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How to Solve It

Blog | Life and Leadership   |   August 28, 2017

by Czarina Marifosque

A quick google search on “top skills needed at the workplace” would surface problem solving as one of these skills. Problem solving is the ability to effectively respond to problems or setbacks. Whichever line of work we are in, problems are inevitable, and one’s ability to effectively problem-solve will go a long way.

Many of us cringe at the phrase “problem sums,” as it reminds of our primary school days. Though the sight of problem sums has one running to the hills, “problem sums” are taught in primary schools to influence the next generation of the workforce with a problem-solving mindset.

In his book How to Solve It, Hungarian Mathematician George Polya introduced Four (4) Principles of Problem Solving. While it may not be something explicitly taught in math classes at school, tackling problem sums adopted these principles. Using the same basic principles, with some modifications here and there, complex problems are broken down into steps, making it less overwhelming.

In a recent project I was involved in, at the concluding stage of the project, we found ourselves with a problem. We proposed a training solution to a client, which later on turned out to not be what the client needed. With just two weeks before the program date and materials needing to be printed prior to that, we found ourselves in a bind. Polya’s four-step mathematical approach proved to be an effective roadmap toward a solution.

Based on Polya’s approach, here are the four steps and how our team used the principles to solve our problem.

The obvious problem was that the proposed training was not what the client needed and underlying that were:

  •   Our team needed to be clear on the objectives of the proposed program and
  •   We needed to get a clearer picture of the client’s pressing needs

In math class, this step involved asking the question: “do I have enough information to enable me to find a solution?” You then highlight or underline keywords or numbers in the given problem that are important for answering the question.

The same principle can be applied at work. When faced with a setback, we can start looking at the key information we need to move forward. Look at the end goal, determine the crucial details, and identify current resources needed. The goal of this principle is not to find a scapegoat but to identify what is the “weakest link” – not who but what. Knowing this, we can proceed with the next step.

Some questions you can ask: What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition? Is the condition enough to determine the unknown?

While we may have some notes about the project, we also realize that further engagement with the client and other stakeholders is in order.

Having understood the “problem”, the plan included:

  •   Breaking down different tasks and delegating to different people in the team
  •   Information sharing. While this was relatively new challenge for the team, some of the members encountered a similar situation before and were able to share what was done. We applied this knowledge to relevant areas in our problem.

In problem sums, the common “plan” is always solving using the model method. Other plans include guess and check, working backwards and making a list. Depending on the nature of the problem, we always want to look for the shortest way to solve a problem. The shorter the solution, the better.

In the same way, our ability to devise a plan and identify the most appropriate strategy in workplace problem solving is helpful especially with tight deadlines. When problems are solved using the best approach, there is better stewardship of company resources and increased productivity in the workflow.

Some questions you can ask: Have you encountered this problem before? Can this be solved using the usual approach or is a different approach needed? Should this be broken into smaller tasks? Can this be simplified?

With different tasks delegated to different members, a timeline was decided upon to carry out the plan. We held each other accountable by checking on the different milestones and asking and offering help when necessary.

We knew quite well during primary school days that drawing the model or writing the first line of the solution will not: (1) allow us to arrive at the final answer and (2) give us full marks. Our teachers insisted on us showing the solution and sometimes, it was frustrating.

At work, to devise a plan is one thing and to carry it out is another. It can be a messy and tedious business but strategies and plans are empty without action. This step also helps build trust and good working relationships as you collaborate with key stakeholders involved in the problem.

Some questions you can ask: Is each step leading closer to the solution? Is this working or should other ways be considered?

Because there are more problems to solve than time is available, this step is often left out in solving problem sums. Only if time permits, then we “look back”. Some would attempt the question again and re-work the whole question! But that’s not what this step is about.

Polya mentioned that much can be gained by taking the time to reflect and look back at what has been done, what worked and what didn’t. This step helps and enables to predict the best strategy to solve future problems.

At work, we often do not have the luxury of time to repeat the same approach to solve exactly the same problem, but we have an opportunity to evaluate what transpired, and what we learned from it.

The final executed training took a different form from the original proposed training while retaining basic features and objectives. After the training, the team had a debrief on what worked and what can be improved. This was also an opportunity for us further conclude that:

  •   A document to accurately capture the different training programs that we have in ROHEI is important and needs to be updated regularly and
  •   Our team needs to be equipped with good questioning techniques to get a clearer understanding of the client needs to recommend relevant trainings

At the end of the day, we do not stop at executing the plan but looking back to see how we may prevent similar “problems” from happening in the future.

Some questions you can ask: Was the problem identified in the first principle addressed? Can this problem be solved differently? Can this approach/result be used for some other problem?

A mathematical approach to workplace problem solving is about following simple, logical steps for every problem. No matter how challenging or impossible the problem may seem, the process reminds you that it’s something you’ve done before. So just breathe, and take it one mathematical step at a time.

Czar is a Senior Consultant at ROHEI. She loves spending time with the youth and de-stresses by reading, writing, or running. One sure way to make her smile is talk about anything related to Math.

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