Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Developing Problem Solving Skills

A rare day at work would be one without any problems. Effective problem solving skills are hotly in demand in any kind of job profile, making it a universal skill set to possess. This is why in most job interviews you are faced with hypothetical questions on how you would go about resolving specific job related problems which may crop up in real life work situations. Your potential employers wish to check if you possess effective and practical problem solving skills and whether you are able to apply your mind to solving problems quickly.  

Problems should be seen as opportunities: they allow you to see things differently and to do things in a different way, leading to new techniques of innovation and greater insight into things. It’s not only how quickly you can solve a problem, but how you go about doing it that’s also as important. No plan is a guarantee of success, so there is always an element of risk involved in applying the solution.

The key aspects of successful problem solving are being able to identify exactly what the problem is, dissecting the problem so that it is fully understood, examining all options pertaining to solutions, setting up a system of strategies and objectives to solve the problem, and finally putting this plan into effect and monitoring its progress.

Try out solving this simple problem to check how you can best apply your problem solving skills within a limited time period:

Activity 1: LINE UP

Materials Required : Blindfolds, Timer

Group Activity

Time Duration: 5 minutes

Select a group of minimum 10 people. Blindfold everyone in the group. Whisper to each person a number from one - to the number of persons in the group. After you are done, tell the players they must line themselves up by consecutive numbers without talking. Every-one should begin to move slowly around each other, putting palms up facing outward to protect themselves from collisions. Only tactile contact (Tapping, patting, etc.) is allowed as a means of communication.

How do you need to go about it?

Steps in problem-solving:

· Identify and evaluate the information or situation
· Break it down into it's key components
· Consider various ways of approaching and resolving the situation
· Decide on the most appropriate of these ways
· Implement your chosen alternative
    · Observe and analyse if the solution worked or needs to be modified

The IDEAL Model of problem-solving:

· Identify the problem
· Define the problem
· Examine the options
· Act on a plan
· Look at the consequences

What skills are involved?

Problems Solving involves both analytical and creative skills. Which particular skills are needed will vary, depending on the problem and your role in the organization, but the following skills are key to problem-solving:

· Analytical Ability 
· Lateral Thinking
· Initiative
· Logical Reasoning
· Persistence  

Analytical and critical thinking skills help you to evaluate the problem and to make decisions. A logical and methodical approach is best in some circumstances: for example, you will need to be able to draw on your academic or subject knowledge to identify solutions of a practical or technical nature.

In other situations, using creativity or lateral thinking will be necessary to come up with ideas for resolving the problem and find fresh approaches

Not everyone has these two types of skills in equal measure: for this reason, team working is often a key component in problem-solving. Further skills, such as communication, persuasion and negotiation, are important in finding solutions to problems involving people.

How to develop your analytical and problem-solving skills?

Most problem-solving skills are developed through everyday life and experience. However, the following interests and activities may be useful in demonstrating a high level of these skills - this may be particularly important when applying to employers in areas such as engineering, IT, operational research and some areas of finance.

· Mind games - such as cryptic crosswords, Sudoku, chess, bridge, etc.;
· Computer games – the best of these can involve strategic planning, critical
 and statistical analysis and assessing the pros and cons of different courses 
 of action;
·Practical interests - such as programming, computer repairs, car 
 maintenance etc.
     ·Academic study - evaluating different sources of information for essays,
      designing and constructing a ‘micro shelter’ for an architecture project;              setting up a lab experiment.

Stages to solving a problem:

1) Evaluating the problem
· Clarifying the nature of a problem
· Formulating questions

· Gathering information systematically
· Collating and organizing data
· Condensing and summarizing information
· Defining the desired objective (the solution)

2) Managing the problem
· Using the information gathered effectively
· Breaking down a problem into smaller, more manageable, parts
· Using techniques such as brainstorming and lateral thinking to consider options
· Analyzing these options in greater depth
· Identifying steps that can be taken to achieve the objective

3) Decision-making
· deciding between the possible options for what action to take
· deciding on further information to be gathered before taking action
· deciding on resources (time, funding, staff etc.) to be allocated to this 

4) Resolving the problem
· Implementing action
· Providing information to other stakeholders; delegating tasks
· Reviewing progress

5) Examining the results
· Monitoring the outcome of the action taken
· Reviewing the problem and problem-solving process to avoid similar
 situations in future

Activity 2 : Lost at Sea

Materials Required: Ranking sheets, pens, one room, 3-5 tables, 15-25 chairs

Group Activity

Time Duration: 40 minutes

In this activity, participants must pretend that they've been shipwrecked in the Atlantic ocean and are stranded in a life boat. Each team has a box of matches, and a number of items that they've salvaged from the sinking ship. Members must agree which items are most important for their survival.

Learning Outcomes:
This activity builds problem-solving skills as team members analyze information, negotiate and cooperate with one another. It also encourages them to listen and to think about the way they make decisions.

What You'll Need:
· Up to five people in each group. 
· A large, private room.
· A "lost at sea" ranking chart for each team member. This should comprise six columns. The first simply lists each item (see below). The second is empty so that each team member can rank the items. The third is for group rankings. The fourth is for the "correct" rankings, which are revealed at the end of the exercise. And the fifth and sixth are for the team to enter the difference between their individual and correct score, and the team and correct rankings, respectively. 
· The items to be ranked are: a mosquito net, a can of petrol, a water container, a shaving mirror, a sextant, emergency rations, a sea chart, a floating seat or cushion, a rope, some chocolate bars, a waterproof sheet, a fishing rod, shark repellent, a bottle of rum, and a VHF radio. These can be listed in the ranking chart or displayed on a whiteboard, or both.
· The experience can be made more fun by having some lost-at-sea props in the room.

1. Divide participants into their teams, and provide everyone with a ranking sheet.
2. Ask team members to take 10 minutes on their own to rank the items in order of importance. They should do this in the second column of their sheet.
3. Give the teams a further 10 minutes to confer and decide on their group rankings. Once agreed, they should list them in the third column of their sheets.
4. Ask each group to compare their individual rankings with their collective ones, and consider why any scores differ. Did anyone change their mind about their own rankings during the team discussions? How much were people influenced by the group conversation?
5. Now read out the "correct" order, collated by the experts at the US Coast Guard (from most to least important):
Shaving mirror. (One of your most powerful tools, because you can use it to signal your location by reflecting the sun.)
Can of petrol. (Again, potentially vital for signaling as petrol floats on water and can be lit by your matches.) 
Water container. (Essential for collecting water to restore your lost fluids.)
Emergency rations. (Valuable for basic food intake.)
Plastic sheet. (Could be used for shelter, or to collect rainwater.)
Chocolate bars. (A handy food supply.)
Fishing rod. (Potentially useful, but there is no guarantee that you're able to catch fish. Could also feasibly double as a tent pole.)
Rope. (Handy for tying equipment together, but not necessarily vital for survival.)
Floating seat or cushion. (Useful as a life preserver.)
Shark repellent. (Potentially important when in the water.)
Bottle of rum. (Could be useful as an antiseptic for treating injuries, but will only dehydrate you if you drink it.)
Radio. (Chances are that you're out of range of any signal, anyway.)
Sea chart. (Worthless without navigational equipment.)
Mosquito net. (Assuming that you've been shipwrecked in the Atlantic, where there are no mosquitoes, this is pretty much useless.)
Sextant. (Impractical without relevant tables or a chronometer.)

Advice for the Facilitator

The ideal scenario is for teams to arrive at a consensus decision where everyone's opinion is heard. However, that doesn't always happen naturally: assertive people tend to get the most attention. Less forthright team members can often feel intimidated and don't always speak up, particularly when their ideas are different from the popular view. Where discussions are one-sided, draw quieter people in so that everyone is involved, but explain why you're doing this, so that people learn from it.

The Stepladder Technique: 
Making Better Group Decisions

The Stepladder Technique gives quiet team members a boost.
Making decisions within a group can often be challenging. When things go well, they can go very well. However, when things go wrong, you can end up mired in conflict. Some people may fight for recognition and position, others may be over-critical or disruptive, while others may sit quietly and not contribute anything to the overall effort. Because of this, groups can often spin out of control and make worse decisions than individuals working on their own.
When this happens, it's easy to see why some people throw their hands up in frustration and give up. However, when a group works in the right way, it really WORKS. Groups that function effectively together can outperform individuals and make much better decisions.
But how do you make your group effective? How do you get all group members to contribute and inspire one another to create great ideas and solutions?
The Stepladder Technique is a useful method for encouraging individual participation in group decision making.

The Stepladder Technique is a simple tool that manages how members enter the decision-making group. It encourages all members to contribute on an individual level BEFORE being influenced by anyone else. This result in a wider variety of ideas, it prevents people from "hiding" within the group, and it helps people avoid being "stepped on" or overpowered by stronger, louder group members.
All of this helps the group make better decisions at problem solving.

Using the Stepladder Technique

The Stepladder Technique has five basic steps. Here's how it works:
Step 1: Before getting together as a group, present the task or problem to all members. Give everyone sufficient time to think about what needs to be done and to form their own opinions on how to best accomplish the task or solve the problem.
Step 2: Form a core group of two members. Have them discuss the problem.
Step 3: Add a third group member to the core group. The third member presents ideas to the first two members BEFORE hearing the ideas that have already been discussed. After all three members have laid out their solutions and ideas, they discuss their options together.
Step 4: Repeat the same process by adding a fourth member, and so on, to the group. Allow time for discussion after each additional member has presented his or her ideas.
Step 5: Reach a final decision only after all members have been brought in and presented their ideas.

The Delphi Technique:

The Delphi Technique is a more complex method used for problem solving. A group of people independently work on the solution to the problem and give their assessments to a facilitator who reviews the data and issues a summary report. 

The first session aims to get a broad range of opinions. The results of the first round, when summarized, provide the basis for the second round of questions. Results from the second round of questions feed into the third and final round. The aim is to clarify and expand on issues, identify areas of agreement or disagreement and begin to find consensus.

Step 1: Choose a Facilitator
The first step is to choose your facilitator. You may wish to take on this role yourself, or find a neutral person within your organisation. It is useful to have someone that is familiar with research and data collection.

Step 2: Identify Your Experts
The Delphi technique relies on a panel of experts. This panel may be your project team, including the customer, or other experts from within your organisation or industry. An expert is, any individual with relevant knowledge and experience of a particular topic. 

Step 3: Define the Problem
What is the problem or issue you are seeking to understand? The experts need to know what problem they are commenting on, so ensure you provide a precise and comprehensive definition.

Step 4: Round One Questions
Ask general questions to gain a broad understanding of the experts view on future events. The questions may go out in the form of a questionnaire or survey. Collate and summarize the responses, removing any irrelevant material and looking for common viewpoints.

Step 5: Round Two Questions
Based on the answers to the first questions, the next questions should delve deeper into the topic to clarify specific issues. These questions may also go out in the form of a questionnaire or survey. Again, collate and summarize the results, removing any irrelevant material and look for the common ground. Remember, we are seeking to build consensus.

Step 6: Round Three Questions
The final questionnaire aims to focus on supporting decision making. Hone in on the areas of agreement. What is it the experts are all agreed upon?

Step 7: Act on Your Findings
After this round of questions, your experts will have, we hope, reached a consensus and you will have a solution to the problem. 

The Stepladder Technique is similar to the Delphi Method. While both tools have the same objective, they differ in a few key ways:

· In the Delphi Method, an objective facilitator or leader manages the group. In the Stepladder Technique, all members are equal.
· The Delphi Method keeps members anonymous. The facilitator manages the flow of information, and members may have no idea who else is in the group. The Stepladder Technique involves face-to-face meetings, so everyone knows who the other members are.
· The Delphi Method is a lengthy process, while the Stepladder Technique is much quicker.
· The Delphi Method is often used for major decisions that need input from a large number of people. The Stepladder Technique works best with smaller groups that make a wide range of decisions.

Groups can begin to lose their effectiveness and ability to make good quality decisions if they have too many members. Keep your group small – four to seven team members – to maximize effectiveness.