The art of complex problem-solving

Jon Ellard
Nov 26, 2018 · 5 min read

Complex problem-solving is difficult. For a start it involves thinking and thinking for problem-solving in itself can be hard. Wrap it up in the context of a complex problem with many inputs, many moving parts and many critics the difficulty level goes up exponentially.

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We live in an age where innovation and thought leadership are prized, but we are never explicitly taught how to solve problems to support innovation and thought leadership. We are taught narrow methods of problem-solving and left to pick up the rest.

What we can learn from philosophy is the sequence of observation, intuition, and logic are the fundamentals of problem-solving.

Two of my previous articles have discussed topics from a philosophical standpoint: What to ask Elon Musk about AI. When does the virtual become real? This is relevant because philosophy as a discipline offers a framework for problem-solving.

In philosophy, observation informs intuition that is expressed as statements that have a logic (or argument) to them. Others may not agree with the interpretation of the observation or the intuition, but a statement that is true (logical) against a particular frame of reference has been created. Others may say that it is wrong, though they must provide a new frame of reference to displace the original frame of reference. Merely saying it is wrong is insufficient. Alternatively, they may extend the initial observations with their observations, enhance the intuition with their intuition and refine the logic. In doing so, they will have driven forward the thinking.

In philosophy, this can take years, decades, centuries or longer and still arrive at no definitive answer.

Learning from philosophy

What can we learn from this? We haven’t always got years to come up with solutions to our problems. Often the timescale for philosophy is extended because it is dealing with concepts and ideas that operate beyond the edge of knowledge, unlike the scientific method which is based on a testable hypothesis. Today’s metaphysics becomes tomorrows science.

When a problem-solving approach fails to address all of the fundamentals or the sequencing is out of phase the process breaks down.

What we can learn from philosophy is the sequence of observation, intuition, and logic are the fundamentals of problem-solving. You may not recognise this, but if the words are changed, it becomes evident:

Observation = discover, research, requirement, analyse, interview, need, problem, request

Intuition = create, inspiration, solve, generate, design, build, develop, evolve

Logic = explain, show, storytelling, defend, demonstrate, present, deliver, test

The danger of changing the words to the familiar is the risk of becoming locked in on a specific approach to problem-solving that may not be appropriate. If this is done, it may be because of a personal preference to a particular method or being constrained by a pre-defined process. By elevating to the core philosophical principles of observation, intuition and logic and giving each enough attention and a wide enough remit, we can be freer with how problems are solved.

When a problem-solving approach fails to address all of the fundamentals or the sequencing is out of phase the process breaks down. For example:

  • If brainstorming is used, the exercise can be weak on observation, high on intuition and weak on logic. As a result, it will generate lots of ideas but may miss fundamental principles and result in being unsure where to go next with the volume of ideas that have been created.
  • If problems are solved individually, the process tends to be high on intuition and logic. There is potential to be blindsided by a lack of observation by an individual who is missing the full frame of reference. This will result in overlooking a fundamental principle that is core to the problem.

The enemies of problem-solving

It is vital to understand the environment that the problem-solving is taking place in. It is necessary to be aware of the factors that may sabotage the process. Understanding the dynamic of these factors help to inform the right methods and exercises for following the observation, intuition, logic sequence.

The factors that can sabotage problem-solving are:

  • Pressure
  • Politics
  • Powerlessness

Pressure can take many forms. It may be an external deadline, a belief that there isn’t enough time, high or unreasonable expectations and so the list goes on. You know you’re under pressure if time is the one thing you would like more of. Pressure causes us to jump to solutions.

Politics can be subtle. There may be someone who has expressed a preference for what the solution should be, or you may believe that the solution should be of a particular type to please. Politics bypass problem-solving.

Stop waiting for miracles. Miracles are not a strategy. To change, something needs to change.

Powerlessness covers a range of areas, all of which are self-imposed and all result in sub-optimal problem-solving. There may be a feeling of not knowing where to start, or starting but spinning on a particular facet of the problem. Additionally, there may be a feeling of being unqualified to solve the problem.

The chances are that there is a mix of all of these factors blocking your problem-solving.

It’s hard, but not impossible

Thinking is hard, that’s why many prefer not to do it or are happy to re-cycle solutions without full understanding and give in to the enemies of problem-solving. To minimise the impact of the enemies of problem-solving and maximise your problem-solving potential:

  • Stop waiting for miracles. Miracles are not a strategy. To change, something needs to change. (Powerlessness)
  • Start by starting. Do something that begins you on your journey of observance, intuition, and logic. Take inspiration from any source you can. Often taking inspiration from an unrelated area brings a fresh perspective and energy. (Powerlessness)
  • Be comfortable sitting with the problem for longer. But not too long. Work on the intuition and logic. (Powerlessness, Pressure)
  • Understand your frame of reference. When this is clear and properly constructed, your solution can withstand critique effectively. (Pressure, Politics)
  • Trust your intuition; it’s probably right. (Powerlessness)
  • Be ruthlessly logical. (Pressure, Politics)

Bringing it together

Coming from the design-led community are techniques that create a process for end to end problem-solving. Some of these methods promote cycles of activity that feed into each other in quick succession with a fail fast mentality. Primarily aimed at human interaction design, methods such as the Double Diamond model and Design Think provide a progression through cycles of observation, intuition, and logic, albeit by other names, which as we have seen above are the fundamentals of problem-solving. Additionally, these methods promote cycles of divergent and convergent thinking. This forces the thinking to become as wide as possible before contracting back to a manageable subset. If we take the essence of these techniques and apply them with strong facilitation in groups two things happen:

  • Any sufficiently complex problem can be addressed, not just design problems. For example, business problems or deeper technical problems.
  • The factors of pressure, politics and powerlessness will dissolve.

Now go and tackle that complex problem you’ve been avoiding!

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