The Five Ordered Steps of Problem-Solving

Step 1: Define the problem.

Why is defining the problem the most important step?

Because defining the problem defines the solution. That is, the diagnosis determines the treatment. For example, if you are diagnosed with the flu, you get a different treatment than if you are diagnosed with a cold. 

    Quotes illustrating the importance of defining the problem:

Examples of insights due to re-defining the problem

Why don't we know what the problem is? 8 pitfalls in defining the problem.

  1. Not recognizing that there is a problem because
  2. Not accepting there is a problem ("Denial is not just a river in Egypt"). Examples:
  3. Narrowly defining the problem in a way that eliminates options or not realizing that a problem can be defined in several ways.
  4. Defining the problem in a way that is too vague. Example: A student says "I am having trouble with the course" or " I did not do well on the last exam." This would be like a physician telling a patient that "there is something wrong" or a psychologist saying that a patient "has issues."
  5. Biases may cause us to misidentify the cause of the problem. As Maslow wrote, "it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

    Four particularly common and powerful biases that hurt our ability to find the real cause of a problem:

    1. The "Not me" bias: We often don't take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. For example, you have heard people say things like:

      • "It's not my fault." 
      • "Look at what you made me do!"
      • "You are making me mad."
      • "That's a nasty question."
      • "Fake news!"
      One way to own your problem is suggested by Timothy Ferris: "...tell my story to myself from the perspective of a victim, then I tell the exact same story from a place of 100 percent responsibility."
    2. The fundamental attribution error. Personalizing problems: Blaming people rather than situations. As anyone who has been stuck in traffic or in a bad job knows, bad environments can make even mature, rational people do immature, irrational things.
    3. Preconceptions bias perception and memory, as shown by the confirmation bias: We look for and remember evidence that is consistent with our beliefs and we interpret neutral, ambiguous, or conflicting evidence as supporting our beliefs. So, If we believe that Joe is a bad employee, we will be more likely to notice and remember the times when Joe makes mistakes than we are to notice and remember times when Joe does an average or good job. Furthermore, we tend to "see" what we expect to see. So, if you expect Joe to be a trouble maker, you may interpret his behavior more negatively than if you expect Joe to be a team player.
    4. Preconceptions create reality (behavioral confirmation): If the teacher expects a student to do poorly, that student is more likely to do poorly than if a teacher expects that student to do well. 

  6. We are misled because  
  7. Incorrectly identifying what  kind of problem we have, so we try to solve one type of problem when we should be trying to solve a different type of problem.
  8.               Example 1:

                         What rule is determining the sequence of these numbers?    8,5, 4, 9, 1, 6, 7, 10, 3, 2

                          Two other examples: Think of the last time you applied the wrong formula to a word-problem or heard of a friend who was misdiagnosed by a doctor.

  9. Not testing your assumptions about the cause of the problem because of the confirmation bias.


On to Step 2: Generating Options

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