Problem Solving

Problems are always attached within our lives wheter are you student, employee, or even a UN’s secretary general. We all have problems wheter big or small. What differentiated one from another is how they face problems.

Rule number one is the attitude. Perhaps you have mastered the problem-solving tools. But problem solving is not just skills, it is a whole mind-set.  A true problem solver is constantly trying to bring out the best in them to shape their environment, their world.

According to Ken Watanabe – A former Mckinsey & Company management consultant – there are four types of attitude which can get in the way of effective problem solving.  Maybe these attitudes remind you of someone, or remind you of yourself. Now let us identify some:

  • Miss Sigh

She is a kind of person who gives up immediately whenever she faces a smallest challenge. Sometimes Miss Sigh had a great idea to fix a problem. But she is afraid to speak it up. Afraid people will laugh at her.  Mrs Sigh can’t take control of her life. She just sighs.

  • Mr Critic

Mr Critic is never afraid to speak up. Whenever someone comes up with the plan, he is ready to point out the weakneses and attack everybody else’s ideas. He is always eager to blame someonle else whenever things go wrong. Similar with Miss Sigh, Mr Critic never gets anything done. Maybe he is too afraid to take responsibillites and face the fact that he himself makes mistakes.

  • Miss Dreamer

Miss Dreamer has her head stuck in the clouds. She has great ideas, but she never goes beyond that. Miss Dreamer is never bothered maps out her dreams into set of action. She is statisfied with thinking about her dreams.

  • Mr. Go-Getter

Different from others, Mr.Go-Getter seems like a non-problem solver. He is proactive and doesn’t have problems with negative thoughts. He quickly jumps into action when anything goes wrong. However, he is kind of someone who doesn’t know how to pause and think before act. He tends to blame every failure on lack of effort. He is not interested in finding the root-cause of the problem. All he wants to do is trying harder and harder. He failed to realize that stopping to think might as important as taking action.

What kind of attitude does problem-solver have? Like Mr.Go-Getter, problem solver doesn’t hesitate to take action, but the difference is they know when to step on the brake and change the direction. They identify root cause of the problems and setting a specific goal. While taking action they are also monitoring their progress to make sure they are heading to the right direction.

Rule number two is the steps. Problem solving is not magic. Problems will not dissapear with a single wave of hands or with an uttering of incantation. It requires several steps to be done, and every step is important. Those steps are; (1) understand the current situation, (2) identify the root cause of the problem, (3) develop an action plan, (4) execute until the problem is solved and making modifications if needed.

At the very beginning, before you solve anything, you have to realize there is a problem. Afterwards, you have to find the root-cause. Yet, finding the root-cause of the problem is not enough, you have to think how to fix your problem and take the action.

Although it sounds very easy and simple, the practice is not easy and sometimes it gets tricky. Along the way, there are obstacles, a true problem solver are persistent to the goal and always open to changes and modifications as necessary.

I would give you the example taken from Watanabe’s Problem Solving 101 book.

Consider a student whose math grades are going down. Like any normal students, the student would have to raise his grades. Maybe, without finding what actually the root-cause of the problem, He made a decision to quit soccer team and focus studying. This extreme decision would be such a waste if the main problem is not how long he studies, but how effective.

A problem solvng kid might start by asking himself, “What type of question am I getting wrong?” Then he breaks down the question into categories like, algebra, fraction, and geometry. By comparing the scores between categories he might find that the algebra score is going up, fraction is flat and only geometry is going down. Just looking at the average math grades, doesn’t help him to see the exact problems.

If geometry is the problem, then he must further break down geometry scores into subtopics including area, angles, and volume to better identify the problem.

When his understanding goes from level “my math grades are going down” to more specific “my math grades are going down because I’m not doing well in three topic: trapezoid area, cylinder volume and pyhtaogorean theorm application” the effectiveness of his plan and the end result would be significantly different.

After He identifes what problems that cause him troubles, then he can make an action plan. Wheter it is to increase study time or to improve his method. Increase study time means adding extra study time before sleep or after waking up. Improve his method can be done by swithcing to a better textbook, ask teacher and friends, or hire a tutor.

The effective way to solve math problems is different for everybody. That is why you should asking the “why” and “how” question to develop a custom-made action plan. As you can see, problem solving is not complicated, even if it is big and complicated. You just have to break it down into small manageable problems, and you will be able to solve it.

Rule number three is the tools. Tools are important. But you only can use the tool after you have the attitude and understand the steps. Problem solving tools which will I describe below are simple common tools used for problem solving. Not limited only to these tools, perhaps there are other thousands of toolsl which can be used for problem solving activites. Anything which help you understand the situtation, map your idea, or simply give you better visualisation, can be considered as a tool.

  • Logic tree

Logic tree is a simple yet versatile visual tool. You probably have been using it to describe ideas. In problem solving, logic tree can help you to identify root cause of the problems and develop solutions. The key point of using logic tree is to break down problems into categories without anything left out. Here’s the example

  • Yes/no tree

Ye s or no tree can be used to figured out a problem or developing  solutions by posing mulitple yes/no questions. I give you a funny example. Ignore the harsh words though

  • Problem solving desgin plan

Problem solving design plan is designed to collecting and analysing data to support your hypothesis. In the desgin plan you clarify the issue you are going to solve, state your hypothesis and reasons, list the analysis, actions and information to prove or disaprove your hypothesis. It doesn’t have to be above mentioned, you can make your own design plan correspond to current situation. I’ll give you the example taken from Watanabe’s book. It’s about a band called The Mushroom Lovers. After their first three concerts, they had only 15 peoples. After made hypothesis, they are trying to collect information to prove and dissaprove their hypothesis. They need a design plan to avoid collect irrelevant information. Their design plan as follow;


Hypothesis Rationale Analysis Information

Why are some pople who know about the concerts not coming?

Because they don’t like rock music in general What music lover wouldn’t go to a free show Interview 5 people who knew about the concerts but didn’t attend Interview

  • Hypothesis pyramid

Hypothesis pyramid is a great tool to structuring your argument. It can be used to clarify your conclusion and useful for communicating your arguments to others. The basic structure puts the conclusion on top while supporting arguments on the bottom, like structure of pyramids.

  • Pros and Cons; Criteria and evaluation

When you need to evaluate multiple options and select the best, you can use Pros and Cons table. It really helps you before you make any decisions. It ensures you to consider the good and bad aspects. You also can use criteria and evaluation tool to make decision. By criteria, you can evaluate your options and decide the importance of each criterias. These examples are also taken from Watanabe’s book.

Pro con’s table

Pro’s Con’s
Amadillo high school +++ High quality of education

++ strong baseball team

++ free tuition

++ some of friends will probably go there

– – – No study abroad program

–far from home

–old school building

Total 10 + Total 5 –
Beaver high school +++ High quality of education

+++ strong baseball team

+++ study abroad program

+++ free tuition

++ many of friends will probably go there

–far from home

–old school builiding

Total 14 + Total 2 –

Criteria & evaluation table

Criteria Importance Amadillo HS Beaver HS
Quality of education high +++ +++
Study abroad program High + (no) +++
Strenght of baseball team Medium ++ ++
Cost of tuition high +++ (free) +++(free)

We can see that to solve a problem is not hard. Like riding bicylce, swimming, and any other stuff, it needs practice. Once you are used to, You can stop panicking, get a grip, and start thinking.  Problem solving is easy when you know how to set a clear goal, figure out how to reach it, and follow through while reviewing progress and making changes to your plan as necessary

We also have to change our perspective to a problem. Rather seeing it as a problems, we could view it as a challange. A chance to make ourselves, our community or even the world better.

*Most of it are taken from Ken Watanabe’s book: Problem Solving 101. It is actually a book for children to face new problem-solving focused education. But somehow, with simple language, real-life examples and attractive pictures, a complicated matters become easy and manageable.


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