The problem solving cycle
There are a variety of problem solving processes but each process consists of a series of steps, including identifying an issue, searching for options and putting a possible solution into action. It is useful to view problem solving as a cycle because, sometimes, a problem needs several attempts to solve it, or the problem changes. Figure 1 shows a seven-step problem solving cycle.
To solve a problem, take the steps, one at a time.
Step 1. Identify you have a problem – and what it is
The first step you need to take is to identify that you have a problem. The problem may be. You will need to identify what sort of problem it is so that you can find an appropriate solution.
What is the nature of this problem? (temporary or longer term; big or small?; One that effects only you or others?; Will others need to be consulted? )
‘What is hindering you from completing this task?” (eg. Lack of sufficient knowledge/information; Lack of experience;
Step 2. Explore/understand the (real) problem
When you are clear about what the problem is you need to think about it in different ways. You can ask yourself questions such as:
- ‘How is this problem affecting me?’
- ‘How is it affecting others?’
- ‘Who else experiences this problem?’
- ‘What do they do about it?’
Seeing the problem in different ways is likely to help you find an effective solution.
Step 3. Set goals/objectives
Once you have thought about the problem from different angles you can identify your goals. What is it that you want to achieve? Sometimes you might get so frustrated by a problem that you forget to think about what you want. For example, you might become ill, struggle to complete a number of assignments on time and feel so unmotivated that you let due dates pass. It is important at this time to consider the question, ‘What is my immediate goal?’ Do you want to:
- improve your health?
- increase your time management skills?
- complete the assignments to the best of your ability?
- finish the assignments as soon as possible?
If you decide your goal is to improve your health, that will lead to solutions which are different from those linked to the goal of completing your assignments as soon as possible. One goal may lead you to a doctor and/or to take leave of absence from university; the other goal may lead you to apply for extensions for your assignments. So working out your goals is a vital part of the problem solving process.
Step 4. Look at Alternatives
When you have decided what your goal is you need to look for possible solutions. The more possible solutions you find the more likely it is that you will be able to discover an effective solution. You can brain-storm for ideas. The purpose of brain-storming is to collect together a long list of possibilities. It does not matter whether the ideas are useful or practical or manageable: just write down the ideas as they come into your head. Some of the best solutions arise from creative thinking during brain-storming. You can also seek ideas about possible solutions from friends, family, a partner, a counsellor, a lecturer, books or the internet. The aim is to collect as many alternative solutions as possible.
Step 5. Select a possible solution
From the list of possible solutions you can sort out which are most relevant to your situation and which are realistic and manageable. You can do this by predicting outcomes for possible solutions and also checking with other people what they think outcomes might be. For example, if a possible solution is withdrawing from a course and it seems realistic and manageable to you, you can check with university staff how withdrawing will affect your grade for that course, your future enrolment and your Higher Education Contributions. And if you are receiving a Centrelink Allowance you will need to check with Centrelink whether or not withdrawal from a course will affect your payment. When you have explored the consequences, you can use this information to identify the solution which is most relevant to you and is likely to have the best outcomes for your situation.
Step 6. Implement a possible solution
Once you have selected a possible solution you are ready to put it into action. You will need to have energy and motivation to do this because implementing the solution may take some time and effort. (If the solution had been easy to find and do, you would have probably already done it.) You can prepare yourself to implement the solution by planning when and how you will do it, whether you talk with others about it, and what rewards you will give yourself when you have done it.
Step 7. Evaluate
Just because you have worked your way through the problem solving process it does not mean that, by implementing the possible solution, you automatically solve your problem. So evaluating the effectiveness of your solution is very important. You can ask yourself (and others) :
- ‘How effective was that solution?’
- ‘Did it achieve what I wanted?’
- What consequences did it have on my situation?’
If the solution was successful in helping you solve your problem and reach your goal, then you know that you have effectively solved your problem. If you feel dissatisfied with the result, then you can begin the steps again. Viewing problem solving as a cycle may help you recognise that problem solving is a way of searching for a solution which will lead to different possible solutions, which you can evaluate. If you have solved the problem you have found an effective solution. If you judge the problem has not been solved you can look for, and try, alternative possibilities by beginning the problem solving cycle again.