UG9: Problem Solving and Decision Making

“When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.” Anthony J. D’Angelo


You can readily improve the quality of your problem solving and decision making by being aware of and paying attention to a number of basic principles and ideas. Mostly it is about stopping to think a bit, rather than simply rushing into solutions or implicitly acceptance that what immediately comes to mind is necessary the best approach or decision.
'General Problem Solving Techniques'
Adopting an approach that has been successful in the past: particular types of problem have particular techniques for seeking solutions, readily available through the internet or in books or in courses;

Use analogies whereby we extract the critical features of the current problem in an abstract and general manner and then search for other problems with those characteristics which have been solved;

Use a ‘tree’ of options or possibilities to think through alternatives;

Look to express the problem in a different way, such as diagrammatically;

Make abstract problems concrete, by thinking of them as involving real people for example.
'Talk about your problem or decision'
We are better at giving other people advice than we are at giving ourselves advice: look to give yourself advice as though you were giving it to someone else who was in the same situation. We generally reach better decisions when we are able to debate and discuss the possible outcomes, even if it is only with ourselves.
‘Counter the ‘einstellung effect’
The ‘einstellung effect’ is when because we have a given type of solution in mind it holds us back from thinking about the problem in a different way. You need to take a break and think about different things or prompt yourself with random thoughts which you might stimulate by looking randomly in a book or dictionary.
‘‘A’ solution is not necessarily ‘a good’ or ‘the best’ solution’
Just because you’ve come up with a solution this doesn’t necessary mean the problem is adequately solved. The solution might not be workable. It might be that there are other better solutions.

People readily believe they have simplistic solutions to complex real world problems, but in reality their solutions are totally inappropriate because they fail to take account of the unintended consequences that invariably arise from simplistic solutions. In the vast majority of cases if a simple solution were capable of solving a complex problem it would have already done so.

Analysis of why something is a success often focusses on identifying what characteristics the successful entities have, find something in common, and declare it is the cause of the success. However they rarely look to see whether or not the same characteristics are also present in unsuccessful entities, or whether the absence of the characteristic is also present in other successful entities.
‘Be wary of hindsight judgement’
We learn to be better problem solvers or decision makers by reflecting on the outcomes of past attempts. Our ability to do this however is severely impacted by hindsight bias. To learn effectively we need to put ourselves into the original circumstances to judge what we might reasonably have done, and could in similar circumstances in the future do, differently. With hindsight bias however we tend to judge certain random factors as more important than others in a way we could not possibly have known at the time and which will not be the same in the future.

We should judge the ‘goodness’ of a decision on whether it had the best likelihood of success in the circumstances rather than whether or not it turned out to be successful. People will learn to make better decisions if they are called to account for the decision making process rather than for how the decision turns out, noting that chance often plays a major part in decision outcomes.

Imagine today that in 6 months time there will be a problem that needs to be urgently addressed. Is it obvious today which one it is of all the potential problems that might come about? It will be once the problem has occurred, and you might then be criticised for not having paid attention to it earlier.
‘What else?’
When looking for a solution or seeking to make a decision, ask yourself what if you couldn’t do any of things you have been up to now considering, or if none of the options you had been considering are viable. What else might you try? If you had to think of other alternatives, what might they be?
‘Impact of time of day and mood’
You will be more effective at thinking through problems in the morning after you’ve had some sleep than you will be late at night.

When in a good mood we are more intuitive and creative and more able to solve difficult analytical problems, but also more prone to logical errors and biases. When stressed or tired our brains struggle with being creative.

We make poor decisions when distracted, being rushed or under pressure, or when tired. Sleep on a decision if possible.
‘‘Could’ rather than ‘should’'
Don’t ask what should you do in a given situation, but rather ask what could you do. This will give rise to more options which you can then think through.
'Play the odds'
Many decisions involve ‘playing the odds’. Look to make a decision which has the best likelihood of the desired outcome, albeit potentially tempered by a need to avoid unacceptable outcomes. A given decision may be theoretically ‘the best option’ but it may carry the risk of unacceptable consequences and should thus be avoided, or at least other mitigating action to avoid the unacceptable consequences put in place.
'Keep an eye on purpose or end goals'
When faced with a problem ensure you understand what it is really about, and what you are looking to achieve in attempting to solve it. It is for example very common for seeming solutions to problems to address the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein

When faced with everyday decisions look to bring your long-term goals explicitly to mind and consciously think about whether or not given options are taking you closer to or further away from the achievement of your goals.
'Good enough?'
It can take a lot of time, and be wearing, trying to optimize all your decisions, or to be continually seeking the perfect solution. For many decisions simply make a decision that is good enough, either going with your instinct or quickly choosing from a small number of options. Don’t be too concerned about whether or not it is the best decision. Similarly a given solution to a problem might be good enough. If it is good enough, it is good enough. Move on.
‘Best to be had?’
Sometimes there are only bad outcomes from a decision that needs to be made. Even so, there is still a ‘best to be had’ outcome. In such circumstances many people take desperate gambles, or adopt high risk strategies, which is likely to make things worse than they would otherwise have been.
‘Structured approach to important decisions’
Sometimes it is important to make the effort to arrive at the best decision you can. Spend time on such decisions and be methodical. Clearly articulate what the decision is about, and how you will determine or know when you have the right answer.

Gather up all the relevant information you can. It might be that you need to delay the decision until you can get better information, albeit balance this against the potential consequences of delay.

Be open minded in identifying options and alternatives, and seek input and alternative views from others.

Understand the pros and cons of each alternative, and the differentiators between them, taking account of uncertainties and risks. Take account of potential consequences and the possibility of how the environment or circumstances might itself change as a result of following through on the alternatives.

Home in on the best solution having taken into account differentiators and uncertainties.

Note that the chosen solution may not be the theoretical best, but one that is most robust in the light of uncertainties.

Look to see if your preferred option could be further improved by incorporating elements of other options.
‘Be wary of assumptions’
Be aware of the potential that some of the information on which a decision is being based could be wrong or misleading? Ask this particularly about any information that might be a key differentiator in arriving at the preferred option. Information might be wrong inadvertently, or it could be wrong because it is being manipulated by someone with vested interests.

Don’t rely solely on information that is readily in front of you. Is there other information that could be relevant if you went looking for it?
‘Consider potential biases’
Consider the possibility of potential biases, particularly if there are strong pressures or self-interests involved.

If we are positively disposed towards an option we tend to see more benefits and fewer risks, and if we dislike an option we see higher risks and fewer benefits.

We overestimate our ability to predict what will happen in the future.

We are susceptible to sunk cost bias once we have already invested in a given outcome.

These and other biases apply to ourselves, to others, and also to those who might be considered experts: experts are susceptible to biases just like everyone else.
'Relying on intuition’
Whilst we should avoid relying on our intuition as regards important decisions - it is very strongly influenced by prejudices and biases - should your intuition feel uncomfortable about the decision you have arrived at, don’t ignore it: seek to better understand what is giving rise to your feelings.
'Being Creative’
Both problem solving and decision making will sometimes benefit from a bit of creativity, ie. having thoughts or ideas that wouldn’t naturally occur. Creativity is not something you are either born with or not, though some people are more naturally creative than others largely because of the circumstances of their upbringing. We can however all be more creative if we make the effort.

Over the longer term we become more creative by exposing ourselves to a much wider range of ideas, through mixing with people very different to ourselves, and reading or learning a bit about a wide range of subjects.

In the short term some of the ways we can spark a bit of creativity: by brainstorming, with ourselves or with others; by introducing a random component into our thinking - eg. by randomly looking up a word and then seeing how it might relate; by seeking to think about whatever we are thinking about in an abstract manner and then seeking out analogous situations from different disciplines; and by reviewing a list of generic concepts and mental models and looking at how they might relate (eg. page G.3 of my Amazon Book Thinking: Clearly by David G Croucher.)
'Involving other people'
Problems or decisions that involve other people are very often the most difficult to deal with. People do not always behave in predictable ways or in ways we expect. When faced with a problem that involves other people it is important to recognize that they have different perspectives and knowledge, different values and goals, and different patterns of thought, than we do, and we should respect that and be looking for mutually agreeable ways forward rather than simply trying to get what we want or what we believe to be the right solution or decision.
'Time of the day’
If there are particularly important problems to be solved, or decisions to be made, note that our ability to think clearly through an issue will often vary during the day. Later in the day for example we are often intellectually tired and both less able to stay focussed on a particular issue and also more likely to adopt shortcuts in our thinking. Most people will often be at their intellectual best mid-morning, though you may know for yourself when you are at your best. If the problem or decision is one that you have time to reflect on then do so, and ensure you reflect on it when at your best. The advice of ‘sleep on it’ when making an important decision or trying to solve a difficult problem is generally good advice.
'Decision follow through’
Once you have made a decision and committed to it, pay attention to its follow through. Many decisions which are good in principle fail to result in the expected benefits as a result of poor follow through.

Whilst we may have committed to a decision as the best in the circumstances, it may still have shortcomings. It may still have weaknesses or undesirable aspects that need to be explicitly acknowledged and managed as part of the follow through.

If circumstances change or you become aware of new information, then be willing to reconsider decisions already made. This doesn’t mean you necessarily need to continually keep remaking decision, however nor should you necessarily continue down a path that is no longer appropriate.
'Not your fault?'
Accept responsibility for your decisions, though you don’t necessarily need to accept blame for or feel bad about the outcome.

Sometimes your decisions are so constrained that there is no good outcome; that is not your fault.

Sometimes you don’t have all the information about the circumstances at the time and it is unreasonable to expect you to have had; that is not your fault.

Sometimes outcome is critically dependent upon chance in a way you could not have reasonably foreseen; that is not your fault.

Judge your own decisions, and those of others, based upon the options and information readily available in the circumstances extant at the time, not on the basis of the outcome itself or what is only apparent through hindsight.