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QDM stories: Innovation

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To get innovation right the first time, start with three simple questions

Headshot of Dennis Shirokov.

As vice president of Retail and Consumer Marketing for FedEx, Dennis Shirokov is responsible for the company’s retail access network and consumer marketing programs. Previously, as director of Innovation and Design for FedEx Services, Shirokov led efforts to deliver breakthrough experiences, solutions and business models by embedding design thinking and innovation methods across FedEx.

Since joining the company in 2000, Shirokov has participated in the innovation process countless times. Through his experience, he has developed a point of view about how to approach innovation – and how  not  to approach it. 

Here, Shirokov shares insights about getting innovation right the first time, and how Quality Driven Management (QDM) — the unique FedEx approach to quality — and its Design ABLE methodology can help.

Dennis Shirokov: When I joined FedEx in 2000, the dot-com phenomenon was just becoming a viable proposition. I saw that FedEx was already innovating in the e-commerce space — using the web to enable online transactions, not just to publish brochures online like many other companies in those early days — and I was excited to become part of it.

Since that time, FedEx has remained at the forefront of innovation. Today, we’re focused on creating seamless, end-to-end customer experiences that deliver more value and differentiate FedEx in the marketplace.

We see the fruits of our efforts in the Roxo™ FedEx SameDay Bot, an autonomous delivery device that is currently in testing in the U.S. and is expected to play a new role for same-day and last-mile deliveries of smaller shipments to customers’ homes and businesses. Another innovation is FedEx Freight Direct, which addresses a need in the marketplace for residential and business delivery of large, bulky items into residences and businesses.

During my innovation journey with FedEx, I’ve learned about the factors that typically cause innovations to succeed or fail. We’ve incorporated our knowledge into Design ABLE, a methodology that fuses design thinking with Quality Driven Management (QDM).

Multiple people working around a desk.

I’m passionate about sharing this knowledge with others. Many of our customers are small businesses, and they typically don’t have people on their teams who get to focus on innovation best practices. At the same time, when it comes to launching an innovative new technology, process or approach to the marketplace, they’ve got to get it right.

Whether you’re part of a small business or a large enterprise, and whether you’re seeking to grow sales or improve internal processes, I’d like to share a few innovation success factors in the form of three questions. Ask these questions and consider the advice that follows to help you introduce innovations that will win. 

What is the driver for this innovation? Why am I pursuing it?

The answer to this question reveals a great deal about your concept’s potential to succeed. If your answer about the driver of your innovation falls into one of these categories, you’ll want seriously reconsider your premise:

  • “It’s a brilliant idea.”
  • “This is incredible technology. We need to find an application for it.”
  • “We’ve got to beat the competition at their own game.” 
  • “Leadership is saying we need to make this happen.”

These drivers are common but can lead you down the wrong paths, toward solutions that don’t really make a difference for customers.

In our view, at FedEx, innovations should originate from one place and one place only: deep customer empathy.

The Design ABLE process begins with A for “Assess,” and this first step is when we build in lots of room to learn about customer needs and motivations. The ABLE phases that follow are “B” for Build, “L” for Launch and “E” for Evaluate. More on that shortly.

In the Assess phase, it’s critical to start by identifying customer pain points or unmet needs that you could address. It’s a time to improvise, listen and get closer to understanding the human problems that exist in a process. In our view, every innovation that succeeds builds from this foundation. Keep in mind, your “customer” might be someone inside your own organization – for example, someone filing an expense report or booking travel.

What tools and processes will I use to develop and test my innovation?

Once you have a deep understanding of the customer experience and have identified the best opportunity or opportunities to make it better, you’re already moving down the right path.

The next phase of the ABLE process, the Build phase, is all about using tools to brainstorm and develop potential solutions that will create a better customer outcome or even change the game completely.

Our Design ABLE tools emerged from QDM, our quality methodology at FedEx. We’ve found that it’s critically important to incorporate design thinking into all business processes, and QDM gives us the perfect flexible framework to do so. 

Two men working on a computer.

The first Principle of QDM is Customers Define Quality — which is also the perfect starting point for innovation. Go here for a quick primer on  QDM Principles .

The point of using specific tools and processes is to be sure that you bring rigor and discipline to brainstorming and developing prototype solutions — and then bring these concepts back to customers for validation. All too often, that customer feedback loop actually can get shortchanged in the midst of urgent work to launch an innovation.

Once you’ve walked through the steps that confirm your innovation meets customers’ needs, you’re finally ready to move ahead confidently with Launch, the third step in the Design ABLE process.

How will I know if my innovation is working and gather additional feedback to make it better?

Design ABLE concludes with “Evaluate.” While it’s the last step in the process, the time to consider how you’ll measure outcomes is in the beginning — during the Assess and Build phases. Create a plan to quickly evaluate customer outcomes after launching your innovation, so you can be nimble in responding to any unforeseen challenges.

Keep in mind, too, that “evaluation” is a forever process. Once you’ve launched an innovation, you’ll continue to seek customer feedback and gather data, so you can identify opportunities for ongoing improvement.

At FedEx, we remind ourselves that nothing stands still: Customer preferences, advances in technology and the marketplace will be in a constant, dynamic state of change.

So embrace it. By getting into the mindset of customer-focused innovation and applying best practices, you’ll be ready for whatever comes next.

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The Mind Tools Content Team

How Good Is Your Problem Solving?

How Good Is Your Problem Solving?

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Use a systematic approach.

Good problem solving skills are fundamentally important if you're going to be successful in your career.

But problems are something that we don't particularly like.

They're time-consuming.

They muscle their way into already packed schedules.

They force us to think about an uncertain future.

And they never seem to go away!

That's why, when faced with problems, most of us try to eliminate them as quickly as possible. But have you ever chosen the easiest or most obvious solution – and then realized that you have entirely missed a much better solution? Or have you found yourself fixing just the symptoms of a problem, only for the situation to get much worse?

To be an effective problem-solver, you need to be systematic and logical in your approach. This quiz helps you assess your current approach to problem solving. By improving this, you'll make better overall decisions. And as you increase your confidence with solving problems, you'll be less likely to rush to the first solution – which may not necessarily be the best one.

Once you've completed the quiz, we'll direct you to tools and resources that can help you make the most of your problem-solving skills.

How Good Are You at Solving Problems?


For each statement, click the button in the column that best describes you. Please answer questions as you actually are (rather than how you think you should be), and don't worry if some questions seem to score in the 'wrong direction'. When you are finished, please click the 'Calculate My Total' button at the bottom of the test.

Your last quiz results are shown.

You last completed this quiz on , at .

Score Interpretation

Answering these questions should have helped you recognize the key steps associated with effective problem solving.

This quiz is based on Dr Min Basadur's Simplexity Thinking    problem-solving model. This eight-step process follows the circular pattern shown below, within which current problems are solved and new problems are identified on an ongoing basis. This assessment has not been validated and is intended for illustrative purposes only. 

Figure 1 – The Simplexity Thinking Process

Reproduced with permission from Dr Min Basadur from "The Power of Innovation: How to Make Innovation a Part of Life & How to Put Creative Solutions to Work" Copyright ©1995

Simplex Process Diagram

Below, we outline the tools and strategies you can use for each stage of the problem-solving process. Enjoy exploring these stages!

Step 1: Find the Problem

(Questions 7, 12)

Some problems are very obvious, however others are not so easily identified. As part of an effective problem-solving process, you need to look actively for problems – even when things seem to be running fine. Proactive problem solving helps you avoid emergencies and allows you to be calm and in control when issues arise.

These techniques can help you do this:

  • PEST Analysis   helps you pick up changes to your environment that you should be paying attention to. Make sure too that you're watching changes in customer needs and market dynamics, and that you're monitoring trends that are relevant to your industry.
  • Risk Analysis   helps you identify significant business risks.
  • Failure Modes and Effects Analysis   helps you identify possible points of failure in your business process, so that you can fix these before problems arise.
  • After Action Reviews   help you scan recent performance to identify things that can be done better in the future.
  • Where you have several problems to solve, our articles on Prioritization   and Pareto Analysis   help you think about which ones you should focus on first.

Step 2: Find the Facts

(Questions 10, 14)

After identifying a potential problem, you need information. What factors contribute to the problem? Who is involved with it? What solutions have been tried before? What do others think about the problem?

If you move forward to find a solution too quickly, you risk relying on imperfect information that's based on assumptions and limited perspectives, so make sure that you research the problem thoroughly.

Step 3: Define the Problem

(Questions 3, 9)

Now that you understand the problem, define it clearly and completely. Writing a clear problem definition forces you to establish specific boundaries for the problem. This keeps the scope from growing too large, and it helps you stay focused on the main issues.

A great tool to use at this stage is CATWOE   . With this process, you analyze potential problems by looking at them from six perspectives, those of its Customers; Actors (people within the organization); the Transformation, or business process; the World-view, or top-down view of what's going on; the Owner; and the wider organizational Environment. By looking at a situation from these perspectives, you can open your mind and come to a much sharper and more comprehensive definition of the problem.

Cause and Effect Analysis   is another good tool to use here, as it helps you think about the many different factors that can contribute to a problem. This helps you separate the symptoms of a problem from its fundamental causes.

Step 4: Find Ideas

(Questions 4, 13)

With a clear problem definition, start generating ideas for a solution. The key here is to be flexible in the way you approach a problem. You want to be able to see it from as many perspectives as possible. Looking for patterns or common elements in different parts of the problem can sometimes help. You can also use metaphors   and analogies to help analyze the problem, discover similarities to other issues, and think of solutions based on those similarities.

Traditional brainstorming   and reverse brainstorming   are very useful here. By taking the time to generate a range of creative solutions to the problem, you'll significantly increase the likelihood that you'll find the best possible solution, not just a semi-adequate one. Where appropriate, involve people with different viewpoints to expand the volume of ideas generated.

Don't evaluate your ideas until step 5. If you do, this will limit your creativity at too early a stage.

Step 5: Select and Evaluate

(Questions 6, 15)

After finding ideas, you'll have many options that must be evaluated. It's tempting at this stage to charge in and start discarding ideas immediately. However, if you do this without first determining the criteria for a good solution, you risk rejecting an alternative that has real potential.

Decide what elements are needed for a realistic and practical solution, and think about the criteria you'll use to choose between potential solutions.

Paired Comparison Analysis   , Decision Matrix Analysis   and Risk Analysis   are useful techniques here, as are many of the specialist resources available within our Decision-Making section . Enjoy exploring these!

Step 6: Plan

(Questions 1, 16)

You might think that choosing a solution is the end of a problem-solving process. In fact, it's simply the start of the next phase in problem solving: implementation. This involves lots of planning and preparation. If you haven't already developed a full Risk Analysis   in the evaluation phase, do so now. It's important to know what to be prepared for as you begin to roll out your proposed solution.

The type of planning that you need to do depends on the size of the implementation project that you need to set up. For small projects, all you'll often need are Action Plans   that outline who will do what, when, and how. Larger projects need more sophisticated approaches – you'll find out more about these in the Mind Tools Project Management section. And for projects that affect many other people, you'll need to think about Change Management   as well.

Here, it can be useful to conduct an Impact Analysis   to help you identify potential resistance as well as alert you to problems you may not have anticipated. Force Field Analysis   will also help you uncover the various pressures for and against your proposed solution. Once you've done the detailed planning, it can also be useful at this stage to make a final Go/No-Go Decision   , making sure that it's actually worth going ahead with the selected option.

Step 7: Sell the Idea

(Questions 5, 8)

As part of the planning process, you must convince other stakeholders that your solution is the best one. You'll likely meet with resistance, so before you try to “sell” your idea, make sure you've considered all the consequences.

As you begin communicating your plan, listen to what people say, and make changes as necessary. The better the overall solution meets everyone's needs, the greater its positive impact will be! For more tips on selling your idea, read our article on Creating a Value Proposition   and use our Sell Your Idea   Bite-Sized Training session.

Step 8: Act

(Questions 2, 11)

Finally, once you've convinced your key stakeholders that your proposed solution is worth running with, you can move on to the implementation stage. This is the exciting and rewarding part of problem solving, which makes the whole process seem worthwhile.

This action stage is an end, but it's also a beginning: once you've completed your implementation, it's time to move into the next cycle of problem solving by returning to the scanning stage. By doing this, you'll continue improving your organization as you move into the future.

Problem solving is an exceptionally important workplace skill.

Being a competent and confident problem solver will create many opportunities for you. By using a well-developed model like Simplexity Thinking for solving problems, you can approach the process systematically, and be comfortable that the decisions you make are solid.

Given the unpredictable nature of problems, it's very reassuring to know that, by following a structured plan, you've done everything you can to resolve the problem to the best of your ability.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter , or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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The Mind Tools Club gives you exclusive tips and tools to boost your career - plus a friendly community and support from our career coaches! 

able problem solving model post test

Comments (220)

  • Over a month ago Sonia_H wrote Hi PANGGA, This is great news! Thanks for sharing your experience. We hope these 8 steps outlined will help you in multiple ways. ~Sonia Mind Tools Coach
  • Over a month ago PANGGA wrote Thank you for this mind tool. I got to know my skills in solving problem. It will serve as my guide on facing and solving problem that I might encounter.
  • Over a month ago Sarah_H wrote Wow, thanks for your very detailed feedback HardipG. The Mind Tools team will take a look at your feedback and suggestions for improvement. Best wishes, Sarah Mind Tools Coach

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How to improve your problem solving skills and build effective problem solving strategies

able problem solving model post test

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Effective problem solving is all about using the right process and following a plan tailored to the issue at hand. Recognizing your team or organization has an issue isn’t enough to come up with effective problem solving strategies. 

To truly understand a problem and develop appropriate solutions, you will want to follow a solid process, follow the necessary problem solving steps, and bring all of your problem solving skills to the table.  

We’ll first guide you through the seven step problem solving process you and your team can use to effectively solve complex business challenges. We’ll also look at what problem solving strategies you can employ with your team when looking for a way to approach the process. We’ll then discuss the problem solving skills you need to be more effective at solving problems, complete with an activity from the SessionLab library you can use to develop that skill in your team.

Let’s get to it! 

What is a problem solving process?

  • What are the problem solving steps I need to follow?

Problem solving strategies

What skills do i need to be an effective problem solver, how can i improve my problem solving skills.

Solving problems is like baking a cake. You can go straight into the kitchen without a recipe or the right ingredients and do your best, but the end result is unlikely to be very tasty!

Using a process to bake a cake allows you to use the best ingredients without waste, collect the right tools, account for allergies, decide whether it is a birthday or wedding cake, and then bake efficiently and on time. The result is a better cake that is fit for purpose, tastes better and has created less mess in the kitchen. Also, it should have chocolate sprinkles. Having a step by step process to solve organizational problems allows you to go through each stage methodically and ensure you are trying to solve the right problems and select the most appropriate, effective solutions.

What are the problem solving steps I need to follow? 

All problem solving processes go through a number of steps in order to move from identifying a problem to resolving it.

Depending on your problem solving model and who you ask, there can be anything between four and nine problem solving steps you should follow in order to find the right solution. Whatever framework you and your group use, there are some key items that should be addressed in order to have an effective process.

We’ve looked at problem solving processes from sources such as the American Society for Quality and their four step approach , and Mediate ‘s six step process. By reflecting on those and our own problem solving processes, we’ve come up with a sequence of seven problem solving steps we feel best covers everything you need in order to effectively solve problems.

seven step problem solving process

1. Problem identification 

The first stage of any problem solving process is to identify the problem or problems you might want to solve. Effective problem solving strategies always begin by allowing a group scope to articulate what they believe the problem to be and then coming to some consensus over which problem they approach first. Problem solving activities used at this stage often have a focus on creating frank, open discussion so that potential problems can be brought to the surface.

2. Problem analysis 

Though this step is not a million miles from problem identification, problem analysis deserves to be considered separately. It can often be an overlooked part of the process and is instrumental when it comes to developing effective solutions.

The process of problem analysis means ensuring that the problem you are seeking to solve is the right problem . As part of this stage, you may look deeper and try to find the root cause of a specific problem at a team or organizational level.

Remember that problem solving strategies should not only be focused on putting out fires in the short term but developing long term solutions that deal with the root cause of organizational challenges. 

Whatever your approach, analyzing a problem is crucial in being able to select an appropriate solution and the problem solving skills deployed in this stage are beneficial for the rest of the process and ensuring the solutions you create are fit for purpose.

3. Solution generation

Once your group has nailed down the particulars of the problem you wish to solve, you want to encourage a free flow of ideas connecting to solving that problem. This can take the form of problem solving games that encourage creative thinking or problem solving activities designed to produce working prototypes of possible solutions. 

The key to ensuring the success of this stage of the problem solving process is to encourage quick, creative thinking and create an open space where all ideas are considered. The best solutions can come from unlikely places and by using problem solving techniques that celebrate invention, you might come up with solution gold. 

4. Solution development

No solution is likely to be perfect right out of the gate. It’s important to discuss and develop the solutions your group has come up with over the course of following the previous problem solving steps in order to arrive at the best possible solution. Problem solving games used in this stage involve lots of critical thinking, measuring potential effort and impact, and looking at possible solutions analytically. 

During this stage, you will often ask your team to iterate and improve upon your frontrunning solutions and develop them further. Remember that problem solving strategies always benefit from a multitude of voices and opinions, and not to let ego get involved when it comes to choosing which solutions to develop and take further.

Finding the best solution is the goal of all problem solving workshops and here is the place to ensure that your solution is well thought out, sufficiently robust and fit for purpose. 

5. Decision making 

Nearly there! Once your group has reached consensus and selected a solution that applies to the problem at hand you have some decisions to make. You will want to work on allocating ownership of the project, figure out who will do what, how the success of the solution will be measured and decide the next course of action.

The decision making stage is a part of the problem solving process that can get missed or taken as for granted. Fail to properly allocate roles and plan out how a solution will actually be implemented and it less likely to be successful in solving the problem.

Have clear accountabilities, actions, timeframes, and follow-ups. Make these decisions and set clear next-steps in the problem solving workshop so that everyone is aligned and you can move forward effectively as a group. 

Ensuring that you plan for the roll-out of a solution is one of the most important problem solving steps. Without adequate planning or oversight, it can prove impossible to measure success or iterate further if the problem was not solved. 

6. Solution implementation 

This is what we were waiting for! All problem solving strategies have the end goal of implementing a solution and solving a problem in mind. 

Remember that in order for any solution to be successful, you need to help your group through all of the previous problem solving steps thoughtfully. Only then can you ensure that you are solving the right problem but also that you have developed the correct solution and can then successfully implement and measure the impact of that solution.

Project management and communication skills are key here – your solution may need to adjust when out in the wild or you might discover new challenges along the way.

7. Solution evaluation 

So you and your team developed a great solution to a problem and have a gut feeling its been solved. Work done, right? Wrong. All problem solving strategies benefit from evaluation, consideration, and feedback. You might find that the solution does not work for everyone, might create new problems, or is potentially so successful that you will want to roll it out to larger teams or as part of other initiatives. 

None of that is possible without taking the time to evaluate the success of the solution you developed in your problem solving model and adjust if necessary.

Remember that the problem solving process is often iterative and it can be common to not solve complex issues on the first try. Even when this is the case, you and your team will have generated learning that will be important for future problem solving workshops or in other parts of the organization. 

It’s worth underlining how important record keeping is throughout the problem solving process. If a solution didn’t work, you need to have the data and records to see why that was the case. If you go back to the drawing board, notes from the previous workshop can help save time. Data and insight is invaluable at every stage of the problem solving process and this one is no different.

Problem solving workshops made easy

able problem solving model post test

Problem solving strategies are methods of approaching and facilitating the process of problem-solving with a set of techniques , actions, and processes. Different strategies are more effective if you are trying to solve broad problems such as achieving higher growth versus more focused problems like, how do we improve our customer onboarding process?

Broadly, the problem solving steps outlined above should be included in any problem solving strategy though choosing where to focus your time and what approaches should be taken is where they begin to differ. You might find that some strategies ask for the problem identification to be done prior to the session or that everything happens in the course of a one day workshop.

The key similarity is that all good problem solving strategies are structured and designed. Four hours of open discussion is never going to be as productive as a four-hour workshop designed to lead a group through a problem solving process.

Good problem solving strategies are tailored to the team, organization and problem you will be attempting to solve. Here are some example problem solving strategies you can learn from or use to get started.

Use a workshop to lead a team through a group process

Often, the first step to solving problems or organizational challenges is bringing a group together effectively. Most teams have the tools, knowledge, and expertise necessary to solve their challenges – they just need some guidance in how to use leverage those skills and a structure and format that allows people to focus their energies.

Facilitated workshops are one of the most effective ways of solving problems of any scale. By designing and planning your workshop carefully, you can tailor the approach and scope to best fit the needs of your team and organization. 

Problem solving workshop

  • Creating a bespoke, tailored process
  • Tackling problems of any size
  • Building in-house workshop ability and encouraging their use

Workshops are an effective strategy for solving problems. By using tried and test facilitation techniques and methods, you can design and deliver a workshop that is perfectly suited to the unique variables of your organization. You may only have the capacity for a half-day workshop and so need a problem solving process to match. 

By using our session planner tool and importing methods from our library of 700+ facilitation techniques, you can create the right problem solving workshop for your team. It might be that you want to encourage creative thinking or look at things from a new angle to unblock your groups approach to problem solving. By tailoring your workshop design to the purpose, you can help ensure great results.

One of the main benefits of a workshop is the structured approach to problem solving. Not only does this mean that the workshop itself will be successful, but many of the methods and techniques will help your team improve their working processes outside of the workshop. 

We believe that workshops are one of the best tools you can use to improve the way your team works together. Start with a problem solving workshop and then see what team building, culture or design workshops can do for your organization!

Run a design sprint

Great for: 

  • aligning large, multi-discipline teams
  • quickly designing and testing solutions
  • tackling large, complex organizational challenges and breaking them down into smaller tasks

By using design thinking principles and methods, a design sprint is a great way of identifying, prioritizing and prototyping solutions to long term challenges that can help solve major organizational problems with quick action and measurable results.

Some familiarity with design thinking is useful, though not integral, and this strategy can really help a team align if there is some discussion around which problems should be approached first. 

The stage-based structure of the design sprint is also very useful for teams new to design thinking.  The inspiration phase, where you look to competitors that have solved your problem, and the rapid prototyping and testing phases are great for introducing new concepts that will benefit a team in all their future work. 

It can be common for teams to look inward for solutions and so looking to the market for solutions you can iterate on can be very productive. Instilling an agile prototyping and testing mindset can also be great when helping teams move forwards – generating and testing solutions quickly can help save time in the long run and is also pretty exciting!

Break problems down into smaller issues

Organizational challenges and problems are often complicated and large scale in nature. Sometimes, trying to resolve such an issue in one swoop is simply unachievable or overwhelming. Try breaking down such problems into smaller issues that you can work on step by step. You may not be able to solve the problem of churning customers off the bat, but you can work with your team to identify smaller effort but high impact elements and work on those first.

This problem solving strategy can help a team generate momentum, prioritize and get some easy wins. It’s also a great strategy to employ with teams who are just beginning to learn how to approach the problem solving process. If you want some insight into a way to employ this strategy, we recommend looking at our design sprint template below!

Use guiding frameworks or try new methodologies

Some problems are best solved by introducing a major shift in perspective or by using new methodologies that encourage your team to think differently.

Props and tools such as Methodkit , which uses a card-based toolkit for facilitation, or Lego Serious Play can be great ways to engage your team and find an inclusive, democratic problem solving strategy. Remember that play and creativity are great tools for achieving change and whatever the challenge, engaging your participants can be very effective where other strategies may have failed.

LEGO Serious Play

  • Improving core problem solving skills
  • Thinking outside of the box
  • Encouraging creative solutions

LEGO Serious Play is a problem solving methodology designed to get participants thinking differently by using 3D models and kinesthetic learning styles. By physically building LEGO models based on questions and exercises, participants are encouraged to think outside of the box and create their own responses. 

Collaborate LEGO Serious Play exercises are also used to encourage communication and build problem solving skills in a group. By using this problem solving process, you can often help different kinds of learners and personality types contribute and unblock organizational problems with creative thinking. 

Problem solving strategies like LEGO Serious Play are super effective at helping a team solve more skills-based problems such as communication between teams or a lack of creative thinking. Some problems are not suited to LEGO Serious Play and require a different problem solving strategy.

Card Decks and Method Kits

  • New facilitators or non-facilitators 
  • Approaching difficult subjects with a simple, creative framework
  • Engaging those with varied learning styles

Card decks and method kids are great tools for those new to facilitation or for whom facilitation is not the primary role. Card decks such as the emotional culture deck can be used for complete workshops and in many cases, can be used right out of the box. Methodkit has a variety of kits designed for scenarios ranging from personal development through to personas and global challenges so you can find the right deck for your particular needs.

Having an easy to use framework that encourages creativity or a new approach can take some of the friction or planning difficulties out of the workshop process and energize a team in any setting. Simplicity is the key with these methods. By ensuring everyone on your team can get involved and engage with the process as quickly as possible can really contribute to the success of your problem solving strategy.

Source external advice

Looking to peers, experts and external facilitators can be a great way of approaching the problem solving process. Your team may not have the necessary expertise, insights of experience to tackle some issues, or you might simply benefit from a fresh perspective. Some problems may require bringing together an entire team, and coaching managers or team members individually might be the right approach. Remember that not all problems are best resolved in the same manner.

If you’re a solo entrepreneur, peer groups, coaches and mentors can also be invaluable at not only solving specific business problems, but in providing a support network for resolving future challenges. One great approach is to join a Mastermind Group and link up with like-minded individuals and all grow together. Remember that however you approach the sourcing of external advice, do so thoughtfully, respectfully and honestly. Reciprocate where you can and prepare to be surprised by just how kind and helpful your peers can be!

Mastermind Group

  • Solo entrepreneurs or small teams with low capacity
  • Peer learning and gaining outside expertise
  • Getting multiple external points of view quickly

Problem solving in large organizations with lots of skilled team members is one thing, but how about if you work for yourself or in a very small team without the capacity to get the most from a design sprint or LEGO Serious Play session? 

A mastermind group – sometimes known as a peer advisory board – is where a group of people come together to support one another in their own goals, challenges, and businesses. Each participant comes to the group with their own purpose and the other members of the group will help them create solutions, brainstorm ideas, and support one another. 

Mastermind groups are very effective in creating an energized, supportive atmosphere that can deliver meaningful results. Learning from peers from outside of your organization or industry can really help unlock new ways of thinking and drive growth. Access to the experience and skills of your peers can be invaluable in helping fill the gaps in your own ability, particularly in young companies.

A mastermind group is a great solution for solo entrepreneurs, small teams, or for organizations that feel that external expertise or fresh perspectives will be beneficial for them. It is worth noting that Mastermind groups are often only as good as the participants and what they can bring to the group. Participants need to be committed, engaged and understand how to work in this context. 

Coaching and mentoring

  • Focused learning and development
  • Filling skills gaps
  • Working on a range of challenges over time

Receiving advice from a business coach or building a mentor/mentee relationship can be an effective way of resolving certain challenges. The one-to-one format of most coaching and mentor relationships can really help solve the challenges those individuals are having and benefit the organization as a result.

A great mentor can be invaluable when it comes to spotting potential problems before they arise and coming to understand a mentee very well has a host of other business benefits. You might run an internal mentorship program to help develop your team’s problem solving skills and strategies or as part of a large learning and development program. External coaches can also be an important part of your problem solving strategy, filling skills gaps for your management team or helping with specific business issues. 

Now we’ve explored the problem solving process and the steps you will want to go through in order to have an effective session, let’s look at the skills you and your team need to be more effective problem solvers.

Problem solving skills are highly sought after, whatever industry or team you work in. Organizations are keen to employ people who are able to approach problems thoughtfully and find strong, realistic solutions. Whether you are a facilitator , a team leader or a developer, being an effective problem solver is a skill you’ll want to develop.

Problem solving skills form a whole suite of techniques and approaches that an individual uses to not only identify problems but to discuss them productively before then developing appropriate solutions.

Here are some of the most important problem solving skills everyone from executives to junior staff members should learn. We’ve also included an activity or exercise from the SessionLab library that can help you and your team develop that skill. 

If you’re running a workshop or training session to try and improve problem solving skills in your team, try using these methods to supercharge your process!

Problem solving skills checklist

Active listening

Active listening is one of the most important skills anyone who works with people can possess. In short, active listening is a technique used to not only better understand what is being said by an individual, but also to be more aware of the underlying message the speaker is trying to convey. When it comes to problem solving, active listening is integral for understanding the position of every participant and to clarify the challenges, ideas and solutions they bring to the table.

Some active listening skills include:

  • Paying complete attention to the speaker.
  • Removing distractions.
  • Avoid interruption.
  • Taking the time to fully understand before preparing a rebuttal.
  • Responding respectfully and appropriately.
  • Demonstrate attentiveness and positivity with an open posture, making eye contact with the speaker, smiling and nodding if appropriate. Show that you are listening and encourage them to continue.
  • Be aware of and respectful of feelings. Judge the situation and respond appropriately. You can disagree without being disrespectful.   
  • Observe body language. 
  • Paraphrase what was said in your own words, either mentally or verbally.
  • Remain neutral. 
  • Reflect and take a moment before responding.
  • Ask deeper questions based on what is said and clarify points where necessary.   
Active Listening   #hyperisland   #skills   #active listening   #remote-friendly   This activity supports participants to reflect on a question and generate their own solutions using simple principles of active listening and peer coaching. It’s an excellent introduction to active listening but can also be used with groups that are already familiar with it. Participants work in groups of three and take turns being: “the subject”, the listener, and the observer.

Analytical skills

All problem solving models require strong analytical skills, particularly during the beginning of the process and when it comes to analyzing how solutions have performed.

Analytical skills are primarily focused on performing an effective analysis by collecting, studying and parsing data related to a problem or opportunity. 

It often involves spotting patterns, being able to see things from different perspectives and using observable facts and data to make suggestions or produce insight. 

Analytical skills are also important at every stage of the problem solving process and by having these skills, you can ensure that any ideas or solutions you create or backed up analytically and have been sufficiently thought out.

Nine Whys   #innovation   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   With breathtaking simplicity, you can rapidly clarify for individuals and a group what is essentially important in their work. You can quickly reveal when a compelling purpose is missing in a gathering and avoid moving forward without clarity. When a group discovers an unambiguous shared purpose, more freedom and more responsibility are unleashed. You have laid the foundation for spreading and scaling innovations with fidelity.


Trying to solve problems on your own is difficult. Being able to collaborate effectively, with a free exchange of ideas, to delegate and be a productive member of a team is hugely important to all problem solving strategies.

Remember that whatever your role, collaboration is integral, and in a problem solving process, you are all working together to find the best solution for everyone. 

Marshmallow challenge with debriefing   #teamwork   #team   #leadership   #collaboration   In eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. The Marshmallow Challenge was developed by Tom Wujec, who has done the activity with hundreds of groups around the world. Visit the Marshmallow Challenge website for more information. This version has an extra debriefing question added with sample questions focusing on roles within the team.


Being an effective communicator means being empathetic, clear and succinct, asking the right questions, and demonstrating active listening skills throughout any discussion or meeting. 

In a problem solving setting, you need to communicate well in order to progress through each stage of the process effectively. As a team leader, it may also fall to you to facilitate communication between parties who may not see eye to eye. Effective communication also means helping others to express themselves and be heard in a group.

Bus Trip   #feedback   #communication   #appreciation   #closing   #thiagi   #team   This is one of my favourite feedback games. I use Bus Trip at the end of a training session or a meeting, and I use it all the time. The game creates a massive amount of energy with lots of smiles, laughs, and sometimes even a teardrop or two.

Creative problem solving skills can be some of the best tools in your arsenal. Thinking creatively, being able to generate lots of ideas and come up with out of the box solutions is useful at every step of the process. 

The kinds of problems you will likely discuss in a problem solving workshop are often difficult to solve, and by approaching things in a fresh, creative manner, you can often create more innovative solutions.

Having practical creative skills is also a boon when it comes to problem solving. If you can help create quality design sketches and prototypes in record time, it can help bring a team to alignment more quickly or provide a base for further iteration.

The paper clip method   #sharing   #creativity   #warm up   #idea generation   #brainstorming   The power of brainstorming. A training for project leaders, creativity training, and to catalyse getting new solutions.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is one of the fundamental problem solving skills you’ll want to develop when working on developing solutions. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze, rationalize and evaluate while being aware of personal bias, outlying factors and remaining open-minded.

Defining and analyzing problems without deploying critical thinking skills can mean you and your team go down the wrong path. Developing solutions to complex issues requires critical thinking too – ensuring your team considers all possibilities and rationally evaluating them. 

Agreement-Certainty Matrix   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   #problem solving   You can help individuals or groups avoid the frequent mistake of trying to solve a problem with methods that are not adapted to the nature of their challenge. The combination of two questions makes it possible to easily sort challenges into four categories: simple, complicated, complex , and chaotic .  A problem is simple when it can be solved reliably with practices that are easy to duplicate.  It is complicated when experts are required to devise a sophisticated solution that will yield the desired results predictably.  A problem is complex when there are several valid ways to proceed but outcomes are not predictable in detail.  Chaotic is when the context is too turbulent to identify a path forward.  A loose analogy may be used to describe these differences: simple is like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child, and chaotic is like the game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  The Liberating Structures Matching Matrix in Chapter 5 can be used as the first step to clarify the nature of a challenge and avoid the mismatches between problems and solutions that are frequently at the root of chronic, recurring problems.

Data analysis 

Though it shares lots of space with general analytical skills, data analysis skills are something you want to cultivate in their own right in order to be an effective problem solver.

Being good at data analysis doesn’t just mean being able to find insights from data, but also selecting the appropriate data for a given issue, interpreting it effectively and knowing how to model and present that data. Depending on the problem at hand, it might also include a working knowledge of specific data analysis tools and procedures. 

Having a solid grasp of data analysis techniques is useful if you’re leading a problem solving workshop but if you’re not an expert, don’t worry. Bring people into the group who has this skill set and help your team be more effective as a result.

Decision making

All problems need a solution and all solutions require that someone make the decision to implement them. Without strong decision making skills, teams can become bogged down in discussion and less effective as a result. 

Making decisions is a key part of the problem solving process. It’s important to remember that decision making is not restricted to the leadership team. Every staff member makes decisions every day and developing these skills ensures that your team is able to solve problems at any scale. Remember that making decisions does not mean leaping to the first solution but weighing up the options and coming to an informed, well thought out solution to any given problem that works for the whole team.

Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)   #action   #decision making   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #innovation   #design   #remote-friendly   The problem with anything that requires creative thinking is that it’s easy to get lost—lose focus and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. Here’s the most effective solution I’ve found: Replace all open, unstructured discussion with a clear process. What to use this exercise for: Anything which requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problems or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, here are some examples: The conversion flow of our checkout Our internal design process How we organise events Keeping up with our competition Improving sales flow


Most complex organizational problems require multiple people to be involved in delivering the solution. Ensuring that the team and organization can depend on you to take the necessary actions and communicate where necessary is key to ensuring problems are solved effectively.

Being dependable also means working to deadlines and to brief. It is often a matter of creating trust in a team so that everyone can depend on one another to complete the agreed actions in the agreed time frame so that the team can move forward together. Being undependable can create problems of friction and can limit the effectiveness of your solutions so be sure to bear this in mind throughout a project. 

Team Purpose & Culture   #team   #hyperisland   #culture   #remote-friendly   This is an essential process designed to help teams define their purpose (why they exist) and their culture (how they work together to achieve that purpose). Defining these two things will help any team to be more focused and aligned. With support of tangible examples from other companies, the team members work as individuals and a group to codify the way they work together. The goal is a visual manifestation of both the purpose and culture that can be put up in the team’s work space.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important skill for any successful team member, whether communicating internally or with clients or users. In the problem solving process, emotional intelligence means being attuned to how people are feeling and thinking, communicating effectively and being self-aware of what you bring to a room. 

There are often differences of opinion when working through problem solving processes, and it can be easy to let things become impassioned or combative. Developing your emotional intelligence means being empathetic to your colleagues and managing your own emotions throughout the problem and solution process. Be kind, be thoughtful and put your points across care and attention. 

Being emotionally intelligent is a skill for life and by deploying it at work, you can not only work efficiently but empathetically. Check out the emotional culture workshop template for more!


As we’ve clarified in our facilitation skills post, facilitation is the art of leading people through processes towards agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership, and creativity by all those involved. While facilitation is a set of interrelated skills in itself, the broad definition of facilitation can be invaluable when it comes to problem solving. Leading a team through a problem solving process is made more effective if you improve and utilize facilitation skills – whether you’re a manager, team leader or external stakeholder.

The Six Thinking Hats   #creative thinking   #meeting facilitation   #problem solving   #issue resolution   #idea generation   #conflict resolution   The Six Thinking Hats are used by individuals and groups to separate out conflicting styles of thinking. They enable and encourage a group of people to think constructively together in exploring and implementing change, rather than using argument to fight over who is right and who is wrong.


Being flexible is a vital skill when it comes to problem solving. This does not mean immediately bowing to pressure or changing your opinion quickly: instead, being flexible is all about seeing things from new perspectives, receiving new information and factoring it into your thought process.

Flexibility is also important when it comes to rolling out solutions. It might be that other organizational projects have greater priority or require the same resources as your chosen solution. Being flexible means understanding needs and challenges across the team and being open to shifting or arranging your own schedule as necessary. Again, this does not mean immediately making way for other projects. It’s about articulating your own needs, understanding the needs of others and being able to come to a meaningful compromise.

The Creativity Dice   #creativity   #problem solving   #thiagi   #issue analysis   Too much linear thinking is hazardous to creative problem solving. To be creative, you should approach the problem (or the opportunity) from different points of view. You should leave a thought hanging in mid-air and move to another. This skipping around prevents premature closure and lets your brain incubate one line of thought while you consciously pursue another.

Working in any group can lead to unconscious elements of groupthink or situations in which you may not wish to be entirely honest. Disagreeing with the opinions of the executive team or wishing to save the feelings of a coworker can be tricky to navigate, but being honest is absolutely vital when to comes to developing effective solutions and ensuring your voice is heard. 

Remember that being honest does not mean being brutally candid. You can deliver your honest feedback and opinions thoughtfully and without creating friction by using other skills such as emotional intelligence. 

Explore your Values   #hyperisland   #skills   #values   #remote-friendly   Your Values is an exercise for participants to explore what their most important values are. It’s done in an intuitive and rapid way to encourage participants to follow their intuitive feeling rather than over-thinking and finding the “correct” values. It is a good exercise to use to initiate reflection and dialogue around personal values.


The problem solving process is multi-faceted and requires different approaches at certain points of the process. Taking initiative to bring problems to the attention of the team, collect data or lead the solution creating process is always valuable. You might even roadtest your own small scale solutions or brainstorm before a session. Taking initiative is particularly effective if you have good deal of knowledge in that area or have ownership of a particular project and want to get things kickstarted.

That said, be sure to remember to honor the process and work in service of the team. If you are asked to own one part of the problem solving process and you don’t complete that task because your initiative leads you to work on something else, that’s not an effective method of solving business challenges.

15% Solutions   #action   #liberating structures   #remote-friendly   You can reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.  15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.  With a very simple question, you can flip the conversation to what can be done and find solutions to big problems that are often distributed widely in places not known in advance. Shifting a few grains of sand may trigger a landslide and change the whole landscape.


A particularly useful problem solving skill for product owners or managers is the ability to remain impartial throughout much of the process. In practice, this means treating all points of view and ideas brought forward in a meeting equally and ensuring that your own areas of interest or ownership are not favored over others. 

There may be a stage in the process where a decision maker has to weigh the cost and ROI of possible solutions against the company roadmap though even then, ensuring that the decision made is based on merit and not personal opinion. 

Empathy map   #frame insights   #create   #design   #issue analysis   An empathy map is a tool to help a design team to empathize with the people they are designing for. You can make an empathy map for a group of people or for a persona. To be used after doing personas when more insights are needed.

Being a good leader means getting a team aligned, energized and focused around a common goal. In the problem solving process, strong leadership helps ensure that the process is efficient, that any conflicts are resolved and that a team is managed in the direction of success.

It’s common for managers or executives to assume this role in a problem solving workshop, though it’s important that the leader maintains impartiality and does not bulldoze the group in a particular direction. Remember that good leadership means working in service of the purpose and team and ensuring the workshop is a safe space for employees of any level to contribute. Take a look at our leadership games and activities post for more exercises and methods to help improve leadership in your organization.

Leadership Pizza   #leadership   #team   #remote-friendly   This leadership development activity offers a self-assessment framework for people to first identify what skills, attributes and attitudes they find important for effective leadership, and then assess their own development and initiate goal setting.

In the context of problem solving, mediation is important in keeping a team engaged, happy and free of conflict. When leading or facilitating a problem solving workshop, you are likely to run into differences of opinion. Depending on the nature of the problem, certain issues may be brought up that are emotive in nature. 

Being an effective mediator means helping those people on either side of such a divide are heard, listen to one another and encouraged to find common ground and a resolution. Mediating skills are useful for leaders and managers in many situations and the problem solving process is no different.

Conflict Responses   #hyperisland   #team   #issue resolution   A workshop for a team to reflect on past conflicts, and use them to generate guidelines for effective conflict handling. The workshop uses the Thomas-Killman model of conflict responses to frame a reflective discussion. Use it to open up a discussion around conflict with a team.


Solving organizational problems is much more effective when following a process or problem solving model. Planning skills are vital in order to structure, deliver and follow-through on a problem solving workshop and ensure your solutions are intelligently deployed.

Planning skills include the ability to organize tasks and a team, plan and design the process and take into account any potential challenges. Taking the time to plan carefully can save time and frustration later in the process and is valuable for ensuring a team is positioned for success.

3 Action Steps   #hyperisland   #action   #remote-friendly   This is a small-scale strategic planning session that helps groups and individuals to take action toward a desired change. It is often used at the end of a workshop or programme. The group discusses and agrees on a vision, then creates some action steps that will lead them towards that vision. The scope of the challenge is also defined, through discussion of the helpful and harmful factors influencing the group.


As organisations grow, the scale and variation of problems they face multiplies. Your team or is likely to face numerous challenges in different areas and so having the skills to analyze and prioritize becomes very important, particularly for those in leadership roles.

A thorough problem solving process is likely to deliver multiple solutions and you may have several different problems you wish to solve simultaneously. Prioritization is the ability to measure the importance, value, and effectiveness of those possible solutions and choose which to enact and in what order. The process of prioritization is integral in ensuring the biggest challenges are addressed with the most impactful solutions.

Impact and Effort Matrix   #gamestorming   #decision making   #action   #remote-friendly   In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Categorizing ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

Project management

Some problem solving skills are utilized in a workshop or ideation phases, while others come in useful when it comes to decision making. Overseeing an entire problem solving process and ensuring its success requires strong project management skills. 

While project management incorporates many of the other skills listed here, it is important to note the distinction of considering all of the factors of a project and managing them successfully. Being able to negotiate with stakeholders, manage tasks, time and people, consider costs and ROI, and tie everything together is massively helpful when going through the problem solving process. 

Record keeping

Working out meaningful solutions to organizational challenges is only one part of the process.  Thoughtfully documenting and keeping records of each problem solving step for future consultation is important in ensuring efficiency and meaningful change. 

For example, some problems may be lower priority than others but can be revisited in the future. If the team has ideated on solutions and found some are not up to the task, record those so you can rule them out and avoiding repeating work. Keeping records of the process also helps you improve and refine your problem solving model next time around!

Personal Kanban   #gamestorming   #action   #agile   #project planning   Personal Kanban is a tool for organizing your work to be more efficient and productive. It is based on agile methods and principles.

Research skills

Conducting research to support both the identification of problems and the development of appropriate solutions is important for an effective process. Knowing where to go to collect research, how to conduct research efficiently, and identifying pieces of research are relevant are all things a good researcher can do well. 

In larger groups, not everyone has to demonstrate this ability in order for a problem solving workshop to be effective. That said, having people with research skills involved in the process, particularly if they have existing area knowledge, can help ensure the solutions that are developed with data that supports their intention. Remember that being able to deliver the results of research efficiently and in a way the team can easily understand is also important. The best data in the world is only as effective as how it is delivered and interpreted.

Customer experience map   #ideation   #concepts   #research   #design   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   Customer experience mapping is a method of documenting and visualizing the experience a customer has as they use the product or service. It also maps out their responses to their experiences. To be used when there is a solution (even in a conceptual stage) that can be analyzed.

Risk management

Managing risk is an often overlooked part of the problem solving process. Solutions are often developed with the intention of reducing exposure to risk or solving issues that create risk but sometimes, great solutions are more experimental in nature and as such, deploying them needs to be carefully considered. 

Managing risk means acknowledging that there may be risks associated with more out of the box solutions or trying new things, but that this must be measured against the possible benefits and other organizational factors. 

Be informed, get the right data and stakeholders in the room and you can appropriately factor risk into your decision making process. 

Decisions, Decisions…   #communication   #decision making   #thiagi   #action   #issue analysis   When it comes to decision-making, why are some of us more prone to take risks while others are risk-averse? One explanation might be the way the decision and options were presented.  This exercise, based on Kahneman and Tversky’s classic study , illustrates how the framing effect influences our judgement and our ability to make decisions . The participants are divided into two groups. Both groups are presented with the same problem and two alternative programs for solving them. The two programs both have the same consequences but are presented differently. The debriefing discussion examines how the framing of the program impacted the participant’s decision.


No single person is as good at problem solving as a team. Building an effective team and helping them come together around a common purpose is one of the most important problem solving skills, doubly so for leaders. By bringing a team together and helping them work efficiently, you pave the way for team ownership of a problem and the development of effective solutions. 

In a problem solving workshop, it can be tempting to jump right into the deep end, though taking the time to break the ice, energize the team and align them with a game or exercise will pay off over the course of the day.

Remember that you will likely go through the problem solving process multiple times over an organization’s lifespan and building a strong team culture will make future problem solving more effective. It’s also great to work with people you know, trust and have fun with. Working on team building in and out of the problem solving process is a hallmark of successful teams that can work together to solve business problems.

9 Dimensions Team Building Activity   #ice breaker   #teambuilding   #team   #remote-friendly   9 Dimensions is a powerful activity designed to build relationships and trust among team members. There are 2 variations of this icebreaker. The first version is for teams who want to get to know each other better. The second version is for teams who want to explore how they are working together as a team.

Time management 

The problem solving process is designed to lead a team from identifying a problem through to delivering a solution and evaluating its effectiveness. Without effective time management skills or timeboxing of tasks, it can be easy for a team to get bogged down or be inefficient.

By using a problem solving model and carefully designing your workshop, you can allocate time efficiently and trust that the process will deliver the results you need in a good timeframe.

Time management also comes into play when it comes to rolling out solutions, particularly those that are experimental in nature. Having a clear timeframe for implementing and evaluating solutions is vital for ensuring their success and being able to pivot if necessary.

Improving your skills at problem solving is often a career-long pursuit though there are methods you can use to make the learning process more efficient and to supercharge your problem solving skillset.

Remember that the skills you need to be a great problem solver have a large overlap with those skills you need to be effective in any role. Investing time and effort to develop your active listening or critical thinking skills is valuable in any context. Here are 7 ways to improve your problem solving skills.

Share best practices

Remember that your team is an excellent source of skills, wisdom, and techniques and that you should all take advantage of one another where possible. Best practices that one team has for solving problems, conducting research or making decisions should be shared across the organization. If you have in-house staff that have done active listening training or are data analysis pros, have them lead a training session. 

Your team is one of your best resources. Create space and internal processes for the sharing of skills so that you can all grow together. 

Ask for help and attend training

Once you’ve figured out you have a skills gap, the next step is to take action to fill that skills gap. That might be by asking your superior for training or coaching, or liaising with team members with that skill set. You might even attend specialized training for certain skills – active listening or critical thinking, for example, are business-critical skills that are regularly offered as part of a training scheme.

Whatever method you choose, remember that taking action of some description is necessary for growth. Whether that means practicing, getting help, attending training or doing some background reading, taking active steps to improve your skills is the way to go.

Learn a process 

Problem solving can be complicated, particularly when attempting to solve large problems for the first time. Using a problem solving process helps give structure to your problem solving efforts and focus on creating outcomes, rather than worrying about the format. 

Tools such as the seven-step problem solving process above are effective because not only do they feature steps that will help a team solve problems, they also develop skills along the way. Each step asks for people to engage with the process using different skills and in doing so, helps the team learn and grow together. Group processes of varying complexity and purpose can also be found in the SessionLab library of facilitation techniques . Using a tried and tested process and really help ease the learning curve for both those leading such a process, as well as those undergoing the purpose.

Effective teams make decisions about where they should and shouldn’t expend additional effort. By using a problem solving process, you can focus on the things that matter, rather than stumbling towards a solution haphazardly. 

Create a feedback loop

Some skills gaps are more obvious than others. It’s possible that your perception of your active listening skills differs from those of your colleagues. 

It’s valuable to create a system where team members can provide feedback in an ordered and friendly manner so they can all learn from one another. Only by identifying areas of improvement can you then work to improve them. 

Remember that feedback systems require oversight and consideration so that they don’t turn into a place to complain about colleagues. Design the system intelligently so that you encourage the creation of learning opportunities, rather than encouraging people to list their pet peeves.

While practice might not make perfect, it does make the problem solving process easier. If you are having trouble with critical thinking, don’t shy away from doing it. Get involved where you can and stretch those muscles as regularly as possible. 

Problem solving skills come more naturally to some than to others and that’s okay. Take opportunities to get involved and see where you can practice your skills in situations outside of a workshop context. Try collaborating in other circumstances at work or conduct data analysis on your own projects. You can often develop those skills you need for problem solving simply by doing them. Get involved!

Use expert exercises and methods

Learn from the best. Our library of 700+ facilitation techniques is full of activities and methods that help develop the skills you need to be an effective problem solver. Check out our templates to see how to approach problem solving and other organizational challenges in a structured and intelligent manner.

There is no single approach to improving problem solving skills, but by using the techniques employed by others you can learn from their example and develop processes that have seen proven results. 

Try new ways of thinking and change your mindset

Using tried and tested exercises that you know well can help deliver results, but you do run the risk of missing out on the learning opportunities offered by new approaches. As with the problem solving process, changing your mindset can remove blockages and be used to develop your problem solving skills.

Most teams have members with mixed skill sets and specialties. Mix people from different teams and share skills and different points of view. Teach your customer support team how to use design thinking methods or help your developers with conflict resolution techniques. Try switching perspectives with facilitation techniques like Flip It! or by using new problem solving methodologies or models. Give design thinking, liberating structures or lego serious play a try if you want to try a new approach. You will find that framing problems in new ways and using existing skills in new contexts can be hugely useful for personal development and improving your skillset. It’s also a lot of fun to try new things. Give it a go!

Encountering business challenges and needing to find appropriate solutions is not unique to your organization. Lots of very smart people have developed methods, theories and approaches to help develop problem solving skills and create effective solutions. Learn from them!

Books like The Art of Thinking Clearly , Think Smarter, or Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow are great places to start, though it’s also worth looking at blogs related to organizations facing similar problems to yours, or browsing for success stories. Seeing how Dropbox massively increased growth and working backward can help you see the skills or approach you might be lacking to solve that same problem. Learning from others by reading their stories or approaches can be time-consuming but ultimately rewarding.

A tired, distracted mind is not in the best position to learn new skills. It can be tempted to burn the candle at both ends and develop problem solving skills outside of work. Absolutely use your time effectively and take opportunities for self-improvement, though remember that rest is hugely important and that without letting your brain rest, you cannot be at your most effective. 

Creating distance between yourself and the problem you might be facing can also be useful. By letting an idea sit, you can find that a better one presents itself or you can develop it further. Take regular breaks when working and create a space for downtime. Remember that working smarter is preferable to working harder and that self-care is important for any effective learning or improvement process.

Want to design better group processes?

able problem solving model post test

Over to you

Now we’ve explored some of the key problem solving skills and the problem solving steps necessary for an effective process, you’re ready to begin developing more effective solutions and leading problem solving workshops.

Need more inspiration? Check out our post on problem solving activities you can use when guiding a group towards a great solution in your next workshop or meeting. Have questions? Did you have a great problem solving technique you use with your team? Get in touch in the comments below. We’d love to chat!

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Complex problem solving: what it is and what it is not.

\r\nDietrich Drner

  • 1 Department of Psychology, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany
  • 2 Department of Psychology, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany

Computer-simulated scenarios have been part of psychological research on problem solving for more than 40 years. The shift in emphasis from simple toy problems to complex, more real-life oriented problems has been accompanied by discussions about the best ways to assess the process of solving complex problems. Psychometric issues such as reliable assessments and addressing correlations with other instruments have been in the foreground of these discussions and have left the content validity of complex problem solving in the background. In this paper, we return the focus to content issues and address the important features that define complex problems.

Succeeding in the 21st century requires many competencies, including creativity, life-long learning, and collaboration skills (e.g., National Research Council, 2011 ; Griffin and Care, 2015 ), to name only a few. One competence that seems to be of central importance is the ability to solve complex problems ( Mainzer, 2009 ). Mainzer quotes the Nobel prize winner Simon (1957) who wrote as early as 1957:

The capacity of the human mind for formulating and solving complex problems is very small compared with the size of the problem whose solution is required for objectively rational behavior in the real world or even for a reasonable approximation to such objective rationality. (p. 198)

The shift from well-defined to ill-defined problems came about as a result of a disillusion with the “general problem solver” ( Newell et al., 1959 ): The general problem solver was a computer software intended to solve all kind of problems that can be expressed through well-formed formulas. However, it soon became clear that this procedure was in fact a “special problem solver” that could only solve well-defined problems in a closed space. But real-world problems feature open boundaries and have no well-determined solution. In fact, the world is full of wicked problems and clumsy solutions ( Verweij and Thompson, 2006 ). As a result, solving well-defined problems and solving ill-defined problems requires different cognitive processes ( Schraw et al., 1995 ; but see Funke, 2010 ).

Well-defined problems have a clear set of means for reaching a precisely described goal state. For example: in a match-stick arithmetic problem, a person receives a false arithmetic expression constructed out of matchsticks (e.g., IV = III + III). According to the instructions, moving one of the matchsticks will make the equations true. Here, both the problem (find the appropriate stick to move) and the goal state (true arithmetic expression; solution is: VI = III + III) are defined clearly.

Ill-defined problems have no clear problem definition, their goal state is not defined clearly, and the means of moving towards the (diffusely described) goal state are not clear. For example: The goal state for solving the political conflict in the near-east conflict between Israel and Palestine is not clearly defined (living in peaceful harmony with each other?) and even if the conflict parties would agree on a two-state solution, this goal again leaves many issues unresolved. This type of problem is called a “complex problem” and is of central importance to this paper. All psychological processes that occur within individual persons and deal with the handling of such ill-defined complex problems will be subsumed under the umbrella term “complex problem solving” (CPS).

Systematic research on CPS started in the 1970s with observations of the behavior of participants who were confronted with computer simulated microworlds. For example, in one of those microworlds participants assumed the role of executives who were tasked to manage a company over a certain period of time (see Brehmer and Dörner, 1993 , for a discussion of this methodology). Today, CPS is an established concept and has even influenced large-scale assessments such as PISA (“Programme for International Student Assessment”), organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ( OECD, 2014 ). According to the World Economic Forum, CPS is one of the most important competencies required in the future ( World Economic Forum, 2015 ). Numerous articles on the subject have been published in recent years, documenting the increasing research activity relating to this field. In the following collection of papers we list only those published in 2010 and later: theoretical papers ( Blech and Funke, 2010 ; Funke, 2010 ; Knauff and Wolf, 2010 ; Leutner et al., 2012 ; Selten et al., 2012 ; Wüstenberg et al., 2012 ; Greiff et al., 2013b ; Fischer and Neubert, 2015 ; Schoppek and Fischer, 2015 ), papers about measurement issues ( Danner et al., 2011a ; Greiff et al., 2012 , 2015a ; Alison et al., 2013 ; Gobert et al., 2015 ; Greiff and Fischer, 2013 ; Herde et al., 2016 ; Stadler et al., 2016 ), papers about applications ( Fischer and Neubert, 2015 ; Ederer et al., 2016 ; Tremblay et al., 2017 ), papers about differential effects ( Barth and Funke, 2010 ; Danner et al., 2011b ; Beckmann and Goode, 2014 ; Greiff and Neubert, 2014 ; Scherer et al., 2015 ; Meißner et al., 2016 ; Wüstenberg et al., 2016 ), one paper about developmental effects ( Frischkorn et al., 2014 ), one paper with a neuroscience background ( Osman, 2012 ) 1 , papers about cultural differences ( Güss and Dörner, 2011 ; Sonnleitner et al., 2014 ; Güss et al., 2015 ), papers about validity issues ( Goode and Beckmann, 2010 ; Greiff et al., 2013c ; Schweizer et al., 2013 ; Mainert et al., 2015 ; Funke et al., 2017 ; Greiff et al., 2017 , 2015b ; Kretzschmar et al., 2016 ; Kretzschmar, 2017 ), review papers and meta-analyses ( Osman, 2010 ; Stadler et al., 2015 ), and finally books ( Qudrat-Ullah, 2015 ; Csapó and Funke, 2017b ) and book chapters ( Funke, 2012 ; Hotaling et al., 2015 ; Funke and Greiff, 2017 ; Greiff and Funke, 2017 ; Csapó and Funke, 2017a ; Fischer et al., 2017 ; Molnàr et al., 2017 ; Tobinski and Fritz, 2017 ; Viehrig et al., 2017 ). In addition, a new “Journal of Dynamic Decision Making” (JDDM) has been launched ( Fischer et al., 2015 , 2016 ) to give the field an open-access outlet for research and discussion.

This paper aims to clarify aspects of validity: what should be meant by the term CPS and what not? This clarification seems necessary because misunderstandings in recent publications provide – from our point of view – a potentially misleading picture of the construct. We start this article with a historical review before attempting to systematize different positions. We conclude with a working definition.

Historical Review

The concept behind CPS goes back to the German phrase “komplexes Problemlösen” (CPS; the term “komplexes Problemlösen” was used as a book title by Funke, 1986 ). The concept was introduced in Germany by Dörner and colleagues in the mid-1970s (see Dörner et al., 1975 ; Dörner, 1975 ) for the first time. The German phrase was later translated to CPS in the titles of two edited volumes by Sternberg and Frensch (1991) and Frensch and Funke (1995a) that collected papers from different research traditions. Even though it looks as though the term was coined in the 1970s, Edwards (1962) used the term “dynamic decision making” to describe decisions that come in a sequence. He compared static with dynamic decision making, writing:

In dynamic situations, a new complication not found in the static situations arises. The environment in which the decision is set may be changing, either as a function of the sequence of decisions, or independently of them, or both. It is this possibility of an environment which changes while you collect information about it which makes the task of dynamic decision theory so difficult and so much fun. (p. 60)

The ability to solve complex problems is typically measured via dynamic systems that contain several interrelated variables that participants need to alter. Early work (see, e.g., Dörner, 1980 ) used a simulation scenario called “Lohhausen” that contained more than 2000 variables that represented the activities of a small town: Participants had to take over the role of a mayor for a simulated period of 10 years. The simulation condensed these ten years to ten hours in real time. Later, researchers used smaller dynamic systems as scenarios either based on linear equations (see, e.g., Funke, 1993 ) or on finite state automata (see, e.g., Buchner and Funke, 1993 ). In these contexts, CPS consisted of the identification and control of dynamic task environments that were previously unknown to the participants. Different task environments came along with different degrees of fidelity ( Gray, 2002 ).

According to Funke (2012) , the typical attributes of complex systems are (a) complexity of the problem situation which is usually represented by the sheer number of involved variables; (b) connectivity and mutual dependencies between involved variables; (c) dynamics of the situation, which reflects the role of time and developments within a system; (d) intransparency (in part or full) about the involved variables and their current values; and (e) polytely (greek term for “many goals”), representing goal conflicts on different levels of analysis. This mixture of features is similar to what is called VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) in modern approaches to management (e.g., Mack et al., 2016 ).

In his evaluation of the CPS movement, Sternberg (1995) compared (young) European approaches to CPS with (older) American research on expertise. His analysis of the differences between the European and American traditions shows advantages but also potential drawbacks for each side. He states (p. 301): “I believe that although there are problems with the European approach, it deals with some fundamental questions that American research scarcely addresses.” So, even though the echo of the European approach did not enjoy strong resonance in the US at that time, it was valued by scholars like Sternberg and others. Before attending to validity issues, we will first present a short review of different streams.

Different Approaches to CPS

In the short history of CPS research, different approaches can be identified ( Buchner, 1995 ; Fischer et al., 2017 ). To systematize, we differentiate between the following five lines of research:

(a) The search for individual differences comprises studies identifying interindividual differences that affect the ability to solve complex problems. This line of research is reflected, for example, in the early work by Dörner et al. (1983) and their “Lohhausen” study. Here, naïve student participants took over the role of the mayor of a small simulated town named Lohhausen for a simulation period of ten years. According to the results of the authors, it is not intelligence (as measured by conventional IQ tests) that predicts performance, but it is the ability to stay calm in the face of a challenging situation and the ability to switch easily between an analytic mode of processing and a more holistic one.

(b) The search for cognitive processes deals with the processes behind understanding complex dynamic systems. Representative of this line of research is, for example, Berry and Broadbent’s (1984) work on implicit and explicit learning processes when people interact with a dynamic system called “Sugar Production”. They found that those who perform best in controlling a dynamic system can do so implicitly, without explicit knowledge of details regarding the systems’ relations.

(c) The search for system factors seeks to identify the aspects of dynamic systems that determine the difficulty of complex problems and make some problems harder than others. Representative of this line of research is, for example, work by Funke (1985) , who systematically varied the number of causal effects within a dynamic system or the presence/absence of eigendynamics. He found, for example, that solution quality decreases as the number of systems relations increases.

(d) The psychometric approach develops measurement instruments that can be used as an alternative to classical IQ tests, as something that goes “beyond IQ”. The MicroDYN approach ( Wüstenberg et al., 2012 ) is representative for this line of research that presents an alternative to reasoning tests (like Raven matrices). These authors demonstrated that a small improvement in predicting school grade point average beyond reasoning is possible with MicroDYN tests.

(e) The experimental approach explores CPS under different experimental conditions. This approach uses CPS assessment instruments to test hypotheses derived from psychological theories and is sometimes used in research about cognitive processes (see above). Exemplary for this line of research is the work by Rohe et al. (2016) , who test the usefulness of “motto goals” in the context of complex problems compared to more traditional learning and performance goals. Motto goals differ from pure performance goals by activating positive affect and should lead to better goal attainment especially in complex situations (the mentioned study found no effect).

To be clear: these five approaches are not mutually exclusive and do overlap. But the differentiation helps to identify different research communities and different traditions. These communities had different opinions about scaling complexity.

The Race for Complexity: Use of More and More Complex Systems

In the early years of CPS research, microworlds started with systems containing about 20 variables (“Tailorshop”), soon reached 60 variables (“Moro”), and culminated in systems with about 2000 variables (“Lohhausen”). This race for complexity ended with the introduction of the concept of “minimal complex systems” (MCS; Greiff and Funke, 2009 ; Funke and Greiff, 2017 ), which ushered in a search for the lower bound of complexity instead of the higher bound, which could not be defined as easily. The idea behind this concept was that whereas the upper limits of complexity are unbound, the lower limits might be identifiable. Imagine starting with a simple system containing two variables with a simple linear connection between them; then, step by step, increase the number of variables and/or the type of connections. One soon reaches a point where the system can no longer be considered simple and has become a “complex system”. This point represents a minimal complex system. Despite some research having been conducted in this direction, the point of transition from simple to complex has not been identified clearly as of yet.

Some years later, the original “minimal complex systems” approach ( Greiff and Funke, 2009 ) shifted to the “multiple complex systems” approach ( Greiff et al., 2013a ). This shift is more than a slight change in wording: it is important because it taps into the issue of validity directly. Minimal complex systems have been introduced in the context of challenges from large-scale assessments like PISA 2012 that measure new aspects of problem solving, namely interactive problems besides static problem solving ( Greiff and Funke, 2017 ). PISA 2012 required test developers to remain within testing time constraints (given by the school class schedule). Also, test developers needed a large item pool for the construction of a broad class of problem solving items. It was clear from the beginning that MCS deal with simple dynamic situations that require controlled interaction: the exploration and control of simple ticket machines, simple mobile phones, or simple MP3 players (all of these example domains were developed within PISA 2012) – rather than really complex situations like managerial or political decision making.

As a consequence of this subtle but important shift in interpreting the letters MCS, the definition of CPS became a subject of debate recently ( Funke, 2014a ; Greiff and Martin, 2014 ; Funke et al., 2017 ). In the words of Funke (2014b , p. 495):

It is funny that problems that nowadays come under the term ‘CPS’, are less complex (in terms of the previously described attributes of complex situations) than at the beginning of this new research tradition. The emphasis on psychometric qualities has led to a loss of variety. Systems thinking requires more than analyzing models with two or three linear equations – nonlinearity, cyclicity, rebound effects, etc. are inherent features of complex problems and should show up at least in some of the problems used for research and assessment purposes. Minimal complex systems run the danger of becoming minimal valid systems.

Searching for minimal complex systems is not the same as gaining insight into the way how humans deal with complexity and uncertainty. For psychometric purposes, it is appropriate to reduce complexity to a minimum; for understanding problem solving under conditions of overload, intransparency, and dynamics, it is necessary to realize those attributes with reasonable strength. This aspect is illustrated in the next section.

Importance of the Validity Issue

The most important reason for discussing the question of what complex problem solving is and what it is not stems from its phenomenology: if we lose sight of our phenomena, we are no longer doing good psychology. The relevant phenomena in the context of complex problems encompass many important aspects. In this section, we discuss four phenomena that are specific to complex problems. We consider these phenomena as critical for theory development and for the construction of assessment instruments (i.e., microworlds). These phenomena require theories for explaining them and they require assessment instruments eliciting them in a reliable way.

The first phenomenon is the emergency reaction of the intellectual system ( Dörner, 1980 ): When dealing with complex systems, actors tend to (a) reduce their intellectual level by decreasing self-reflections, by decreasing their intentions, by stereotyping, and by reducing their realization of intentions, (b) they show a tendency for fast action with increased readiness for risk, with increased violations of rules, and with increased tendency to escape the situation, and (c) they degenerate their hypotheses formation by construction of more global hypotheses and reduced tests of hypotheses, by increasing entrenchment, and by decontextualizing their goals. This phenomenon illustrates the strong connection between cognition, emotion, and motivation that has been emphasized by Dörner (see, e.g., Dörner and Güss, 2013 ) from the beginning of his research tradition; the emergency reaction reveals a shift in the mode of information processing under the pressure of complexity.

The second phenomenon comprises cross-cultural differences with respect to strategy use ( Strohschneider and Güss, 1999 ; Güss and Wiley, 2007 ; Güss et al., 2015 ). Results from complex task environments illustrate the strong influence of context and background knowledge to an extent that cannot be found for knowledge-poor problems. For example, in a comparison between Brazilian and German participants, it turned out that Brazilians accept the given problem descriptions and are more optimistic about the results of their efforts, whereas Germans tend to inquire more about the background of the problems and take a more active approach but are less optimistic (according to Strohschneider and Güss, 1998 , p. 695).

The third phenomenon relates to failures that occur during the planning and acting stages ( Jansson, 1994 ; Ramnarayan et al., 1997 ), illustrating that rational procedures seem to be unlikely to be used in complex situations. The potential for failures ( Dörner, 1996 ) rises with the complexity of the problem. Jansson (1994) presents seven major areas for failures with complex situations: acting directly on current feedback; insufficient systematization; insufficient control of hypotheses and strategies; lack of self-reflection; selective information gathering; selective decision making; and thematic vagabonding.

The fourth phenomenon describes (a lack of) training and transfer effects ( Kretzschmar and Süß, 2015 ), which again illustrates the context dependency of strategies and knowledge (i.e., there is no strategy that is so universal that it can be used in many different problem situations). In their own experiment, the authors could show training effects only for knowledge acquisition, not for knowledge application. Only with specific feedback, performance in complex environments can be increased ( Engelhart et al., 2017 ).

These four phenomena illustrate why the type of complexity (or degree of simplicity) used in research really matters. Furthermore, they demonstrate effects that are specific for complex problems, but not for toy problems. These phenomena direct the attention to the important question: does the stimulus material used (i.e., the computer-simulated microworld) tap and elicit the manifold of phenomena described above?

Dealing with partly unknown complex systems requires courage, wisdom, knowledge, grit, and creativity. In creativity research, “little c” and “BIG C” are used to differentiate between everyday creativity and eminent creativity ( Beghetto and Kaufman, 2007 ; Kaufman and Beghetto, 2009 ). Everyday creativity is important for solving everyday problems (e.g., finding a clever fix for a broken spoke on my bicycle), eminent creativity changes the world (e.g., inventing solar cells for energy production). Maybe problem solving research should use a similar differentiation between “little p” and “BIG P” to mark toy problems on the one side and big societal challenges on the other. The question then remains: what can we learn about BIG P by studying little p? What phenomena are present in both types, and what phenomena are unique to each of the two extremes?

Discussing research on CPS requires reflecting on the field’s research methods. Even if the experimental approach has been successful for testing hypotheses (for an overview of older work, see Funke, 1995 ), other methods might provide additional and novel insights. Complex phenomena require complex approaches to understand them. The complex nature of complex systems imposes limitations on psychological experiments: The more complex the environments, the more difficult is it to keep conditions under experimental control. And if experiments have to be run in labs one should bring enough complexity into the lab to establish the phenomena mentioned, at least in part.

There are interesting options to be explored (again): think-aloud protocols , which have been discredited for many years ( Nisbett and Wilson, 1977 ) and yet are a valuable source for theory testing ( Ericsson and Simon, 1983 ); introspection ( Jäkel and Schreiber, 2013 ), which seems to be banned from psychological methods but nevertheless offers insights into thought processes; the use of life-streaming ( Wendt, 2017 ), a medium in which streamers generate a video stream of think-aloud data in computer-gaming; political decision-making ( Dhami et al., 2015 ) that demonstrates error-proneness in groups; historical case studies ( Dörner and Güss, 2011 ) that give insights into the thinking styles of political leaders; the use of the critical incident technique ( Reuschenbach, 2008 ) to construct complex scenarios; and simulations with different degrees of fidelity ( Gray, 2002 ).

The methods tool box is full of instruments that have to be explored more carefully before any individual instrument receives a ban or research narrows its focus to only one paradigm for data collection. Brehmer and Dörner (1993) discussed the tensions between “research in the laboratory and research in the field”, optimistically concluding “that the new methodology of computer-simulated microworlds will provide us with the means to bridge the gap between the laboratory and the field” (p. 183). The idea behind this optimism was that computer-simulated scenarios would bring more complexity from the outside world into the controlled lab environment. But this is not true for all simulated scenarios. In his paper on simulated environments, Gray (2002) differentiated computer-simulated environments with respect to three dimensions: (1) tractability (“the more training subjects require before they can use a simulated task environment, the less tractable it is”, p. 211), correspondence (“High correspondence simulated task environments simulate many aspects of one task environment. Low correspondence simulated task environments simulate one aspect of many task environments”, p. 214), and engagement (“A simulated task environment is engaging to the degree to which it involves and occupies the participants; that is, the degree to which they agree to take it seriously”, p. 217). But the mere fact that a task is called a “computer-simulated task environment” does not mean anything specific in terms of these three dimensions. This is one of several reasons why we should differentiate between those studies that do not address the core features of CPS and those that do.

What is not CPS?

Even though a growing number of references claiming to deal with complex problems exist (e.g., Greiff and Wüstenberg, 2015 ; Greiff et al., 2016 ), it would be better to label the requirements within these tasks “dynamic problem solving,” as it has been done adequately in earlier work ( Greiff et al., 2012 ). The dynamics behind on-off-switches ( Thimbleby, 2007 ) are remarkable but not really complex. Small nonlinear systems that exhibit stunningly complex and unstable behavior do exist – but they are not used in psychometric assessments of so-called CPS. There are other small systems (like MicroDYN scenarios: Greiff and Wüstenberg, 2014 ) that exhibit simple forms of system behavior that are completely predictable and stable. This type of simple systems is used frequently. It is even offered commercially as a complex problem-solving test called COMPRO ( Greiff and Wüstenberg, 2015 ) for business applications. But a closer look reveals that the label is not used correctly; within COMPRO, the used linear equations are far from being complex and the system can be handled properly by using only one strategy (see for more details Funke et al., 2017 ).

Why do simple linear systems not fall within CPS? At the surface, nonlinear and linear systems might appear similar because both only include 3–5 variables. But the difference is in terms of systems behavior as well as strategies and learning. If the behavior is simple (as in linear systems where more input is related to more output and vice versa), the system can be easily understood (participants in the MicroDYN world have 3 minutes to explore a complex system). If the behavior is complex (as in systems that contain strange attractors or negative feedback loops), things become more complicated and much more observation is needed to identify the hidden structure of the unknown system ( Berry and Broadbent, 1984 ; Hundertmark et al., 2015 ).

Another issue is learning. If tasks can be solved using a single (and not so complicated) strategy, steep learning curves are to be expected. The shift from problem solving to learned routine behavior occurs rapidly, as was demonstrated by Luchins (1942) . In his water jar experiments, participants quickly acquired a specific strategy (a mental set) for solving certain measurement problems that they later continued applying to problems that would have allowed for easier approaches. In the case of complex systems, learning can occur only on very general, abstract levels because it is difficult for human observers to make specific predictions. Routines dealing with complex systems are quite different from routines relating to linear systems.

What should not be studied under the label of CPS are pure learning effects, multiple-cue probability learning, or tasks that can be solved using a single strategy. This last issue is a problem for MicroDYN tasks that rely strongly on the VOTAT strategy (“vary one thing at a time”; see Tschirgi, 1980 ). In real-life, it is hard to imagine a business manager trying to solve her or his problems by means of VOTAT.

What is CPS?

In the early days of CPS research, planet Earth’s dynamics and complexities gained attention through such books as “The limits to growth” ( Meadows et al., 1972 ) and “Beyond the limits” ( Meadows et al., 1992 ). In the current decade, for example, the World Economic Forum (2016) attempts to identify the complexities and risks of our modern world. In order to understand the meaning of complexity and uncertainty, taking a look at the worlds’ most pressing issues is helpful. Searching for strategies to cope with these problems is a difficult task: surely there is no place for the simple principle of “vary-one-thing-at-a-time” (VOTAT) when it comes to global problems. The VOTAT strategy is helpful in the context of simple problems ( Wüstenberg et al., 2014 ); therefore, whether or not VOTAT is helpful in a given problem situation helps us distinguish simple from complex problems.

Because there exist no clear-cut strategies for complex problems, typical failures occur when dealing with uncertainty ( Dörner, 1996 ; Güss et al., 2015 ). Ramnarayan et al. (1997) put together a list of generic errors (e.g., not developing adequate action plans; lack of background control; learning from experience blocked by stereotype knowledge; reactive instead of proactive action) that are typical of knowledge-rich complex systems but cannot be found in simple problems.

Complex problem solving is not a one-dimensional, low-level construct. On the contrary, CPS is a multi-dimensional bundle of competencies existing at a high level of abstraction, similar to intelligence (but going beyond IQ). As Funke et al. (2018) state: “Assessment of transversal (in educational contexts: cross-curricular) competencies cannot be done with one or two types of assessment. The plurality of skills and competencies requires a plurality of assessment instruments.”

There are at least three different aspects of complex systems that are part of our understanding of a complex system: (1) a complex system can be described at different levels of abstraction; (2) a complex system develops over time, has a history, a current state, and a (potentially unpredictable) future; (3) a complex system is knowledge-rich and activates a large semantic network, together with a broad list of potential strategies (domain-specific as well as domain-general).

Complex problem solving is not only a cognitive process but is also an emotional one ( Spering et al., 2005 ; Barth and Funke, 2010 ) and strongly dependent on motivation (low-stakes versus high-stakes testing; see Hermes and Stelling, 2016 ).

Furthermore, CPS is a dynamic process unfolding over time, with different phases and with more differentiation than simply knowledge acquisition and knowledge application. Ideally, the process should entail identifying problems (see Dillon, 1982 ; Lee and Cho, 2007 ), even if in experimental settings, problems are provided to participants a priori . The more complex and open a given situation, the more options can be generated (T. S. Schweizer et al., 2016 ). In closed problems, these processes do not occur in the same way.

In analogy to the difference between formative (process-oriented) and summative (result-oriented) assessment ( Wiliam and Black, 1996 ; Bennett, 2011 ), CPS should not be reduced to the mere outcome of a solution process. The process leading up to the solution, including detours and errors made along the way, might provide a more differentiated impression of a person’s problem-solving abilities and competencies than the final result of such a process. This is one of the reasons why CPS environments are not, in fact, complex intelligence tests: research on CPS is not only about the outcome of the decision process, but it is also about the problem-solving process itself.

Complex problem solving is part of our daily life: finding the right person to share one’s life with, choosing a career that not only makes money, but that also makes us happy. Of course, CPS is not restricted to personal problems – life on Earth gives us many hard nuts to crack: climate change, population growth, the threat of war, the use and distribution of natural resources. In sum, many societal challenges can be seen as complex problems. To reduce that complexity to a one-hour lab activity on a random Friday afternoon puts it out of context and does not address CPS issues.

Theories about CPS should specify which populations they apply to. Across populations, one thing to consider is prior knowledge. CPS research with experts (e.g., Dew et al., 2009 ) is quite different from problem solving research using tasks that intentionally do not require any specific prior knowledge (see, e.g., Beckmann and Goode, 2014 ).

More than 20 years ago, Frensch and Funke (1995b) defined CPS as follows:

CPS occurs to overcome barriers between a given state and a desired goal state by means of behavioral and/or cognitive, multi-step activities. The given state, goal state, and barriers between given state and goal state are complex, change dynamically during problem solving, and are intransparent. The exact properties of the given state, goal state, and barriers are unknown to the solver at the outset. CPS implies the efficient interaction between a solver and the situational requirements of the task, and involves a solver’s cognitive, emotional, personal, and social abilities and knowledge. (p. 18)

The above definition is rather formal and does not account for content or relations between the simulation and the real world. In a sense, we need a new definition of CPS that addresses these issues. Based on our previous arguments, we propose the following working definition:

Complex problem solving is a collection of self-regulated psychological processes and activities necessary in dynamic environments to achieve ill-defined goals that cannot be reached by routine actions. Creative combinations of knowledge and a broad set of strategies are needed. Solutions are often more bricolage than perfect or optimal. The problem-solving process combines cognitive, emotional, and motivational aspects, particularly in high-stakes situations. Complex problems usually involve knowledge-rich requirements and collaboration among different persons.

The main differences to the older definition lie in the emphasis on (a) the self-regulation of processes, (b) creativity (as opposed to routine behavior), (c) the bricolage type of solution, and (d) the role of high-stakes challenges. Our new definition incorporates some aspects that have been discussed in this review but were not reflected in the 1995 definition, which focused on attributes of complex problems like dynamics or intransparency.

This leads us to the final reflection about the role of CPS for dealing with uncertainty and complexity in real life. We will distinguish thinking from reasoning and introduce the sense of possibility as an important aspect of validity.

CPS as Combining Reasoning and Thinking in an Uncertain Reality

Leading up to the Battle of Borodino in Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky explains the concept of war to his friend Pierre. Pierre expects war to resemble a game of chess: You position the troops and attempt to defeat your opponent by moving them in different directions.

“Far from it!”, Andrei responds. “In chess, you know the knight and his moves, you know the pawn and his combat strength. While in war, a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company; it all depends on circumstances that can never be known. In war, you do not know the position of your enemy; some things you might be able to observe, some things you have to divine (but that depends on your ability to do so!) and many things cannot even be guessed at. In chess, you can see all of your opponent’s possible moves. In war, that is impossible. If you decide to attack, you cannot know whether the necessary conditions are met for you to succeed. Many a time, you cannot even know whether your troops will follow your orders…”

In essence, war is characterized by a high degree of uncertainty. A good commander (or politician) can add to that what he or she sees, tentatively fill in the blanks – and not just by means of logical deduction but also by intelligently bridging missing links. A bad commander extrapolates from what he sees and thus arrives at improper conclusions.

Many languages differentiate between two modes of mentalizing; for instance, the English language distinguishes between ‘thinking’ and ‘reasoning’. Reasoning denotes acute and exact mentalizing involving logical deductions. Such deductions are usually based on evidence and counterevidence. Thinking, however, is what is required to write novels. It is the construction of an initially unknown reality. But it is not a pipe dream, an unfounded process of fabrication. Rather, thinking asks us to imagine reality (“Wirklichkeitsfantasie”). In other words, a novelist has to possess a “sense of possibility” (“Möglichkeitssinn”, Robert Musil; in German, sense of possibility is often used synonymously with imagination even though imagination is not the same as sense of possibility, for imagination also encapsulates the impossible). This sense of possibility entails knowing the whole (or several wholes) or being able to construe an unknown whole that could accommodate a known part. The whole has to align with sociological and geographical givens, with the mentality of certain peoples or groups, and with the laws of physics and chemistry. Otherwise, the entire venture is ill-founded. A sense of possibility does not aim for the moon but imagines something that might be possible but has not been considered possible or even potentially possible so far.

Thinking is a means to eliminate uncertainty. This process requires both of the modes of thinking we have discussed thus far. Economic, political, or ecological decisions require us to first consider the situation at hand. Though certain situational aspects can be known, but many cannot. In fact, von Clausewitz (1832) posits that only about 25% of the necessary information is available when a military decision needs to be made. Even then, there is no way to guarantee that whatever information is available is also correct: Even if a piece of information was completely accurate yesterday, it might no longer apply today.

Once our sense of possibility has helped grasping a situation, problem solvers need to call on their reasoning skills. Not every situation requires the same action, and we may want to act this way or another to reach this or that goal. This appears logical, but it is a logic based on constantly shifting grounds: We cannot know whether necessary conditions are met, sometimes the assumptions we have made later turn out to be incorrect, and sometimes we have to revise our assumptions or make completely new ones. It is necessary to constantly switch between our sense of possibility and our sense of reality, that is, to switch between thinking and reasoning. It is an arduous process, and some people handle it well, while others do not.

If we are to believe Tuchman’s (1984) book, “The March of Folly”, most politicians and commanders are fools. According to Tuchman, not much has changed in the 3300 years that have elapsed since the misguided Trojans decided to welcome the left-behind wooden horse into their city that would end up dismantling Troy’s defensive walls. The Trojans, too, had been warned, but decided not to heed the warning. Although Laocoön had revealed the horse’s true nature to them by attacking it with a spear, making the weapons inside the horse ring, the Trojans refused to see the forest for the trees. They did not want to listen, they wanted the war to be over, and this desire ended up shaping their perception.

The objective of psychology is to predict and explain human actions and behavior as accurately as possible. However, thinking cannot be investigated by limiting its study to neatly confined fractions of reality such as the realms of propositional logic, chess, Go tasks, the Tower of Hanoi, and so forth. Within these systems, there is little need for a sense of possibility. But a sense of possibility – the ability to divine and construe an unknown reality – is at least as important as logical reasoning skills. Not researching the sense of possibility limits the validity of psychological research. All economic and political decision making draws upon this sense of possibility. By not exploring it, psychological research dedicated to the study of thinking cannot further the understanding of politicians’ competence and the reasons that underlie political mistakes. Christopher Clark identifies European diplomats’, politicians’, and commanders’ inability to form an accurate representation of reality as a reason for the outbreak of World War I. According to Clark’s (2012) book, “The Sleepwalkers”, the politicians of the time lived in their own make-believe world, wrongfully assuming that it was the same world everyone else inhabited. If CPS research wants to make significant contributions to the world, it has to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty as important aspects of it.

For more than 40 years, CPS has been a new subject of psychological research. During this time period, the initial emphasis on analyzing how humans deal with complex, dynamic, and uncertain situations has been lost. What is subsumed under the heading of CPS in modern research has lost the original complexities of real-life problems. From our point of view, the challenges of the 21st century require a return to the origins of this research tradition. We would encourage researchers in the field of problem solving to come back to the original ideas. There is enough complexity and uncertainty in the world to be studied. Improving our understanding of how humans deal with these global and pressing problems would be a worthwhile enterprise.

Author Contributions

JF drafted a first version of the manuscript, DD added further text and commented on the draft. JF finalized the manuscript.

Authors Note

After more than 40 years of controversial discussions between both authors, this is the first joint paper. We are happy to have done this now! We have found common ground!

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


The authors thank the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for the continuous support of their research over many years. Thanks to Daniel Holt for his comments on validity issues, thanks to Julia Nolte who helped us by translating German text excerpts into readable English and helped us, together with Keri Hartman, to improve our style and grammar – thanks for that! We also thank the two reviewers for their helpful critical comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Finally, we acknowledge financial support by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg within their funding programme Open Access Publishing .

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Keywords : complex problem solving, validity, assessment, definition, MicroDYN

Citation: Dörner D and Funke J (2017) Complex Problem Solving: What It Is and What It Is Not. Front. Psychol. 8:1153. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01153

Received: 14 March 2017; Accepted: 23 June 2017; Published: 11 July 2017.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2017 Dörner and Funke. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Joachim Funke, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


  • The Art of Effective Problem Solving: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

  • Last Updated: February 6, 2023
  • Learn Lean Sigma
  • Problem Solving

Whether we realise it or not, problem solving skills are an important part of our daily lives. From resolving a minor annoyance at home to tackling complex business challenges at work, our ability to solve problems has a significant impact on our success and happiness. However, not everyone is naturally gifted at problem-solving, and even those who are can always improve their skills. In this blog post, we will go over the art of effective problem-solving step by step.

You will learn how to define a problem, gather information, assess alternatives, and implement a solution, all while honing your critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Whether you’re a seasoned problem solver or just getting started, this guide will arm you with the knowledge and tools you need to face any challenge with confidence. So let’s get started!

Problem Solving Methodologies

Individuals and organisations can use a variety of problem-solving methodologies to address complex challenges. 8D and A3 problem solving techniques are two popular methodologies in the Lean Six Sigma framework.

Methodology of 8D (Eight Discipline) Problem Solving:

The 8D problem solving methodology is a systematic, team-based approach to problem solving. It is a method that guides a team through eight distinct steps to solve a problem in a systematic and comprehensive manner.

The 8D process consists of the following steps:

8D Problem Solving2 - Learnleansigma

  • Form a team: Assemble a group of people who have the necessary expertise to work on the problem.
  • Define the issue: Clearly identify and define the problem, including the root cause and the customer impact.
  • Create a temporary containment plan: Put in place a plan to lessen the impact of the problem until a permanent solution can be found.
  • Identify the root cause: To identify the underlying causes of the problem, use root cause analysis techniques such as Fishbone diagrams and Pareto charts.
  • Create and test long-term corrective actions: Create and test a long-term solution to eliminate the root cause of the problem.
  • Implement and validate the permanent solution: Implement and validate the permanent solution’s effectiveness.
  • Prevent recurrence: Put in place measures to keep the problem from recurring.
  • Recognize and reward the team: Recognize and reward the team for its efforts.

Download the 8D Problem Solving Template

A3 Problem Solving Method:

The A3 problem solving technique is a visual, team-based problem-solving approach that is frequently used in Lean Six Sigma projects. The A3 report is a one-page document that clearly and concisely outlines the problem, root cause analysis, and proposed solution.

The A3 problem-solving procedure consists of the following steps:

  • Determine the issue: Define the issue clearly, including its impact on the customer.
  • Perform root cause analysis: Identify the underlying causes of the problem using root cause analysis techniques.
  • Create and implement a solution: Create and implement a solution that addresses the problem’s root cause.
  • Monitor and improve the solution: Keep an eye on the solution’s effectiveness and make any necessary changes.

Subsequently, in the Lean Six Sigma framework, the 8D and A3 problem solving methodologies are two popular approaches to problem solving. Both methodologies provide a structured, team-based problem-solving approach that guides individuals through a comprehensive and systematic process of identifying, analysing, and resolving problems in an effective and efficient manner.

Step 1 – Define the Problem

The definition of the problem is the first step in effective problem solving. This may appear to be a simple task, but it is actually quite difficult. This is because problems are frequently complex and multi-layered, making it easy to confuse symptoms with the underlying cause. To avoid this pitfall, it is critical to thoroughly understand the problem.

To begin, ask yourself some clarifying questions:

  • What exactly is the issue?
  • What are the problem’s symptoms or consequences?
  • Who or what is impacted by the issue?
  • When and where does the issue arise?

Answering these questions will assist you in determining the scope of the problem. However, simply describing the problem is not always sufficient; you must also identify the root cause. The root cause is the underlying cause of the problem and is usually the key to resolving it permanently.

Try asking “why” questions to find the root cause:

  • What causes the problem?
  • Why does it continue?
  • Why does it have the effects that it does?

By repeatedly asking “ why ,” you’ll eventually get to the bottom of the problem. This is an important step in the problem-solving process because it ensures that you’re dealing with the root cause rather than just the symptoms.

Once you have a firm grasp on the issue, it is time to divide it into smaller, more manageable chunks. This makes tackling the problem easier and reduces the risk of becoming overwhelmed. For example, if you’re attempting to solve a complex business problem, you might divide it into smaller components like market research, product development, and sales strategies.

To summarise step 1, defining the problem is an important first step in effective problem-solving. You will be able to identify the root cause and break it down into manageable parts if you take the time to thoroughly understand the problem. This will prepare you for the next step in the problem-solving process, which is gathering information and brainstorming ideas.

Step 2 – Gather Information and Brainstorm Ideas

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Gathering information and brainstorming ideas is the next step in effective problem solving. This entails researching the problem and relevant information, collaborating with others, and coming up with a variety of potential solutions. This increases your chances of finding the best solution to the problem.

Begin by researching the problem and relevant information. This could include reading articles, conducting surveys, or consulting with experts. The goal is to collect as much information as possible in order to better understand the problem and possible solutions.

Next, work with others to gather a variety of perspectives. Brainstorming with others can be an excellent way to come up with new and creative ideas. Encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas when working in a group, and make an effort to actively listen to what others have to say. Be open to new and unconventional ideas and resist the urge to dismiss them too quickly.

Finally, use brainstorming to generate a wide range of potential solutions. This is the place where you can let your imagination run wild. At this stage, don’t worry about the feasibility or practicality of the solutions; instead, focus on generating as many ideas as possible. Write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous or unusual it may appear. This can be done individually or in groups.

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential solutions, it’s time to assess them and select the best one. This is the next step in the problem-solving process, which we’ll go over in greater detail in the following section.

Step 3 – Evaluate Options and Choose the Best Solution

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential solutions, it’s time to assess them and select the best one. This is the third step in effective problem solving, and it entails weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, considering their feasibility and practicability, and selecting the solution that is most likely to solve the problem effectively.

To begin, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. This will assist you in determining the potential outcomes of each solution and deciding which is the best option. For example, a quick and easy solution may not be the most effective in the long run, whereas a more complex and time-consuming solution may be more effective in solving the problem in the long run.

Consider each solution’s feasibility and practicability. Consider the following:

  • Can the solution be implemented within the available resources, time, and budget?
  • What are the possible barriers to implementing the solution?
  • Is the solution feasible in today’s political, economic, and social environment?

You’ll be able to tell which solutions are likely to succeed and which aren’t by assessing their feasibility and practicability.

Finally, choose the solution that is most likely to effectively solve the problem. This solution should be based on the criteria you’ve established, such as the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, their feasibility and practicability, and your overall goals.

It is critical to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to problems. What is effective for one person or situation may not be effective for another. This is why it is critical to consider a wide range of solutions and evaluate each one based on its ability to effectively solve the problem.

Step 4 – Implement and Monitor the Solution

Communication the missing peice from Lean Six Sigma - Learnleansigma

When you’ve decided on the best solution, it’s time to put it into action. The fourth and final step in effective problem solving is to put the solution into action, monitor its progress, and make any necessary adjustments.

To begin, implement the solution. This may entail delegating tasks, developing a strategy, and allocating resources. Ascertain that everyone involved understands their role and responsibilities in the solution’s implementation.

Next, keep an eye on the solution’s progress. This may entail scheduling regular check-ins, tracking metrics, and soliciting feedback from others. You will be able to identify any potential roadblocks and make any necessary adjustments in a timely manner if you monitor the progress of the solution.

Finally, make any necessary modifications to the solution. This could entail changing the solution, altering the plan of action, or delegating different tasks. Be willing to make changes if they will improve the solution or help it solve the problem more effectively.

It’s important to remember that problem solving is an iterative process, and there may be times when you need to start from scratch. This is especially true if the initial solution does not effectively solve the problem. In these situations, it’s critical to be adaptable and flexible and to keep trying new solutions until you find the one that works best.

To summarise, effective problem solving is a critical skill that can assist individuals and organisations in overcoming challenges and achieving their objectives. Effective problem solving consists of four key steps: defining the problem, generating potential solutions, evaluating alternatives and selecting the best solution, and implementing the solution.

You can increase your chances of success in problem solving by following these steps and considering factors such as the pros and cons of each solution, their feasibility and practicability, and making any necessary adjustments. Furthermore, keep in mind that problem solving is an iterative process, and there may be times when you need to go back to the beginning and restart. Maintain your adaptability and try new solutions until you find the one that works best for you.

  • Novick, L.R. and Bassok, M., 2005.  Problem Solving . Cambridge University Press.

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Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

Business team using creative problem-solving

  • 01 Feb 2022

One of the biggest hindrances to innovation is complacency—it can be more comfortable to do what you know than venture into the unknown. Business leaders can overcome this barrier by mobilizing creative team members and providing space to innovate.

There are several tools you can use to encourage creativity in the workplace. Creative problem-solving is one of them, which facilitates the development of innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Here’s an overview of creative problem-solving and why it’s important in business.

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What Is Creative Problem-Solving?

Research is necessary when solving a problem. But there are situations where a problem’s specific cause is difficult to pinpoint. This can occur when there’s not enough time to narrow down the problem’s source or there are differing opinions about its root cause.

In such cases, you can use creative problem-solving , which allows you to explore potential solutions regardless of whether a problem has been defined.

Creative problem-solving is less structured than other innovation processes and encourages exploring open-ended solutions. It also focuses on developing new perspectives and fostering creativity in the workplace . Its benefits include:

  • Finding creative solutions to complex problems : User research can insufficiently illustrate a situation’s complexity. While other innovation processes rely on this information, creative problem-solving can yield solutions without it.
  • Adapting to change : Business is constantly changing, and business leaders need to adapt. Creative problem-solving helps overcome unforeseen challenges and find solutions to unconventional problems.
  • Fueling innovation and growth : In addition to solutions, creative problem-solving can spark innovative ideas that drive company growth. These ideas can lead to new product lines, services, or a modified operations structure that improves efficiency.

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Creative problem-solving is traditionally based on the following key principles :

1. Balance Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Creative problem-solving uses two primary tools to find solutions: divergence and convergence. Divergence generates ideas in response to a problem, while convergence narrows them down to a shortlist. It balances these two practices and turns ideas into concrete solutions.

2. Reframe Problems as Questions

By framing problems as questions, you shift from focusing on obstacles to solutions. This provides the freedom to brainstorm potential ideas.

3. Defer Judgment of Ideas

When brainstorming, it can be natural to reject or accept ideas right away. Yet, immediate judgments interfere with the idea generation process. Even ideas that seem implausible can turn into outstanding innovations upon further exploration and development.

4. Focus on "Yes, And" Instead of "No, But"

Using negative words like "no" discourages creative thinking. Instead, use positive language to build and maintain an environment that fosters the development of creative and innovative ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Whereas creative problem-solving facilitates developing innovative ideas through a less structured workflow, design thinking takes a far more organized approach.

Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based process that fosters the ideation and development of solutions. In the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar leverages a four-phase framework to explain design thinking.

The four stages are:

The four stages of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

  • Clarify: The clarification stage allows you to empathize with the user and identify problems. Observations and insights are informed by thorough research. Findings are then reframed as problem statements or questions.
  • Ideate: Ideation is the process of coming up with innovative ideas. The divergence of ideas involved with creative problem-solving is a major focus.
  • Develop: In the development stage, ideas evolve into experiments and tests. Ideas converge and are explored through prototyping and open critique.
  • Implement: Implementation involves continuing to test and experiment to refine the solution and encourage its adoption.

Creative problem-solving primarily operates in the ideate phase of design thinking but can be applied to others. This is because design thinking is an iterative process that moves between the stages as ideas are generated and pursued. This is normal and encouraged, as innovation requires exploring multiple ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving Tools

While there are many useful tools in the creative problem-solving process, here are three you should know:

Creating a Problem Story

One way to innovate is by creating a story about a problem to understand how it affects users and what solutions best fit their needs. Here are the steps you need to take to use this tool properly.

1. Identify a UDP

Create a problem story to identify the undesired phenomena (UDP). For example, consider a company that produces printers that overheat. In this case, the UDP is "our printers overheat."

2. Move Forward in Time

To move forward in time, ask: “Why is this a problem?” For example, minor damage could be one result of the machines overheating. In more extreme cases, printers may catch fire. Don't be afraid to create multiple problem stories if you think of more than one UDP.

3. Move Backward in Time

To move backward in time, ask: “What caused this UDP?” If you can't identify the root problem, think about what typically causes the UDP to occur. For the overheating printers, overuse could be a cause.

Following the three-step framework above helps illustrate a clear problem story:

  • The printer is overused.
  • The printer overheats.
  • The printer breaks down.

You can extend the problem story in either direction if you think of additional cause-and-effect relationships.

4. Break the Chains

By this point, you’ll have multiple UDP storylines. Take two that are similar and focus on breaking the chains connecting them. This can be accomplished through inversion or neutralization.

  • Inversion: Inversion changes the relationship between two UDPs so the cause is the same but the effect is the opposite. For example, if the UDP is "the more X happens, the more likely Y is to happen," inversion changes the equation to "the more X happens, the less likely Y is to happen." Using the printer example, inversion would consider: "What if the more a printer is used, the less likely it’s going to overheat?" Innovation requires an open mind. Just because a solution initially seems unlikely doesn't mean it can't be pursued further or spark additional ideas.
  • Neutralization: Neutralization completely eliminates the cause-and-effect relationship between X and Y. This changes the above equation to "the more or less X happens has no effect on Y." In the case of the printers, neutralization would rephrase the relationship to "the more or less a printer is used has no effect on whether it overheats."

Even if creating a problem story doesn't provide a solution, it can offer useful context to users’ problems and additional ideas to be explored. Given that divergence is one of the fundamental practices of creative problem-solving, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into each tool you use.


Brainstorming is a tool that can be highly effective when guided by the iterative qualities of the design thinking process. It involves openly discussing and debating ideas and topics in a group setting. This facilitates idea generation and exploration as different team members consider the same concept from multiple perspectives.

Hosting brainstorming sessions can result in problems, such as groupthink or social loafing. To combat this, leverage a three-step brainstorming method involving divergence and convergence :

  • Have each group member come up with as many ideas as possible and write them down to ensure the brainstorming session is productive.
  • Continue the divergence of ideas by collectively sharing and exploring each idea as a group. The goal is to create a setting where new ideas are inspired by open discussion.
  • Begin the convergence of ideas by narrowing them down to a few explorable options. There’s no "right number of ideas." Don't be afraid to consider exploring all of them, as long as you have the resources to do so.

Alternate Worlds

The alternate worlds tool is an empathetic approach to creative problem-solving. It encourages you to consider how someone in another world would approach your situation.

For example, if you’re concerned that the printers you produce overheat and catch fire, consider how a different industry would approach the problem. How would an automotive expert solve it? How would a firefighter?

Be creative as you consider and research alternate worlds. The purpose is not to nail down a solution right away but to continue the ideation process through diverging and exploring ideas.

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Continue Developing Your Skills

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, or business leader, learning the ropes of design thinking can be an effective way to build your skills and foster creativity and innovation in any setting.

If you're ready to develop your design thinking and creative problem-solving skills, explore Design Thinking and Innovation , one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses. If you aren't sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

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Understanding Problem Solving in Software Testing: An Exploration of Tester Routines and Behavior

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  • First Online: 19 September 2023
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  • Eduard Paul Enoiu   ORCID: 10 ,
  • Gregory Gay   ORCID: 11 , 12 ,
  • Jameel Esber 10 &
  • Robert Feldt   ORCID: 11 , 12  

Part of the book series: Lecture Notes in Computer Science ((LNCS,volume 14131))

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  • IFIP International Conference on Testing Software and Systems

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Software testing is a difficult, intellectual activity performed in a social environment. Naturally, testers use and allocate multiple cognitive resources towards this task. The goal of this study is to understand better the routine and behaviour of human testers and their mental models when performing testing. We investigate this topic by surveying 38 software testers and developers in Sweden. The survey explores testers’ cognitive processes when performing testing by investigating the knowledge they bring, the activities they select and perform, and the challenges they face in their routine. By analyzing the survey results, we provide a characterization of tester practices and identify insights regarding the problem-solving process. We use these descriptions to further enhance a cognitive model of software testing.

Support provided by Software Center Project 30: “Aspects of Automated Testing”, H2020 under grant agreement No. 957212 and Vinnova through SmartDelta project.

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Eduard Paul Enoiu & Jameel Esber

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Gregory Gay & Robert Feldt

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Enoiu, E.P., Gay, G., Esber, J., Feldt, R. (2023). Understanding Problem Solving in Software Testing: An Exploration of Tester Routines and Behavior. In: Bonfanti, S., Gargantini, A., Salvaneschi, P. (eds) Testing Software and Systems. ICTSS 2023. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 14131. Springer, Cham.

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