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This content is taken from the University of Leeds & Institute of Coding's online course, Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve. Join the course to learn more.

A problem solving approach

Now it’s time to move on to thinking about the ways in which problems can be approached.

diagram of the five step problem solving process

Earlier you saw a quote from Karl Popper: “All life is problem solving”. Popper was a philosopher who saw that the basic scientific method, the biological processes behind evolution, and common sense ‘trial and error’ problem solving could be broken down into three steps:

  1. The problem (What’s wrong? Observe your situation to find out where your expectations are not being met.)
  2. The attempted solutions (What could you change? Try out a solution that might solve the problem.)
  3. The elimination (Did your solution work? Discard it if not, and try something else.)

You can run through the three stages repeatedly, until you find a solution which solves the problem. You learn what works through trial and error.

You almost certainly use a process a bit like this in your own life without realising it. Stuck playing a computer game? You keep trying different strategies until you beat the level. Missing an ingredient for a cake you’re baking? You might try substituting an ingredient and end up with something delicious – or a cake that doesn’t rise.

There are many problem-solving methodologies that vary in number of steps, but all follow the same basic pattern of investigating the problem, coming up with solutions and checking to see if they work.

For instance, design thinking is a five-phased iterative approach used by designers to create products and services that emphasises working with people to solve problems. Another example is Ford Motors who developed Eight Disciplines (8Ds), an eight step method to find and fix recurring technical problems.

In this course, you’ll use a five-step process for problem solving that helps you think in a little more detail about the work you need to do to make your solutions work. It will also hopefully eliminate a little bit of the trial and error.

To solve problems, you will:

  1. Analyse the problem by identifying and investigating issues, uncovering root causes and defining the problem.
  2. Generate ideas to solve the problem by thinking creatively about possible solutions.
  3. Evaluate your possible solutions to prioritise the ones that are likely to work well.
  4. Implement your chosen solution by planning and carrying out your solution.
  5. Assess the solution to see if it worked as you expected.

You can find extra resources relating to the ideas and processes described in this step in the See Also section. You might also like to check out Get Creative with People to Solve Problems to find out more about design thinking and human-centred design.

In the next step you’ll be introduced to a case study which will help you to identify and solve problems using this five step process.

Share your experiences:

Think of a problem you’ve solved recently.

  • Did you use any particular approach or techniques to solve it?
  • Can you apply the five steps of the process above to what you did?

Share your example in the Comments, and see if other learners followed a similar approach.

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This article is from the free online course:

Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve

University of Leeds