Professionals skilled in problem solving stand apart from people who are less gifted because they boldly face daily problems and challenges. They are better able to adapt to rapidly changing environments and are therefore worth more to their employers. Through my own consulting work and ongoing research, I have learned that for those not so skilled at problem solving and willing to learn, this is a very a teachable skill.

Problem Solving Process

In his 1926 book The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas, the English political scientist and psychologist, adopted and expanded Hermann von Helmholtz’s process to idea development. Wallas describes a four-stage creativity process for generating great ideas — preparation, incubation, illumination and implementation. This process is ideal for problem solving because it taps into the idea of creative solutions rather than a one-size fits all template.

Preparation: A period of study and fact-finding, which includes conducting research to identify what has been done before, interviewing subject experts and participating in any other activity of collecting opinions or ideas on the subject. It is time to take a break when you become stressed, bored, overwhelmed, or distracted, or feel that it’s futile to gather more information.

Incubation: Stop thinking about the problem and sleep on it. Though not consciously working on your issues, challenges or problems, your subconscious mind is busy working at connecting the different pieces of information to form ideas, and so creating something different and new.

Illumination: When you least expect it, a sudden flash of insight, an “aha” moment where the new idea(s) to resolve your issues, challenges or problems will surface to your conscious mind and you see the light.

Implementation: The great idea(s) or solution that surfaces could be implemented the way you conceived it, or you may have elements of a great idea that you have to refine before you can implement.

How to Apply the Model to Your Unique Situation

Stage I: Preparation (Research/Gather ideas)

  1. Describe a challenge or problem that you’re having. Writing down the problem makes it more concrete for you. Make sure that your problem statement is not too broadly or narrowly defined
  2. Develop a set of decision criteria to judge the quality of the solutions
  3. Describe the root causes (not symptoms) of the problem or challenge. Uncover the facts surrounding the problem
  4. Who do you know that has experienced a similar problem? If you know someone:
    1. How did they resolve the problem?
    2. Would that solution work for you?
  5. Collect all the information that you can find relating to possible solutions
    1. Look for case studies in your industry and unrelated industries
    2. Conduct research on the internet
    3. Conduct research using commercial online databases
    4. Interview subject matter experts
    5. Brainstorm with colleagues
    6. Conduct focus group interviews
  6. Read all the information gathered and synthesize them
  7. Extract all the relevant information by distilling the facts pertinent to your problem
  8. Formulate options and test alternatives

Stage II: Incubation (Lay the issue aside for a period of time)

  1. Take a break, or work on another project
  2. Let all the information sit for a while

Stage III: Illumination (The moment when the new solution (idea) emerges)

  1. You have an aha moment
  2. You see the problem in a completely different light
  3. Or a solution (s) comes to you
  4. You now have an opening to develop a strategy to resolve your problem

Stage IV: Verification/Implementation (Test out the idea then apply it)

  1. Test the idea to see if it’s a workable solution to your problem
  2. Use the criteria you developed in Stage I to judge the quality of the solution
  3. Refine the idea if you have to
  4. Implement the solution
  5. Evaluate the solution
  6. If you find that the solution doesn’t work, go through the process again

The problem solving process outlined above is solid and has been used successfully for decades. The entire process can take hours or it can take months depending on the complexity of the problem.

Author's Bio: 

Avil Beckford, Chief Invisible Mentor, writer and researcher with over 15 years of experience is the published author of Tales of People Who Get It and its companion workbook Journey to Getting It. Subscribe to the Invisible Mentor Blog for great information to ignite your hidden genius, and explore the Resources page for free whitepapers and an e-book.