Reasoning And Decision Making
© Milton N. Bradley 2010
Chapter 4 - Problem Constraints, Problem Statements, Solution Guidelines
Having concluded our rather extended excursion into the vital topic of collecting, validating and evaluating the relevant facts and data, we now continue with the steps involved in actually arriving at an implementable problem solution.
4. Identify/Quantify The Operative Problem Constraints.
- List the operative constraints:
Considering the effects of the operative constraints is clearly a vital step, because a valid and implementable solution is impossible to achieve if it isn’t consistent with those constraints! Fortunately, this is usually relatively easy and straightforward to accomplish if your prior data collection/ validation efforts have been properly conducted.
Is the issue one of timing? Amount of time needed to implement? Both? If time to implement dominates, how long is it expected to take? Who made that estimate, and how certain can you be that it’s accurate? And if it’s accurate, can the solution be sped up or can more time somehow be found?
Are the assumed money limits necessary? Who made the estimate, and how certain are you that it’s accurate? Can more money be found? Or, more creatively, can the job be done for less money or even no money at all? Or can you get someone else to pay?
Are the apparent physical constraints real? Or only illusory? Can you use anyone else’s clever solution to a similar problem to help solve yours?
In addition to time and money, solving this problem will take a certain commitment of both physical and mental energy. Are you prepared to expend it?
Is the available information correct? Adequate? How do you know? To be certain, double check to validate the so-called facts surrounding the problem, obtaining more information as required.
Are there legal restrictions on the solution? Are you certain? If not, get professional advice. If there really are such restrictions, can the law be changed, reinterpreted, or circumvented?
What total expenditure of time, energy, money, mental effort, emotion, or other resources will be needed to solve the problem? How does the sum of these compare with the payoff from a solution? And is that comparison favorable, either intrinsically or psychologically?
Is the assistance of others necessary to achieve a solution? Is that likely to be forthcoming? And how do you know that? Is it necessary that others favor the solution, support it and/or help implement it? Or do you believe that certain people/groups will be against the solution? If so, with what degree of assurance do you know those things? And can you prudently proceed despite this?
Is your ability to find the best solution being limited because of attitudes in the culture of the groups to which you belong, or that of society in general? And if so, is achieving that solution important enough to you to countenance violating those cultural constraints?
Any other inhibiting factors not covered above.
Once the constraints have been listed to insure that none have been overlooked, it is then necessary to:
- Quantify/Prioritize the constraints as either:
- Critical (must be accommodated), or
- Non-critical (may be ignored if necessary).
The key is to identify all of the critical constraints, and then assure that each and every one is satisfied! This is an “all or nothing” proposition, with no functional difference between 95% satisfaction and 0%! But even if some of the non-critical constraints are omitted, a useable solution may still be realized.
The hidden difficulty underlying satisfactory completion of this vital step is that your view of the constraints is necessarily influenced by your prior experiences. By shaping your understanding of the situation and/or desire to focus (and quickly solve) the problem, these prior experiences almost invariably generate a set of (often subconscious) assumptions about the constraints and their applicability, so in order to properly accommodate them what must be done is to:
- Identify The Assumptions Behind Each Constraint:
- General Assumptions.
These are assumptions you make subconsciously, usually without even realizing that you have made them! Some are necessary but many may not be, and this can be a serious problem.. To avoid its worst effects, making a list that includes every assumption - even the most obvious - will assure that you become consciously aware of any potentially damaging biases or unnecessary restrictions that you’re mistakenly trying to impose, and which may prevent reaching the best (or even any!) solution.
- Specific (Critical) Assumptions.
These assumptions will almost always be made consciously, but may not be examined in sufficient depth to determine whether they are really necessary or not. Since they are the major determinants of the boundaries and viability of the solution, making a meticulous and complete list of them and examining each in equally meticulous detail is essential!
- For each assumption, determine:
- Is it necessary? If so, it must be retained and accommodated.
- If it is not necessary:
- Is it appropriate and/or desirable? If so, it should be retained.
- Or can/should it be safely dispensed with?
Careful attention to this step has a large potential payoff , because each and every unnecessary constraint that you can eliminate from consideration will make the problem solution both easier and less costly (in terms of all required resources) to reach.
The steps that follow are not only far more difficult to accomplish correctly than the identification of problem constraints, but are also even more crucial to achieving a successful final Problem Solution.
5. Develop/Refine The Problem Statement
- Identify/Evaluate Feasible Problem Alternatives
The situations we perceive as "problems" are often complex and/or ill defined. They also frequently offer a choice of possible ameliorative actions (= “solutions”), none of which is obviously perfect, so that, willingly or not, we are forced to make some form of compromise.
As noted earlier, a “solution” consists of a specification of a series of actions which will take us from the initial (problem = unacceptable) state to the desired goal state.
Perhaps the most important impediment to efficiently generating an acceptable solution is the difficulty in properly identifying the nature of the real underlying problem, as distinct from either its symptoms (which often may not provide a completely adequate problem description) or our misperception of the true nature of the problem itself. Such misidentification then inevitably leads us to an incorrect Problem Statement, and thence almost necessarily to a useless or even actively detrimental “solution”. So realizing a truly useful Problem Solution requires as an essential precondition that we first create an accurate and detailed Problem Statement.
A major pitfall that all too frequently traps the unwary in creating an adequate Problem Statement is revealed in the following key bit of wisdom that has been developed as a result of extensive sad experience by professional problem solving consultants:
THE FIRST PROBLEM STATEMENT GENERATED
ONLY RARELY DESCRIBES THE TRUE PROBLEM!
Some of the actions that have been developed to circumvent this critical difficulty are:
- Review/question all facts and parameters at least five times.
- Restate the Problem in as many ways as you can:
- Change the wording.
- Take different viewpoints.
- Try transforming it into another.
- Make Concept Maps, Flowcharts, and/or Venn Diagrams, as appropriate.
- Refine your own thinking by explaining the problem to others and listening to yourself as you do so.
- Get the opinion of friends, associates and/or experts in appropriate fields.
- Don't try to learn all the details before deciding on a first (trial) approach to solution.
- Try visualizing solutions from different directions and/or starting points.
- Study the inverse problem. (See what would happen if you try to make things worse!)
- Test the extremes.
- Continuously revise the Problem Statement as required by any new information developed during the solution process.
Traps to avoid in this stage:
- Not stating the problem in sufficient detail.
- Confusing symptoms with causes.
- Stating the problem in behavioral (= interpersonal) instead of situational terms.
- Assuming that your personal difficulty with the situation is "the" problem.
- Accepting information at face value.
- Failing to differentiate fact from opinion.
- Making premature judgments about facts, people and/or actions.
- Unthinkingly applying stereotypes.
- Implying a solution in the problem statement.
- Prematurely settling on a solution.
In trying to generate Problem Alternatives, consider:
- Key system/available resource constraints
- legal issues
- organizational issues
- external realities
- The decision maker’s
- Personal constraints.
- Sources of power in the situation.
- Possible leverage points
- organizational structure
- reward systems
- job descriptions
- societal environment
- individual behavior of key people involved
6. Develop Rational Solution Alternatives
Once you have validated that the Problem that you’re trying to solve is really the one of interest to you, then essentially the same sort of scrutiny must be applied to finding its optimal solution (or as near to that as the actual problem constraints will allow).
Be creative, and try to visualize how you would live with each of the various solution alternatives under consideration, what their impact would be on others, as well as the costs and benefits of each.
In order to maximize the probability that an optimal Problem Solution will be reached, it is vital to first create the maximum number of possible solution alternatives over the entire range of acceptable options identified in the previous phase, without concern for feasibility. Pruning of infeasible options can then follow later. Enough time and effort should be devoted to this activity to ensure that non-standard and innovative alternatives are generated.
Another part of the difficulty in achieving at least a minimally useful (and preferably near optimal) Solution is that the form of the Problem Statement itself often not only implies a certain solution, but sometimes even constrains the feasibility of generating any solution at all! So except in the most trivial cases, the greatest possible care in framing the Problem Statement is required!
If the problem is yours, or if you are the designated problem solver, to be sure that all of the right bases have been touched, asking the following questions is extremely helpful:
- What is the exact nature of the problem to be solved?
- Are you sure it really is a problem? And if so how and why?
- For whom is it a problem, and why?
- What type of problem is it ?(personal, individual, relationship, group, intergroup, leadership/motivation/power, technical, man/machine interface, total system)?
- Is it important?
- How important relative to other problems?
- Is it urgent?
- How urgent relative to other problems?
- In short, do we really want/need to solve this problem at all, and/or now?
If the problem's constraints satisfy these questions, then the following additional questions become relevant:
- Must the problem be solved as a whole, or can it be broken into several sub-problems, each of which may be easier/less costly/quicker to solve?
- What are the problem’s major deleterious effects you desire to ameliorate/avoid?
- How do key people affected feel about the problem and its current outcomes?
- Have you identified the problem’s crucial aspects and constraints?
- Could doing something to “fix” the problem have unwanted consequences? If so, what? And how serious are they?
- How stable are present conditions?
- What do you expect would happen if the problem were ignored? Will it get worse? Stay the same? Or spontaneously go away? And how soon?
- What are the sources of the available information? And how reliable are they?
- What facts do you have? And how reliable are they?
- What key information do you know that is not included in the Problem Statement?
- Are all of the constraints and/or assumptions reasonable? Necessary? Or can some be eliminated? If so, which?
- What information is lacking?
- Have you seen a similar problem before?
- If so, what are the key points of similarity? Of difference?
- How likely is it that the solution to the prior problem (or a modification thereof) can be satisfactorily applied to this one?
If the problem isn’t yours but you are trying to solve it for some other person or organization, it is crucial that you get that person or organization’s answers to these same questions, and (if feasible) that you work closely with them in this process.
Perhaps over and even beyond all of the detailed technical questions posed above, there are the human considerations that must be accounted for. We all prefer to believe that our personal view of the world is clear and objective, but the reality is that it’s often anything but. We’re each the product of all of our prior experiences and how we and those who’ve shaped us have responded to them. And that means, whether we like it or not, we are influenced not only by the objective realities of the current situation but also by the psychological baggage we bring to it. The result is that when we view the current situation we almost necessarily analogize it to our prior experiences and then (usually subconsciously) assign a label to it. This label then influences both the way we frame the Problem Statement and the places we look for the Problem Solution, and, perhaps equally important, also constrains the very nature of that solution as well! It is therefore highly useful to pause early on during the course of creating the Problem Statement to ask yourself how (and why) you’ve got it labeled as you do.
For example, if I believe that my problem in obtaining employment at an acceptably high compensation level is primarily a result of the current recession, then only a certain very limited set of solution options is open to me. But if I see my problem as primarily one of my own lack of marketable skills, an entirely different and far larger set of potential solution options becomes available.
The difficulty is that our mental biases are often quite subtle and in any event largely not consciously known to us, so that it’s not easy to detect them and then appropriately reformulate the Problem Statement. In fact, because these biases are so intimately related to and integrated into our basic personality structure, accomplishing this review may be especially difficult in those cases where the problem we’re trying to solve is “close to the bone” of our existence. But since those are our most important problems the payoff for its accomplishment will be the greatest! One strategy for handling this difficulty without confronting the (usually unpleasant) necessity of probing our own deep psychological motivations is to simply and routinely change the way we’ve labeled each and every problem, then create appropriate Problem Statements for each different label, and see where that leads!
7. Determine The Effectiveness Of Proposed Alternative Solutions.
During this step it is important to identify any boundaries of acceptable alternatives, important facts, values and/or feelings to be considered, and results that should be avoided. Criteria should be categorized as either essential to a successful solution or merely desirable.
Potential criteria are:
- Relevant facts
- Important personal, group, organization, community, and societal values, attitudes and feelings.
- Technical limitations and constraints
- Factors that:
- logically flow from the statement of the problem
- influence how alternatives function.
- influence how the solution fits into the larger context.
After the potential evaluation criteria are listed, they must themselves then be:
- Reconciled with the stated Problem and Solution constraints
- Pruned to eliminate the unimportant or irrelevant.
- Revised/modified as required.
- Assess/Estimate Problem Solvability, given the:
- Constraints established
- Evaluation criteria
- Available time and resources
- Proceed only if that estimate produces a sufficiently high cost/benefit ratio
Only if the decision to proceed is affirmative will it then be appropriate to actually develop, select, and evaluate problem alternatives and proposed solutions, and then apply to them the evaluation criteria just developed.
8. Repeat The Preceding 7 Steps As Required Until An Acceptable Solution Is Reached.
In the next chapter, we will explore some practical decision making techniques.
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