How To Think: An Approach To Solving Difficult Problems

By: Jason Downs

I (Jason) have been doing a lot of thinking lately.  I have to: my PhD is in ’strategic thinking’.  So what is the best way to solve difficult problems?

Well, that depends on the nature of the issue, how much information you have, how familiar you are with the problem, how quickly the problem changes – a whole host of things…

But, let’s assume for the moment that you have a particularly tricky organisational problem that you want to solve.  Let’s also assume that you are not looking for a quick fix to some symptom, but that you want to solve the root cause of whatever issue it is that you have.

One approach is Concept Mapping.

Concept mapping is an approach that combines both cause and effect thinking and also allows for expansive ‘brainstorming’.  Think Mindmapping – but on steroids.

Concept mapping relies on the scientific method of thinking: reductionism and relativity.  Its real advantage is that you can start with a problem and begin to break it down into its component parts.  You can then look at the component parts and see how they relate to each other.

It might be easier with an example:

CM of organisation\'s External Environment

The above concept map was whipped up by my class to try and understand the relationship between an organisation’s environment (both internal and external) and what might cause an organisation to suffer from a lack of innovation over time.

The important thing to remember here is that they only had a very short period of time to draw this up – and even though it is incomplete and that it could do with some revision, the process encouraged a lot of discussion which was extremely valuable.  The map helped them to learn not only the “what” but also the “why” of the problem.  The result: the students were able to see how some of the dynamics were self-reinforcing and propose tentative solutions to problems that were yet to manifest.  They were engaging in strategic thinking.

When creating a concept map, often the hardest thing to do is NOT jump ahead to the solution, but to slowly, meticulously and patiently STEP your way through the problem.  By slowing down, and mapping the relationship between various factors you actually are forced to consider the assumptions that you make in your decision making process.  This can be really valuable.  By slowing down, you can actually consider all the issues, not just the main one.  You might find that by looking at the relationships between components that you can solve a much larger organisational issue with much less effort and far more elegantly.

The secret is to think: ”If this, then that”.

Example:  Let’s say you want to lose weight.  Even though you know what it is that you need to do, (exercise more/eat less) you still can’t get around to doing it.  Why?

This is where concept mapping can help.  The stating point is “Overweight”.  That is the ‘what’.  Overweight (leads to) less energy.  Now in a Concept map, you would draw this as follows:

This is a cause and effect relationship.  It shows the way in which you begin to construct a map.  You start off with a problem and you move forward to see what the effect is.  Your next branch would emerge from “Lack of Energy”.  It could looks something like:  ”Lack of Energy” (decreases) “Motivation”.  From “Motivation” you might have another branch that changes the problem.  E.g. “Motivation” (can be increased by) “Outside forces”.  ”Outside forces” (can consist of) “Motivational speakers””Personal trainers””Friends””Inspiring videos” etc.  The important thing to remember here is that you can have multiple branches coming off of a single node.  See below:

Click to enlarge etc...

This is by no means a finished map – you should be able to see how it can continue to be expanded as you look for issues that can lead back to helping you solve the original problem.

Most people only think of problems linearly.  Of course problems are usually a lot more complex than that.  Often relationships exist that are hidden from plain sight even though they are in ‘plain sight’.  For example, one of the issues that our overweight friend might be facing but doesn’t ‘realise’ is the lack of safe lighting in their area – so they don’t exercise after dark.  Once something like this is mapped out, then they can start to think about ways to solve that issue (join a  gym, exercise at luchtime, join a group etc).

Concept mapping is a good way to sit down and begin to think through all the issues of a particular problem.  It forces you to consider all issues.

HINT: I do all my concept mapping on paper.  I use a Moleskine diary and pencil.  Maps can become messy, and often when you begin considering relationships, you may begin to edit those relationships as you gain more insight.  Nothing beats pencil and eraser for this.  Computer programs are cool-and-all, but by taking your problem ‘analogue’ (I often go to a favourite cafe to do all of my SERIOUS thinking) means that you are not trapped in the same environment that causes most of your problems.  Get a fresh perspective.  Go ‘offline’ and take a pencil, paper and eraser with you.  Go somewhere different.  The beach.  The mountains. The park. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes.

Let me know if you found this post interesting and that you would like to hear more about different thinking approaches.  Also, if you are interested in the software that I used to create the maps in this post – let me know.  I can point you in the direction of the website where you can download it for free if you are and education provider/charity etc etc..

Source: Management is a Contact Sport