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Definition of Problem Solving

6 key points

Definition of Problem Solving

6 key points

A working definition of problem solving can help clarify what constitutes a problem. Perhaps an obvious place to start is to recognise that a problem must be “problematic”, if a solution is clear then you don’t have a problem to solve, you have a decision to make!

It’s relatively easy to find straightforward definitions of problem solving. Perhaps something like this, from the Cambridge Dictionary:

the process of finding solutions to problems

A detailed definition of problem solving

However if you actually need to solve problems, it’s far more useful to think a little deeper. Here are six factors which will help you go beyond simple definitions. Think of problem solving as:

  • A systematic process, usually involving logical steps.
  • These begin with defining a problematic situation (for example, where there is a significant gap between actual and expected, or a situation is vague, or there is something that is unsatisfactory).
  • The problem should be worth solving, to justify use of time and other resources.
  • It should ideally be framed as opportunity for improvement, with consideration of the wider impacts it might have.
  • A satisfactory resolution or solution will be chosen from the best option offered by the process.
  • This needs to be effectively and sustainably implemented by an individual or group.

Definition of problem solvingWhat may be most surprising about this extended definition is the idea that problems should be regarded as opportunities. The very word “problem” tends to be viewed with purely negative connotations, implying that something is just, well… wrong.

However, a more positive mindset can often reveal the potential for improvement in problems, that they are really opportunities in disguise. Opportunities to make something better or do something better, or perhaps help someone to become better.

For example, common problems can be found in all areas of our work, such as:

  • Conflict between teams or team members
  • Customer issues with the service or product produced
  • Processes that don’t work properly and you don’t know why
  • Demands to make cost savings
  • The need to find new customers or markets
  • Launching a new service

All of these can be seen as problems but could equally be regarded as opportunities. How? Well, perhaps it’s not enough just to define problem solving. It’s just as important to think about what problem solving really means, and to reflect on our attitude towards ‘problems’. Seeing problems as opportunities starts to change how we define a problem.

A Problem or a Decision?

To further illustrate this point it’s worth contrasting problem solving with a definition of decision making. They both have similarities, and of course you must have decision making as part of a problem solving process. However, decisions tend to be about making choices from alternatives that look forward, prompting action. Whereas a problem solving process, certainly in its early steps, tends to focus our attention on the past. We ask ourselves what has happened in order to understand what is happening. There is nothing wrong with thinking about what’s wrong, but we mustn’t let it frame or dominate our attitude.

The words we use to create definitions of problem solving matter, especially when they help us to recognise problems are really opportunities.

Go back to our problem solving Knowledge Hub for more articles and problem solving tips. You’ll find a detailed process with links to tools to help you solve problems in: Seven Step Problem Solving Process or if you are short of time, the essential steps are in: 7 problem solving steps.

More problem solving tools

To help you think differently we’ve developed an e-guide packed with problem solving exercises. “What’s the problem” is designed to help you find the right problems then take steps to address them.

What's the Problem?There are exercises to help you to:

  • Think about how you respond to problems.
  • Ask some key questions to help define the problem.
  • Focus on important problems.
  • Build creativity in to your options for solving the problem.
  • Apply structured question techniques.
  • Progress through a seven step problem solving process.
  • Avoid solving the symptoms and find the root causes.
  • Use the potential and power of teams to solve problems.

What’s the Problem is a comprehensive guide to problem solving, complete with these 9 essential tools:

  • Tool 1: When you don’t know what to do
  • Tool 2: Defining questions for problem solving
  • Tool 3: Finding the right problems to solve
  • Tool 4: Problem solving check-list
  • Tool 4a: Using the question check-list with your team
  • Tool 5: Problem analysis in 4 steps
  • Tool 5a: Using 4 Step problem analysis with your team
  • Tool 6: Questions that create possibilities
  • Tool 6a: Using the 5 questions with your team
  • Tool 6b: Putting creativity to work – 5 alternate questions
  • Tool 6c: Workshop outline
  • Tool 7: Evaluating alternatives
  • Tool 8: Creative thinking techniques A-Z
  • Tool 9: The 5 Whys technique
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I’m teaching team leaders and team members 7 Step Problem Solving and found your site very enlightening and useful for my classes!!!

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I am designing a new Management Development programme for my company and your Goal Setting guide has really helped.

I like the way you introduced material I haven’t seen before (SHARP action) & the tools to apply the learning. The price represents really good value for money and I will be checking out more of your material over the coming months.

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I think you’re a genius in problem solving 🙂

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