Problem Solving: Fitness vs Tactics

I have had a series of conversations this week about problem-solving and a new insight struck me; its only a small insight, but maybe a valuable one. I think problem-solving can be usefully explored and developed via this sporting metaphor – match fitness vs on-field tactics. They’re not wholly mutually exclusive or opposites I know, but follow me for a moment…

Match fitness is about developing stamina, technique, strategy even – but it is about enhancing your capacity for the task that is to come. On-field tactics are what you deploy during the task to work towards your goal and counter any obstacles that come your way.

Sometimes when we train or educate for problem-solving we’re capacity-building; we’re helping individuals or teams enhance their creative or innovative capacity. This might be through:

  • Providing a more stimulating diet of content and inspiration to generate more diverse ideas (or providing a ‘licence’ to have ideas)
  • Enhancing team or individual connections or networks to create more potential sources of ideas or ‘spare parts’ to assemble into solutions
  • Offering up frameworks and processes to help teams broaden or streamline their thought processes so creativity is more impactful and more efficient

This has been my approach to some creativity education to date, preparing people in the round.

However, you also need some tools and tactics to use when directly faced with a problem requiring a creative solution.

I have taught content on best-practice ideation and brainstorming; permitting silliness, making time for divergent then convergent processes in sequence, etc – but this can still be a little bit abstract – are there actually good ‘tools’ for starting to unpick a complex problem and arrive at a solution?

Here are some real tactics I recommend:

  • Chunk up or Chunk down – sometimes stepping back to see the bigger picture (‘chunking up’ the situation under consideration) can help get perspectives and draw in new possibilities. Likewise sometimes breaking the problem into smaller chunks (‘chunking down’) can help it feel more approachable and manageable. These processes can often give a brainstorm a ‘second wind’ if a group is struggling.
  • Illustrate (literally or metaphorically) – sometimes either drawing out the problem or giving it metaphorical form can help people better picture component elements or offer new perspectives and insights. One persons diagram often draws out the differences that other people thought but had been unable to articulate. Pictures and metaphors are often more accessible short-cuts to comprehension.
  • Change a key word – find a thesaurus and swap a key word out for something ‘equivalent’ as a provocation. One of my favourite exercises for several years was talking about customer loyalty schemes but swapping ‘loyalty’ for ‘commitment’ or ‘fidelity’ and seeing the change of perspective one word being different brought to the discussion.
  • Forget the problem, talk about what a solution would look like – we can get bogged down in the first few steps of problem solving – struggling to escape the current predicament. It’s often useful to ask the group what the ‘solved’ situation would be like – can they describe how a ‘working’ situation might feel? This is really useful working with clients who might have poorly articulated what they wanted you to solve or over- or under-specified their expectations of what might be achieved.
  • Challenge or clarify the question – this links to the above – problems are frequently poorly defined and the question being tackled might be the wrong one. The classic example would be when someone asks you to “design a better mousetrap” when in fact the problem is “how to catch more mice” to which the answer might be “buy a cat”.

All of these tactics might be usefully practised in ‘training’ but they feel like a different category of guidance for solving problems than the capacity-building ‘fitness’ to problem-solve.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s