Dr Harry Alder is a presenter of international management seminars and a prolific author of books on management, personal development, business leadership, creativity and NLP. Harry lives in Wallasey.
In this chapter:
- A few well-known problem-solving techniques that incorporate some graphical element.
Most problem-solving techniques incorporate graphics in one way or another. In this chapter I give some well-known examples. Don’t get hung up on the titles of these techniques. I use the best-known descriptions so that you will recognise them if you come across them. But in any case they appear in different formats.
These are creative problem-solving techniques, although they usually add some form of analysis, so they tend to combine left- and right-brain thinking operations. The visual ideas techniques you have met so far remain valid, and especially the need for a creative approach. In fact brainstorming-type thinking applies in just about any problem-solving situation. It is the foundation to any creative technique, however sophisticated. You need intuition, insight and the odd eureka. In short, something more than a cold analysis of the problem and the ‘facts’ could ever provide. Even the popular ‘pros and cons’ have to be identified in the first place, and will probably differ from one person to the next. If you can solve your problem by following a known process, fine.
But if your problem can be reduced to simple rules and logic, it hardly ranks as a problem. It’s when you get stuck that you need ways to employ more creative methods in order to harness your unconscious mind.
However dire your problem, you need to relax and get into a creative mode. That takes practice and a little know-how in relaxation techniques.
The methods you have already met for getting ideas can all be used for solving problems. Problems, more than anything, require good ideas and a fertile imagination. As we saw earlier, whether you define an issue as a problem or an opportunity is not important anyway. With the right mental approach they are two sides of the same coin. It’s a matter of choosing the tool that helps you to get whatever you want (whatever you call it) in a way that works best for you.
However, some traditional problem-solving methods add some sort of analysis to the basic idea creation process. Some are particularly useful for defining the problem more accurately, or getting to the root problem. Some add a structure that appeals to more left-brain dominant people, whilst still incorporating creative principles.
The techniques you will meet in this chapter will provide further examples of how graphics, or pictures form an important part of the problem-solving process. Add these to the less structured methods you have already met, and you will be ready to tackle just about any problem, now using your whole brain.
The problem-solving process
You can represent the process of problem solving in a diagrammatic, sequential way. For example:
This is just one example, but many models follow a similar, logical theme. Notice that at each stage you may have to do decide which ‘facts’ need to be taken into account, what assumptions to make and so on. In other words you need to do some creative thinking, however mundane your problem. Creativity starts with defining the problem. A problem is not always the one that first comes to mind (the ‘presented’ problem). Any of the methods we met in the previous chapter will help to redefine the problem or issue.
Sometimes it helps to approach a problem using a particular approach or model, and the brain seems to respond to this described spatially. Notice that in this model both the left and right sides of the brain are called into play at each stage in the process. In some text book models the creative element in problem-solving is often overlooked (and the ‘frustration factor’ is rarely even mentioned). When using words only, the creative brain doesn’t seem to be turned on anyway – hence the need for stimulation in more visual, spatial or right-brain mode.
Force field analysis
Force field analysis explores the positive and negative forces within a problem or situation – what is working for you and what is working against you.
It’s a simple enough concept, but it can be a useful way to bring together objectively the many factors at work in most problems. In this case simple arrows depict the forces at work and concentrate the mind.
Briefly state the FORs and AGAINSTs along the – opposing arrows. You may –wish to brainstorm these, using some of the techniques in the previous chapter. Showing these factors in a graphical way reminds you that there are always pluses and minuses – pros and cons. If you don’t have such a selection (including negative forces) you don’t really have a problem. Life is like that – few things are black and white. You’ve heard the maxims: ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’; ‘It’s an ill wind . . .’ etc. If you can’t spot the opposing forces at work, you may have missed something and may well have a bigger problem than you thought.
Of course drawing lines and arrows doesn’t identify what the various forces are in your particular problem. That requires creative thinking and is a right-brain function that simply does not lend itself to ABC methods and logical checklists. You’ve got to use your whole brain. However, as with the simple wheel and spoke type diagrams you have met, a graphical format helps your thinking. It doesn’t constrain you to left to right, top to bottom lists or prose.
Depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist you will tend to naturally come up with either positive or negative factors or forces. That’s fine, as the discipline of this method requires you to think of opposing forces to whatever comes to mind. If you come up with lots of factors in your favour, you need to concentrate on identifying negative factors – things that are likely to scupper your attempts or work against you. If you can only think of obstacles and negative forces, then a bit of forced optimism, or positive thinking, is called for. The idea is to strengthen positive forces, as well as reduce or eliminate negative forces. That demands new ideas and a brainstorming approach. Most of all, you need to understand yourself and get in touch with your unconscious mind where so much of clever problem-solving is done.
Let’s say your problem is that you need to get a particular qualification to help you in your job and increase your prospects, but with home and social commitments you just don’t seem to have the time.
Start by quickly and instinctively listing positive and negative forces in a force field diagram.
Positive might be:
- You’re still fairly young and will learn quickly if you set your mind to it.
- Perhaps your employer will give financial assistance or time off work.
- Maybe you enjoy the subjects you will learn and look forward to study with pleasure.
- You may feel guilty about not spending time with your children.
- You may have started the course of study in the past and did not complete it for whatever reason, so you are not confident of your sticking power.
- Maybe your spouse is not behind you in this.
- Maybe you don’t have a suitable place in the house where you can study in peace and quiet. And so on.
Here is the force field picture format, suitably abbreviated to save time, as new issues may pop quickly into your mind.
It is almost certain that however positive you are you will easily identify negatives. In many cases you will be able to easily overcome them. It is just a matter of taking account of factors that may potentially affect your problem. Similarly, even a naturally negative person should be able to identify positive forces, even if it is just seeing another angle on the situation. Moreover, negative forces will seem obvious to a negative person, while positive forces will seem just as obvious to a positive thinker. The tendency is thus to omit the obvious. But it is important to include all the forces that come to mind in your diagram anyway. It’s a useful checklist and helps your overall thinking process. Sometimes one factor reminds you of several others. A negative suggests a positive and vice versa. Just seeing positive factors in black and white helps your attitude and motivation. At the same time, by getting down all the downsides there is less danger of kidding yourself as to the seriousness of a situation.
You will probably find that each factor has its own level of importance and significance. Some will be minor factors you hardly thought it worth writing down, whilst others might be vital to your success. That is, each has a different weighting or force, as well as direction (positive or negative). You can easily adapt your diagram to these variables, such as by using different thicknesses of force arrows.
There are no rules for these sorts of techniques. Draw whatever you like if it can be useful. If you are into numbers you can give each factor a numerical weighting. For instance a positive might be a ten and two twos. But on the other side you have two negatives weighted about five each, plus a minor one.
The idea is that at any time the forces are in equilibrium, with the positive and negative forces counteracting each other. You could show this either arithmetically (giving a numerical weighting to each factor) or graphically, with thick and thin, or short and long arrows.
Don’t split hairs. Your weightings can be percentages, adding up to a hundred, or each side can add up to ten or 20 if you just have a few factors. Each side doesn’t even have to add up to the same figure. But by making it something close, you acknowledge the fact that both positive and negative forces have a part to play, and that some sort of equilibrium exists. The weighting of positive and negative forces respectively should reflect not just the importance of each factor to the overall problem, but the level of time and effort you need to give to them.
The finished diagram will give you an overall impression of how you fare in your problem. The idea is to maximise and enhance any positive factors as far as you can, and to minimise or eliminate any negative factors (which is why you first need to clearly identify them). For instance, a couple of positive factors may have the effect of reducing a big negative force.
You may be surprised at how creative you become when dealing with a real, live problem using force field analysis. The anticipation of a solution that will give you pleasure acts as a strong motivator, both for right-brain creativity and left-brain application, rationale and effort. However, don’t kid yourself. Initially, at least, try to overstate the downsides of a situation, leaving yourself with the challenge of bringing positive forces to bear.
As with most graphical problem-solving tools, you can use it in flexible, creative ways. You don’t need a problem, for instance. You could use this and similar techniques to consider an opportunity, or to help you make an important decision in your life, such as regarding a job or career change or a house move.
You don’t need to define the problem specifically, at least at this stage. The process of identifying forces will elucidate your problem and suggest solutions. It might turn out, for instance, that a single negative factor constitutes your true problem, and that’s the ‘force’ you need to tackle. Or maybe you have more than one problem, of a different nature, requiring a different approach. Either way, that’s useful knowledge. Ignorance – especially self-ignorance – is the most serious kind of problem of all. ‘Forces’ may be internal rather than external, and involve your own strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and attitudes.
Notice also that ‘forces’ will differ depending on whether they are inside or outside your control.
Things you can overcome personally, even tricky, complex matters, don’t usually produce the headaches that come from things that are in other people’s hands or the lap of the gods. You can take account of this important difference in your creative diagrams, such as by the use of different colours. Or simply adjust the weighting, effectively increasing the impact of a negative factor that you don’t have much control over. Lack of control, or perceived lack of control (you feel helpless to change things), may be a large part of the problem.
As a third alternative, identify people problems, such as the need to persuade or convince someone, to get authority, or to get someone out of the decision loop, as problems (forces) in their own right. In each of these cases you may well identify positive forces also, such as people who you can use to influence things positively.
‘How To’ diagram
‘How’ is an important problem-solving question. You don’t just need to know what to do, but how to do it. Otherwise, seemingly ‘solved’ problems will tend to remain as problems. A ‘solution’ might be a problem in a different guise. The How To technique simply applies the ‘how’ question at every stage, rephrases questions in How To format and creatively explores any How To direction imaginable.
Using the same example as in the force field analysis above, a goal of ‘To pass so-and-so examination’ would become ‘How To pass so-and-so examination (be specific, of course).’
As each aspect of the How To goal comes to mind (just like factors in a force field analysis) simply make sure you accommodate the How To prefix. Then automatically each obstacle, mini target, stepping-stone goal or difficulty will be phrased in this practical, focused way.
And so on
The How To diagram then forms a hierarchy as each question leads to another – usually a more immediate, shorter-term step to the goal.
How to find the fees, for instance, might suggest:
And so on
The hierarchical graphics help with this process, just like a flow-chart. By using this free format you can add extra How Tos along any branches of the tree (or cascade) as they occur to you. The diagram is never fully complete.
That, of course, is a feature of creative as against logical, sequential thinking. You always allow room for a better solution, which your unconscious mind may have tucked away somewhere.
As with most creative techniques, it is best to do this quickly and instinctively. Otherwise you will tend to judge, evaluate and maybe dismiss what might turn out to be valuable insights.
Don’t be surprised if you tend to repeat How To questions, even when coming to an aspect of the problem from a different direction (down a different branch). This simply confirms you have an important How To to deal with which may be a key to your success.
You can apply this technique to just about any level of problem. For instance, it works at a higher, more strategic level:
A middle HT problem level:
Or at the lowest, most immediate level just like a ‘to do’ list:
When you arrive at obvious ‘to dos’, or you start to wonder just what your problem was, you know the technique is working. Something has happened in your mind, which is where problems are solved.
This is a flexible, highly practical technique that just about guarantees you have to address the right questions to solve your initial, presented problem.
Watch out for spin-off benefits from this sort of technique. In this example, for instance, you might learn in the process how to save money on things you don’t really need which will have benefits far above your specific training course needs. At the same time don’t get depressed if you seem to come up with new problems you hadn’t thought about. Problems don’t go away just because you don’t identify them. And worse, they have a habit of turning out to be much bigger later. Nevertheless, stay positive. Every problem is an opportunity to find a How To solution, and pick up some useful learning in the process.
Note I have abbreviated How To as HT when doing a diagram. This is so as not to slow down the process and lose the intuitiveness and flow of ideas. When it comes to the graphical part, create your own system. I have found that ‘top down’ cascade or tree type diagrams work well.
You can do this top-down or left-right, whatever you are comfortable with and which seems to generate the most ideas.
Occasionally you will use a ‘hub and spoke’ layout like a mind map.
This is useful when you are in brainstorming mode and you want to generate as many HTs as possible quickly, without worrying about layout or presentation. You may then wish to produce a more finished product in cascade, or tree and branch style as above.
However, I suggest you stick to the How To terminology – the words How To or an abbreviation. Language affects the way we think in surprising ways, and in this case produces practical rather than theoretical ideas.
This technique was developed by Yasuo Matsumura, president of Clover Management, a Japanese company. It uses the idea of a lotus flower, but also incorporates the ideas of the Lotus 123 computer spreadsheet software. This is based on squares, built up as matrices of nine squares. It’s a bit squary for lotus blossom petals but the name has stuck.
Write the problem or issue in the central square – this is equivalent to your central theme in a wheel and spoke diagram. Ideas are then written in the surrounding eight squares, equivalent to the brainstormed ‘spoke’ ideas, or main branches in a hierarchy or cascade sort of picture. Each of the eight ideas is then transferred to the centre of the adjacent, outer lotus petal. This becomes the new topic, idea or redefined problem. You then subject each topic to the same brainstorming process, aiming for a further quota of eight ideas.
You will need a big sheet of paper, but it is useful to see the whole process on one sheet, rather than transferring each main subtopic to separate sheets, as you might with the graphical methods we have met so far. For practical purposes you will have to keep to just a few words in each square, but this is also a handy discipline.
It means you have to boil everything down to simple terms. As long as you know what you mean by a short phrase, or even a single word, the technique will work fine.
This incorporates some principles of creative thinking. One is the hierarchy of ideas method in which topics or issues branch off, with smaller branches in turn for subsidiary topics and issues. This allows you to pursue an idea, in different directions or in greater depth.
Another principle is that of a quota of ideas. This means you have to keep thinking of ideas until you have reached a certain number, in this case eight
This is compatible with the idea that the unconscious brain is more or less unlimited and, theoretically, you need never stop getting ideas, even on apparently the most mundane of subjects. Rationally, you would probably stop at the first ‘great’ idea you thought of, which presupposes – quite wrongly – that it is also the best. Eight is a compromise but you needn’t lose sleep if you cannot come up with a quota of ideas. Eight happens to fit the nine-square pattern of the lotus technique nicely.
A fishbone diagram helps to get new ideas and solve difficult problems. Write the problem at the head of the fish. Then write down ideas as they arise, as bones going out to each side.
As with any hierarchy type diagram you can add further subsidiary ideas to expand a topic or line of enquiry. As with any brainstorming process, you can generate as many ideas as you like. Simply add on extra bones to the diagram. You may wish to rearrange your diagram after the initial draft, to make plenty of space for ideas requiring lots of subsidiary bones. Arrange your ideas from the simplest or most promising at the head to the most complicated, or those requiring the most time, effort and expense, at the tail end. Similarly, when appraising and evaluating ideas to implement, start at the head. That way, the chances are that you will arrive at a solution long before you need to consider all the ideas in detail. More practically, if you start at the tail end you may get waylaid and never get round to the most promising ideas. Unlike the lotus blossom diagram with its fixed number of cells, you can have as long or short a fishbone as you like, and as unnatural a bone structure as you like to allow for extra ideas as they occur.