Elaheh Nazari

Posted on 7th September 2021

14 Powerful Techniques to Solve Problems

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We all make mistakes and those mistakes come from our false judgment and inability to analyze our options. Humans tend to have poor analyzing abilities when they face problems. We tend to solve the problem with trial-and-error. With this, we either solve the problem after many trials or we learn to live with it and hope for more luck for the next! But with innovations, we have discovered a new and better approach for dealing with problems.

But before that, we have to know what are the things that are holding us back from being better analyzers and wizards  so here are some of them:

  1.  We tend to involve emotions in our decisions.
  2.  We look for patterns in everything we see and everything that happens.
  3.  We unconsciously make assumptions.
  4. We want explanations for everything, even when they are not true.
  5.  We tend to look for facts that are compatible with our beliefs.

To not be biased when making decisions and become better thinkers, we must acknowledge these five. People perceive problems differently thus their solutions can vary. But analytical thinkers have found other ways to perceive the problems clearly; there are fourteen tools that will help you to achieve what you want

Problem Restatement

Sometimes our definition of a problem is shallow. imagine an offices parking lot that is always full. You can ask yourself “How can I increase the capacity of the parking lot?”, but with this mindset, you will not see other options like carpooling or adding better transportation for your office.

Maybe changing your definition of the problem and asking better questions will help you find a better solution, so here on some tips:

  1. Restate the problems in different words and from other perspectives.
  2.  Ask the question completely the other way around (From “what do we need?” to “what don’t we need?”).
  3. Put the problem in context and see the bigger picture.
  4.  Change your focus (especially from things that are in your control).
  5.  Ask why after why until you reach the root of your problem.

Pros-Cons and Fixes

People faced with a new idea and concept tend to criticize and look at its negatives first because we may have a hard time coming out of our comfort zone and adapt to a new change. To fix this problem we can use a technique called Pros-Cons-and-Fixes.

Here are the steps you should take:

  1.       Write the Pros of all your options and actions to fix the problem, first.
  2.       Write the Cons of all your options next.
  3.       Try to find Fixes for the Cons if possible and neutralize them.
  4.       Compare all the Pros and Cons and choose the best option!

Divergent/Convergent Thinking

When thinking about solutions, we want to let the ideas come to our minds and not hold a guard against them or criticize them. There are brainstorming sessions that may help you with your divergent thinking. Here are the bases of divergent thinking:

  1.       It is better to have many ideas than to have a few.
  2.       Glue the ideas together and pick the positive points of each idea.
  3.       Remember, bizarre ideas are still ideas and will help you to think outside the box.
  4.       To hold back your critical mind, do not evaluate ideas; because if you do, your fear of saying bad ideas will kick in and stop your mind from looking for ideas freely.

Sorting, Chronologies, and Time Lines

Imagine you want to go grocery shopping, if your list is not organized and put into categories, you may have to go from aisle to aisle to pick up on items; but with a sorted list your shopping will be much easier. This example was about simple grocery shopping but now imagine complex problems that require you to pay close attention to every information. Sorting the information will drastically save you time and energy and make it easier for you to compare and come up with a solution.

Your mind thinks in timelines. it means that when you read a biography of a great person, you follow what he did from his birth to death; but if the timeline is reversed or not in order, you will get confused because your mind is built to see things in terms of cause-and-effect. Even scientists write their discoveries chronologically for it is much easier to understand.

When talking about “making a timeline”, it means that you write down the history of that problem. For example, the first time you encountered it, the events that had an impact on it, and how it got more significant throughout the time. This chronological timeline will help you look at the information at your disposal and make your decision-making easier.

Casual Flow Diagramming

Remember the cause-and-effect system? How do our minds see the events? Everything that happens is just the outcome of the event that came before it. So to tackle a problem, we must know what made that problem the Problem it is today, and what are its major components and factors. To analyze the cause-and-effect of a problem better, you can use casual flow diagrams and here is how to make them:

  1.       Find the problem’s major factors.
  2.       Find the causes and effects of the problem and the events that changed it.
  3.       Divide those events into two groups: the ones with direct impact and the inverse.
  4.       Draw the diagram and relate the events to their outcomes and also to the effects they had on other events (cause-and-effect).
  5.       Analyze the events and see them as one and wholly.

The Matrix

Matrix is just a simple grid but a very compatible tool to use when sorting information. It can have as many cells as we need and there are various ways we can use it. Imagine thinking about different scenarios, you can put an if in the x-axis and another if in the y-axis and write what will happen if these two ifs meet in the cell.

The matrices can also be used to relate problems and solutions to each other and make it easier to see the relations at any given time with just one look. A marvelous analytic tool indeed!

The Scenario Tree

A scenario tree is another tool used to demonstrate actions and consequences. With each decision, we get a different outcome and chain of events and the tree shows exactly that.

The scenario tree shows the cause-and-effect of the choices the best. It shows us which events follow other events and decisions, and which ones are independent of each other. It helps us analyze and compare all the possible outcomes.

Weighted Ranking

Our unconscious mind ranks everything on a day-to-day basis; whether it is our commute to work or the food we get at the restaurant. We may not even think about this and it happens naturally to us. But we can put this ability of our mind to good use and rank our ideas and solutions to problems, but not unconsciously! It is called weighted ranking where we set some criteria to rank the ideas on and compare them and here are the steps on how to do that:

  1. Set the criteria for your rankings from the most to least important.
  2.  Give the criteria weights and values [so the rate you to an item gets multiplied by that value of the criterion].
  3. Draw a matrix with the items to be rated, the criteria and their weights, total votes, and final ranking.
  4. Rate every item in each criterion and multiply by criterion’s weight and add that to total votes.
  5. Rank each item based on the total votes they get. 

Hypothesis Testing

A hypothesis is a theory that has the qualifications to be true and nothing is against it but it lacks the supporting evidence to be declared as the truth. We, humans, tend to accept the first idea and hypothesis that comes to our mind and act on it. If you spend much time thinking about a hypothesis, you may find it hard to accept any other!

You must always be aware to check all the probabilities and find the one that fits the best, not the one that you find first. So testing a hypothesis is important and here is how to do that:

Draw a matric and name the x-axis “Hypothesis” and the y-axis “Evidence” and write each hypothesis and evidence there. Then check each hypothesis with each evidence and give them an evaluation based on their probability. Then rank each hypothesis based on your evaluation. Do a sanity test on the highest-ranked hypothesis and if it was ok, then pick that one.

Devil’s Advocacy

One thing that will help you test a hypothesis or idea is to look at it from the other perspective and the opposite viewpoint. Imagine you want to build an office somewhere; set up to analytic groups: one that looks for reasons why it is a good idea and one that searches for the why-not. The second group act as the Devil’s Advocates. They don’t necessarily believe that it is a bad idea to build there, just for the sake of testing the idea, they take the other side and try to prove a point.

The Probability Tree

Our minds are not made to think in mathematical probability terms. We rely on our senses like sight and make estimates and guesses using them but when it comes to the nonvisual like estimating probability, we may have problems. To use probability, we must keep an eye on and not let our intuitive judgment put us off track.

There are two ways to calculate probability: Computation and Frequency-and-Experience

When experiments have been done and we have the data that we need, we simply compute the probability. But when we don’t have data, we use the second method and gather data using experiments and calculate probability based on the frequency of happening.

What is a Probability Tree then? It is just the same as the scenario tree but with one thing more… probability! In front of every outcome, we write the probability, that we have calculated, of that scenario happening. Here are the steps you should take to draw the perfect probability tree:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Write the scenarios and events and decisions.
  3. Draw a Scenario Tree.
  4. Put the calculated probability of each decision and event in front of it. (remember that the sum of probabilities in each branch must be 1).
  5. Calculate the probability of each scenario (by multiplying its probability by its previous events probabilities).

The Utility Tree

In this method, we use the scenario tree again but with one difference; the options and outcomes are the same but we also try to see it from other perspectives. This viewpoint will help you understand the concepts better. For example, when selling your service, try to look from the end user’s point of view, then you can see what they really are looking for.

Utility Tree is a more advanced version of the previous trees. To draw a Utility-Tree you can follow these steps:

  1. Write down the options and outcomes and which perspective you are using.
  2. Draw a scenario tree with the options and outcomes you have.
  3. Put the calculated probability in front of each outcome.
  4. Ask yourself the question “what do I get from this outcome? What is its utility?” and write the answer in front of the outcome.
  5. Give each utility a value. Then multiply that value by the probability of that outcome and write that in front of each outcome.
  6. Compare these numbers and rank them based on the highest to lowest.
  7. Check if these rankings make sense (sanity check).

The Utility Matrix

A matrix has some advantages over a tree. Trees can get untidy and they mainly focus on scenarios. This may distract us from the importance of outcomes. In a matrix, you focus on outcomes and the utilities of outcomes are easier to perceive. However, setting up a utility matrix is almost identical to utility trees and follows the same rules but with the difference of a tidier space.

This does not mean that the matrix is always better but it depends on the situation and the nature of the problem. Both may be used for different purposes.

Advanced Utility Analysis

Until here we have learned a great deal about utility analysis and we have encountered the utility trees and matrices. We know about options and outcomes and their utilities and probabilities and so on. But as mentioned before, for a better understanding of the problems and concepts, it is better to look at them from other perspectives. “Imagine you want to buy a house from a family; if you ask each family member, the father and mother and children, you get new insight.” Now we are going to learn how to add multiple perspectives into our trees and matrices.

We call this Multiple-Perspective Utility Analysis and here are the steps to make one:

  1. Write down the options and outcomes.
  2. Identify and set the weight of the perspectives.
  3. Make a utility matrix for every perspective with the same options and outcomes.
  4. For each perspective, set values for each utility of outcomes. The best one should be 100 and others should be related to that.
  5. Add the probabilities to the outcomes.
  6. For each outcome, multiply the probabilities by the values of utilities and write that in the EV (Expected Value cell).
  7. Combine all of the EVs of each option and write that in the Total EV cell.
  8. Now make a new matrix with the options and perspectives (no outcomes).
  9. Enter the Total EVs of each option and add in the weight of each perspective.
  10. Multiply the total EVs by the perspective weights then add that to the total weighted EVs cell.
  11. Compare the options based on their total weighted EVs and rank them from highest to lowest. “The best option is the one with a higher total weighted EV.”
  12. Sanity check!

Now you have many tools in your arsenal! Make sure to use them in your analysis as they will serve you wonderfully and make your encounter with problems much easier.

We can help you to analyze the problems in your services and product with help of our Clojure developers. Have a remote coffee with us to discuss the matter.


The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving