Problem solving entails perceiving and resolving a gap between a present situation and a desired goal by tackling the known or unknown obstacles that block the goal. The ability to solve problems however depends on many factors. Read on to find out the factors that affect problem-solving activities.
Identification of the Problem
The most important of factors that affect problem-solving activities is realization of the problem. A problem is decided by the purpose. For instance, manufacturing managers evaluated based on the percentage of time they have operated the production lines do not have a problem with operating the production line without orders from their sales division. On the other hand, the sales division will have a major problem with this action if there are no orders and excessive inventory piles up as a result of this action.
Identification or realization of the problem, keeping the big picture in mind, is the first and most important step toward problem solving. They key to doing so lies in understanding the purpose of the action. The basic steps toward this direction include:
- Defining the problem.
- Identifying the potential causes for the problems.
- Listing out the various solutions.
- Selecting the best alternative.
- Planning implementation.
- Monitoring and verifying the implementation.
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In 1987, M. McCaulley undertook one of the earliest research projects to link individual differences in personality to problem-solving approaches. He used Carl Jung’s theory of individual preferences to correlate the four mental processes of sensing, intuiting, thinking, and feeling to decision-making preferences. Sensing individuals considers facts, details, and reality when making decisions to solve problems. Intuitive individuals try to understand the meaningfulness of the facts, the relationships among the facts, and the possibilities of future events that can be imagined from these facts to make decisions, and usually develop new, original solutions. Thinking individuals tend to use logic and objective analysis during problem solving, and Feeling individuals tend to veer toward subjective considerations of values and feelings in the problem-solving process. Sensing and Intuitive people approach problems through their perceptions, and they prefer flexibility and adaptability. Thinking- and Feeling-oriented people usually make judgments and tend to prefer the problem-solving process to demonstrate closure.
Individuals preferring introversion take time to think and clarify their ideas before acting, while those preferring extroversion talk through their ideas to clarify them before acting. Introverts remain concerned with their own understanding of important concepts and ideas, whereas extroverts seek feedback from the environment.
The ability of a person to solve problems depends on both personality type and temperament. People motivated toward a goal, or those who are high achievers, take that extra effort and initiative to find the root cause of problems and solve it. Others go by the routine procedure and do the minimum required.
High-risk takers who usually find themselves in more problems generally tend to be more adept in solving problems, also.
A far bigger personality dimension, however, lies in the positive treatment of the problem, or considering it as an opportunity to learn new things. A negatively charged problem impedes solution.
Another of the major factors that affect problem-solving activities includes the thought processes or thinking patterns of the concerned individual.
The major thought process dimensions include:
- Strategic thinking or a bigger long-term focus instead of short-term departmental focus.
- Emotional thinking or judging whether a solution is right or wrong based on emotional commitment.
- Realistic thinking or the approach of starting from what can be done and fixing the essential problem first.
- Empirical thinking or judging whether the situation is right or wrong based on past experiences.
Problem solvers need to choose the appropriate thinking pattern based on the situation.
Besides such dimensions, the ability to think systematically through a rational process, such as systems things, thought and effect process, and contingent thinking, and the ability to forge hypothesis improves the thinking processes.
Skills and Technical Competency
The ability to solve a problem depends greatly on the person’s competency relative to the problem in hand. For instance, a team leader skilled in computer networking might be able to manage a network failure, create ad hoc procedures until the systems are restored, or effectively direct the recovery by functional experts. A team leader with no clue on networking would remain totally at sea and at the mercy of the functional experts.
At times problem-solving requires creativity and innovation, which again depends on the personality and temperament of the person, and the culture of the organization.
Hierarchical organizations that tend to give importance to designations and fixed job descriptions, insist on adherence to procedures, and do not encourage ad hoc measures, stifle creativity and innovation and have a profound impact on problem-solving activities.
The ability to solve problems often depends on the administrative mazes and bureaucratic hurdles. For instance, a computer expert working in human resources might be the best person to recover a crashed system. This person, however, might not have the necessary permissions or authorization to access the main server, and the work remains disrupted until the authorized repair personnel arrive from far away.
The external environment of an organization remains the root cause of many problems in a project, and the solution depends on the external environment itself. For instance, availability of skilled manpower depends on the labor market, running of machinery depends on the provision of energy by the utility provider, and starting operations depends on compliance with the procedures to securing the necessary permits. The best approach to problem solving is having a good understanding of the state of the external environment to reconcile the business operations with the external environment.
A business cannot control or alter the external environment. It can only harness it to its advantage. In this realization lies the key to solving most problems.
- Huitt, William, G. “Problem Solving and Decision Making: Consideration of Individual Differences Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator." Retrieved from http://teach.valdosta.edu/whuitt/papers/prbsmbti.html on 21 October 2010.
- Shibata, Hidetoshi. “Problem Solving: Definition, terminology, and patterns."Retrieved from http://www.mediafrontier.com/Article/PS/PS.htm on 21 October 2010.
- McNamara, Carter. “ Basic Guidelines to Problem Solving and Decision Making.". Retrieved from http://www.managementhelp.org/prsn_prd/prb_bsc.htm on 21 October 2010.