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Basic Principles of Problem Solving

These are purposely kept short here to aid you in keeping the basic principles in your memory. They are also useful for class or group discussion or lessons.

Problem solving is also decision making. Decision making is essentially a problem process.

There is one best guide to problem solving. Centuries of experience have shown that the scientific method or guide is the best method for problem solving.

There are stages of mental activity to problem solving. They have been recognized. SM-14 is a formula for them that is neither too short nor too long. The stages are subject neutral. You must apply techniques or action methods at the various stages to accomplish results.

The stages are used in a flexible manner. You may skip, backtrack, stall, loop ahead or back, combine two or more ingredients, use various combinations.

Break complex problems into sub-problems. Complex problems should be broken down into sub-problems and sub-sub-problems. Follow SM-14 in solving sub-problems if they are complex.

Creative, non-logical, logical, and technical methods or techniques. These are the supporting action techniques actually used in trying to solve problems. What are often called “scientific methods” are really the technical methods often used.

Procedural Principles and Theories. In problem solving over the centuries a supporting culture and norms developed. They are not standardized and are often controversial. Some are embodied in government regulations for grant holders. Codes of ethics have often been assembled. Much remains to be done to clearly present them to problem solvers.

Attributes and Thinking Skills. These are necessary supporting ingredients required by problem solvers. The personal attribute of honesty is of supreme importance. A wide variety of thinking skills must be employed.

Skepticism. A healthy and practical skepticism is needed – a questioning, challenging doubt of ideas and concepts, a mind definitely open to new ideas. Because of past and present misunderstandings about the scientific method, be skeptical of parts of existing literature on problem solving.

Truth. Since it is so difficult or impossible to obtain truth, our objective is “on the evidence available today the balance of probability favors the view that . . .”

The theory of multiple working hypotheses. In most cases in the use of the scientific method you end up with one educated guess or hypothesis at stage 7 of SM-14. However, T.C. Chamberlin, in a famous essay of 1892 [reprinted in Physical Science: Men and Concepts edited by Omer, Knowles et al. (1962)], calls attention to the fact that there are times when you must have more than one hypothesis, as in geology. This may also happen in the social sciences and in decision making in any field.

Falsification of the Hypothesis. Once a researcher arrives at a hypothesis, there is a human tendency to seek evidence supporting it. However, it must be challenged, and practical attempts to falsify it should be included. There is much ignoring of contrary evidence, especially in the social sciences.

Creativity Is Needed. Logical reasoning is essential, but many problems are so complex that creative thinking must be used.

Learn to Abstract Basic Principles from what you read and experience.

Read a Variety of Publications. Extensive reading will find you knowledge and trigger your imagination.

Assumptions are often necessary to speed progress, but exercise care.

Decision Making. In problem solving you must make many decisions. Learn to be a good decision maker.

Authoritative Opinions can often be wrong. Challenge them if they don’t agree with your research.

Most Thinking Is Problem-Solving Thinking. If you analyze your thinking, you will find that most of it concerns simple and complex problem solving.

Critical Thinking is really problem-solving thinking.

Ask Questions. Ask what, why, which, where, when, who, how, if.

Don’t Ignore Contrary Evidence. This is one of the major faults of untrained problem solvers.

Cost vs. Benefits. Always keep this in mind.

Look Back after you finish.

Think Aloud. Sometimes this helps in solving problems.

Use Sketches and Diagrams. Visual aids can be helpful.

 

Other Basic Principles of Problem Solving

Intelligent compromises are often needed – not only in business, but in all social sciences.

In The Fundamentals of Top Management (1979), Davis says:

It was suggested previously that “intelligent compromise” should be considered a phase of the scientific method when applied to business planning. Management is becoming a profession. It is not based directly on the “exact” physical sciences, however. The “one best method,” insofar as the field of management is concerned, is the one that will get the most results of the requisite quality for the least money, and have them available when and where they are needed. It is not usually the method that is theoretically perfect. It is more likely to represent some compromise between complexity and scientific accuracy on the one hand, and simplicity, understanding and cooperation on the other. It may be modified in an attempt to adjust legitimately the personal interests of personnel to the service objectives of the organization. Plans do not execute themselves. They must be executed by the organization’s personnel.


Knowledge of measurement is essential in problem solving. Learn such things as:

    Metric system
    Temperature scales
    Instrument use
    Weighing
    Cost containment
    Charting & graphing
    Statistical methods
    Computer programs

Instantaneous decisions and problem solutions. In the course of a day you make hundreds of simple decisions and problem solutions, usually based on your intuition. They are called by such names as:

    Snap judgment
    Intuitive decision
    Leap of understanding
    Emotional decision
    Immediate apprehension
    Quick guess
    Trial & error solution
    Good enough
    Off the top of your head
    Jumping to a conclusion
    Habit decision
    Instantaneous decision
    Shooting from the hip
    Arbitrary guess
    Hasty decision
    Visualized solution

Many of these solutions and decisions are really simple, unimportant, and in the habit-type class. Others are of varied importance. Since some may be important, too many errors can hurt your success, relationships, or reputation. Your intuitive decisions and problem solutions are based on your body of subject knowledge, experiences, ideas, methods, formulas, basic principles, concepts, patterns, relationships, etc. For success, build a varied intuition base.

Bounded rationality (“good enough”). Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon’s theory of bounded rationality says that there are computational constraints on human thinking. Thus, we often must settle for “good enough.” Similar are tolerance of ambiguity, aspiration level, most optimum not needed, satisfactory versus optional standards, adequate for problem, and risk within reason. General principles to consider:

    Accept uncertainty of solution
    “Truth” may not exist
    Consider community “standards”
    Waste no time on little differences
    Perfectionism – not always affordable
    Rate: good – better – good enough
    No excuse for sloppy work

Skill in complex problems helps in everyday problems. While complex problems require going through the stages of problem solving, every day we are faced with many problems and decisions that have to be thought out quickly. A mind trained in complex problem solving will greatly improve everyday problem solving and decision making.

Watch for new problems. Solving one problem often leads to new problems. Maybe you made some surprise discoveries or saw opportunities for research in new areas. Offer clues and leads.

Struggle is the essence of life! The essence of struggle is to become a good problem solver. A formula or guide such as SM-14 shows you the route to solving complex problems. Be confident – you can do it!

Problem-based learning. This is often done without teaching a formula for stages of problem solving at colleges and universities, including medical schools. The idea of problem-based learning is excellent, but the lack of a formula for the stages of the problem-solving process or method is a drawback. It harms the transfer of learning. If the SM-14 formula is taught, there is a guide to follow on the next problem. Problems vary widely in their nature, but the SM-14 stages of mental activity are subject neutral and suitable for all solvable problems.

The case history method of teaching. Case histories are often used in teaching. Short ones can aid in teaching problem solving. The same comments apply as those in problem-based learning.

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