you might do when you don’t know what to do:


  • Panic – do you switch into panic mode, rush around and dive into potentially reckless action? Is you tendency to do something quickly and perhaps the problem will go away, or do you try and get enough other people “wound-up” and involved in the hope that between everyone something will get done?
  • Procrastinate(Put off) – in contrast to panic procrastination is the equivalent of a rabbit being caught in the head-lights of a car and freezing. You don’t know what to do, and you freeze: taking no action at all. Alternatively, you might put off doing anything: perhaps the problem will go away if you leave it alone.
  • PWhat is problem solving?retend – this is similar to procrastination except that you pretend that there isn’t a problem: that everything can go on as usual. Your response is to deny there is a problem, everything is fine.
  • Plough-on – here you recognize there is a problem but plough on regardless. Nothing is going to get in the way of you doing what you always have done, or what you want to do. Keep going and you may leave the problem behind you. The problem may not be relevant next week/month if you keep ploughing on.
  • Problem solve – the response of course that you should take, when you don’t know what to do is to have a process in place which helps you to find out what you should do. Problem solving is a process ( for example see our seven step problem solving process) with a range of useful techniques you have acquired which help you to be confident that you can find a good solution when a situation arises that you don’t know what you should do about.

What is Problem Solving – an Alternative View

Problem solving then, is what you should do when you don’t know what to do. However, we may all be more susceptible to panic, procrastination, pretending or ploughing on than we would care to admit. To avoid these responses think through your own approach to problem solving. You may want to use some of the articles, tools and resources highlighted below to build your own repertoire.

For more answers to the question “what is problem solving?” see our articles and problem solving exercises. You will also find a detailed process with links to tools to help you solve problems in our article Seven Step Problem Solving Process or if you are short of time the essential steps are in our article 7 problem solving steps. There is also a great story of the Charlie Brown approach to problem solving in our article decision making lesson number 1.

This article was originally prompted by reading the following article: Problem Solving: a simple definition.


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