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Definition of Problem Solving

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 useful to think of four factors which help to build a definition of problem solving.

Problem solving is:

  • a systematic process which
  • defines a problematic situation (where there is a gap between actual and expected or the situation is vague, or there is something that is unsatisfactory) and identifies the problem as an opportunity
  • for which a resolution or solution is needed to beimplemented by an individual or group.
  • and which finally, and crucially should beworthwhile solving.

What may have surprised you in the words we used to help define problem solving is the idea of regarding problems as opportunities. The very word “problem” tends to have a negative sense, implying that there is a difficulty or issue to be resolved, and sometimes that is the case. However, often what are problems can and should be seen as opportunities. 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 like:

  • 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
  • Making cost savings
  • Finding new customers
  • Launching a new service

All of which can be seen as opportunities. Perhaps just as important as the words we use in our definition of problem solving, is our attitude towards problem solving. Seeing problems as opportunities starts to change how we define a problem.

A Problem or a Decision?

As a final thought it is 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. Decisions however tend to be a choice about alternatives and take you forward to action. Whereas problem solving tends to start by looking back at what has happened or is happening in order to understand how you might solve the problem you have.

The words we use to create a definition of problem solving matter when they help us to recognise that problems are really opportunities to do things better.

For more on 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

Still pressed for time? Follow this link for the full list of Manage in a inute pages.

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