Problem solving is an essential ingredient for progress, innovation, and the advancement of civilization.
Solving a problem can often lead to bringing something totally new and useful into the physical world or possibly eliminating something that has deleterious effects, such as smallpox or Ebola. My simple definition of a problem is that: “you want to get from A to B but when you start you have no idea how to get there”.
My working definition of problem solving is: “finding a satisfactory solution to a dilemma, a puzzle, a perplexing situation, or an impediment to growth or to progress, given no apparently good options”.
Decision making is quite different from problem solving. In decision making, you do have options, and you have to pick the best one. Decision making occurs in Nature. For example, when honeybees outgrow their nest and need to find a place for a new one, scouts are sent out in different directions to identify new locations. These scouts report back, and each scout performs an elaborate dance that describes the identified site. The hive then decides which site is the one to relocate to. Problem solving, on the other hand, is primarily a human endeavor.
Troubleshooting is somewhere in the middle. A process or system is not working properly, and it needs to be fixed. For example, the process could be a manufacturing process. Typically, something has changed, and the products are no longer coming out the way they should. A system that needs troubleshooting could be a computer program or an automobile engine or any of a number of possible systems that are not working correctly. Successful troubleshooting gets things working properly again.
Solving a problem, on the other hand, typically provides an entirely new result and could help an individual, or a company, or an organization, or society, or people in general. Solving an important problem could even save the planet. A struggle with a BIP (Big Important Problem) as difficult as it may seem, is usually the necessary step before any major success. And your next success may well be the next important advancement in your career.
A valuable use of your time is to work on solving BIPs rather than LUPs (Little Unimportant Problems). Before you commit your time and energy to solving a particular problem, determining the importance of the problem is a key step. Once you have selected a problem to work on, hopefully a BIP, then it becomes essential to ask the right questions to develop an understanding of the problem if you are to solve it. When you begin to understand the problem, new ideas can appear. Ideas are the fuel that make the impossible possible and will eventually show you how to go from A to B.
So problem solving is all about: selecting the appropriate problem; questioning aspects of the problem; developing a better understanding of the problem; generating ideas; coming up with possible solutions; and determining the best solution.
Dr. Bruce Oberhardt is a sought-after biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, known for promoting creative thinking.