Problem Solving takes a Fearless and Logical Mind

Leroy Wall, Wall Consulting Group 

One of the best lines from Ridley Scott’s 2015 blockbuster movie, “The Martian” came as marooned astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, faces what appear to be unsolvable problems in his quest to remain alive.

Watney’s great line is, “You can either accept [the problem] or get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next one and the next and if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Of course, failing to effectively problem-solve in the financial management sector will not lead to premature death on an alien world, but Watney’s straightforward and logical approach to overcoming what seem to be unsurmountable challenges is worth considering for anyone trying to solve any problem, big or small.

Rarely does anyone know all of the answers when first confronting a big, complex problem.

That can be scary, which is why effective problem-solving requires an appropriate amount of fearlessness combined with logic.

Start by dividing up the problem into what you know and what you don’t know, then begin tackling the unknowns.

That seems simple enough. Use your technical knowledge, education and experience to figure out what you know and don’t know about a problem, and then start applying logic.

Each time you want to take a step forward in solving your problem, assess the probability that you are more likely right than wrong about that step, and only that step. Don’t let the step after that scare you.

Fear is relative, therefore you must establish your comfort level. How confident do you need to be to take that next step? Some people might be comfortable with 80 per cent certainty that they are right while others might need 90 per cent certainty or more. When you determine your own confidence level, take that step forward at a safe pace, allowing for a sober second opinion from a trusted colleague or friend if needed. When you are more likely wrong than right, stay put or step back, reassess and recalibrate as necessary; also allowing for a sober second opinion.

Don’t let fear of failure stop you. Failure is an opportunity to learn, as long as you establish a safe environment for failure and put limits and controls on the allowable level of failure. In this environment, you don’t have to know everything now, each step brings the next step into focus.

Inevitably there will be times when you stop and you simply don’t know what to do next. If you don’t have the answers, you just need to know how to find them. Finding answers becomes easier if you break your big problem into multiple smaller problems and attack them individually.

You should never allow what you don’t know to stop you from moving forward with what you do know. Exploit what you don’t know as an opportunity to make someone else an expert and you the student. You might be surprised by what you will learn.

Cycling through this process over and over eventually moves everything into the known category, and the unknowns just whittle away. Becoming paralyzed by a problem comes from the illogical desire to be self-sufficient and get to a 100 per cent confidence level before each step, which leads to few or no steps being taken.

Let's try this logic on a 6 year-old you are teaching to ride a shiny new bicycle. You know that this child does not yet know how to ride a bicycle. You know that everyone who learns how to ride a bike never forgets. These are things you know. These are things a 4 year-old can comprehend when you explain them. You can also explain that falling down is okay. Everyone falls down when they learn. You can create a safe environment where the child is wearing protective gear, the bike has training wheels, and the child is riding it on a grassy field. Failure is okay, because limits are established and controls are put in place. If fear prevents that child from ever trying to ride that bike, he or she will never learn. The child has to take some level of risk in order to learn. Once the child masters riding with training wheels, then you repeat the process without the training wheels. Then you move from grass to pavement; and so on and so on. 

So when all is said and done, problem solving is like learning to ride a bike: once you learn how to do it effectively, you will never forget it.

Over the coming months we will be running a series of case studies to illustrate some real-life problem-solving success stories. Please share your problem-solving success stories with us; we would love to hear about them.

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