Enhanced Problem Solving

Executive summary: Day after day, humans are challenged to solve problems big and small, yet our brains didn't evolve for optimum problem solving! Fortunately, many simple techniques have been developed to overcome our brains' problem-solving drawbacks, and these techniques can greatly improve our chances of problem-solving success. Unfortunately, while most people solve problems to the best of their natural ability, they have little to no understanding of their brain's shortcomings in this regard, or of ways to overcome them. To better enable us to work smarter, not harder, this article seeks to demonstrate the validity of these assumptions, and to point readers to further problem-solving resources.

Imagine This

Someone offers to pay you $100 for every song you can name! Whoopee! Easy money, right? There's just one catch: you can only use your unaided mind to come up with songs. That's right, no outside assistance – so just step away from the computer, and put down that smartphone! (Just for fun, do spend a few minutes trying to name every song you know.)

Naturally, you know a lot of songs, right? Everyone does. But how easy is it to name all, or many, or even just a significant portion of the songs you know, even when you're motivated by an (imaginary) offer of money? Hmm, maybe it's not so easy.

My intent here is to illustrate that it's typical for us not to be able to recall all that we know we know. Why is that? This inability to recall, on demand, all that we know on a given subject seems to be a characteristic of how our brains have evolved.

Can you see how this impediment to our recall might limit our success in solving problems that are far more important to us than simply remembering songs? All manner of potentially useful information is stored away in our heads, yet it isn't entirely accessible to us even when it would be most useful. We're just not like our computers which can retrieve—without fail—everything stored in their memories.

But fear not, all is not lost (or inaccessible): I know a simple mental technique that I'm sure will increase your access to songs you certainly know but yet couldn't think of. More importantly, when challenged with real and truly significant problems, this technique can help you unlock more of the useful knowledge you have, but that you can't reliably recall when and where it would make the biggest difference.

The Technique

First, think of something that's associated with songs. That's easy, how about types of songs. Now think of some types. Let's see, there's folk songs, love songs, religious songs, children's songs, Beatles songs, opera songs, work songs, patriotic songs, advertising songs, protest songs, camp songs, sports songs, birthday songs, etc., etc. Didn't many more songs spring to mind when a type of song is mentioned, songs you likely couldn't think of a few seconds ago without using these associations? It seems that our brains store and retrieve memories through such associations (which is very different from how computers store and retrieve information).

Going back to our example, instead of types of songs, I could just as easily have suggested thinking of songs you might associate with parts of the body (heart, arms, eyes), or perhaps weather conditions (rain, sun, wind), or even places (San Francisco, New York, Paris, California, Mexico, Canada, Antarctica).

Antarctica? Can you think of any songs directly associated with Antarctica? I can't, but nevertheless I included it to illustrate the possibility of creating useful second-order associations. What comes to your mind when you think of Antarctica? Perhaps “cold,” “white,” “ice,” or “melting?” While these may not be song titles themselves, did these terms work as intermediary associations to trigger your recollection of any songs? And did other ideas associated with those characteristics of Antarctica also came to mind, as well? (For example, I just thought of the movie, Dr. Zhivago—which probably dates me). That's just how our brains seem to work, by association, and by association to association to association [someone please flesh this concept out more if you understand the phenomenon better, or differently]. I'll go out on a limb and speculate that our brains evolved this way in order to maximize their efficient use of energy (and if so, nature was way ahead of us!).

So associations don't need to be one-to-one to lead to, sooner or later, potentially useful recollections for your problem-solving efforts. To show you just how far afield you can go in unlocking what you know via associations, try using totally random triggers to recall useful information. Examples: starting with a particular challenge in mind, open a book to any page, quickly point to a word on that page, and then ask yourself what ideas that word brings to mind, ideas that might help you solve that challenge. Really. Seemingly unrelated concepts can jolt our brain's thinking out of its comfortable and familiar paths (ruts?), potentially making our problem solving more effective by taking our brain “off road.” If I'm pondering a problem while out and about, I sometimes pick out a random object/color/shape I notice and ask myself how that can help me with the problem I'm trying to solve. I'm often surprised at how useful that can be. You can go really wild and combine various triggers (melting + heart + San Francisco?). What did you just think of, musical or otherwise? Among my non-musical thoughts, I imagined a Ghirardelli chocolate heart. For what its worth, there's a software program I have (IdeaFisher) that systematizes the use of word triggers for making useful associations (among its other problem-solving functions).

So the good news is that we can deliberately use various kinds of associations to trigger our recall of more of the info we already know, info we might be able to put to good use in solving problems. The bad news is that our success in problem-solving can be limited in several other very significant ways, too! But not to worry, there are many techniques and approaches that have been developed for overcoming those additional shortcomings as well. What I shared above is just a single - but important – example of such techniques. But we've just scratched the surface so far!

Just what are those other problem-solving impediments and the ways to overcome them? Whole books have been written about them. Rather than reinventing the wheel by repeating here what you can better find elsewhere, I will point you in the direction of some of the many available resources for learning about and applying what I call “Enhanced” Problem Solving (“Enhanced” because the intent is to extend our inherent, but limited abilities). So I encourage you to continue your exploration of Enhanced Problem Solving by reading about it...

The above sources should keep you out of trouble for quite a while.

Over the years, I've collected numerous resources for effective problem solving: books, articles, software, card decks, and more. But if there was only one such resource I could have on the proverbial desert island, it would be this book: Creative Problem Solver's Toolbox, by Richard Fobes. It truly is a toolbox full of techniques, and the examples can make it fascinating to read. Amazon carries it (but, as of this writing, is out of stock), or the author will actually send it to you without your paying for it first! After perusing the book, you return to the author either the book or a check in payment. Unusual, yes? So is the book. For more information on this particular resource, go to the author's website at http://solutionscreative.com/cpst.html.

Here's one other book I particularly prize. It's related to problem solving, or more specifically, overcoming reluctance to beginning any problem solving (or beginning anything that we believe makes sense to do, yet somehow we keep sitting there with our foot firmly on the brake). For this kind of challenge, I can totally recommend a book: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer. I find his techniques really work, if I apply them. He shows you how to start with such a tiny step that your reluctance not only doesn't get in your way, you don't even feel it! You'll be surprised at how just taking that tiniest of steps can easily overcome the “static friction” that holds you motionless. Check out the reviews at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Small-Step-Change-Your-Life/dp/0761129235.

There is, in my honest opinion, one significant impediment to solving problems that I don't recall being addressed to my satisfaction in any of the resources I've found. And that impediment is the effect our feelings have, specifically our bad feelings such as fear, discouragement, hopelessness, isolation, etc. Such feelings, if connected in our mind with a problem, can stop us from attempting to do anything to solve that problem. Bad feelings can really shut down our thinking. But while these feelings are certainly real feelings, are they an accurately reflection of our current reality? Are they at all useful?

I'd say, based on my many years of peer counseling, that those bad feelings probably are left over from our past, and are quite unlikely to represent our current reality. Thus to let our problem-solving efforts be influenced by our bad feelings is to be responding to what happened in the past, which of course we can't change. (I do think there are things we can do to best handle and/or rid ourselves of those old inhibiting feelings; I might well write up my point of view on that in a future treatise.) Perhaps you might consider questioning the accuracy of any bad feelings you have in the present situation (and maybe, ever so thoughtfully, question those of others?). If you're not able to talk through, vent, or otherwise release bad feelings in some nondestructive way, might you be able to somehow put them aside in your effort to be more present in the current situation? Not easy, I know, but you may decide it's well worth trying!

Oh, and there's one more big challenge, at least for me, in solving problems most effectively. And that is to remember to actually apply what I know about problem solving, to put these techniques for Enhanced Problem Solving to use, especially for the more important challenges I face. Sigh; it's just so easy to fall back into the habits of my lazy, energy-conserving brain. (Hmm, maybe I could apply Enhanced Problem Solving techniques to my problem of not remembering to apply Enhanced Problem Solving techniques?! What the heck, it's worth a try!

Heading into the home stretch here, I'll share the high-level categories I've found useful for the techniques I apply in my own problem solving efforts. I'll include just a few abbreviated examples of techniques in each category:

  • Where do I want to go?
    • Consider (re-)clarifying my goals (or a statement of the problem to be solved) 
    • Question and/or fine-tune those goal(s), to make sure what I think of as my goal is my real goal, and not just one of multiple possible paths to my real goal
  • How many ways can I get there?
    • Generate lots of possible solutions (easier with the many helpful techniques)
    • Absolutely don't stop generating possible solutions after finding one or two that seem like they would work well enough; the 20th may be the hidden gem
  • What is the best route?
    • Process possible solutions and their elements from a large number of ideas
    • Mine and combine the best elements, subtracting what isn't helpful; use thought experiments early to find potential pitfalls & possible negative effects
  • Reality check: am I ready to proceed?
    • Evaluate my solutions so far: does it make sense to implement one or more?
    • Make a decision on one or more actions to take, including revisiting previous steps, or wisely starting over (maybe after taking a rejuvenating break)!

Note that many, many techniques are available for each category. And these categories are just the ones I use, and my listing them this way is not intended to suggest a rigid order to problem solving (I resisted numbering them). Your brain will naturally want to jump around and go back and forth, so let it!

Consider pursuing problem solving like you would go about assembling a picture puzzle from a box (brain) full of pieces (ideas). You naturally start by connecting whatever puzzle pieces you can fit together, even if you're not sure early on where they will later end up. As more and more pieces become connected, the “picture” becomes easier to see and clearer to understand. Toward the end, your progress accelerates until the last piece finds its home. Of course, real-world problem solving won't always be quite that easy. For one thing, I don't think there are any edges to our “puzzles!” Nevertheless, I think Enhanced Problem Solving has the potential to be far more satisfying than any picture puzzle could ever be.

A suggestion for your idea-generation process: I strongly recommend capturing all your ideas at whatever stage they exist (from brand new to fully developed). I carry a small digital recorder around with me for that very purpose. And I use it a lot, especially right after I wake up (when I do my best thinking!). Any and all of your ideas are fair game, regardless if they're impractical, illogical, or even illegal (you don't have to act on them!). One reason for capturing and keeping all ideas for a while is that any one or combination of them can later turn out to be a stepping stone to, or building block for, a subsequent desirable solution. You may find yourself reaching back in time to incorporate some previous idea(s) that, back then, didn't seem all that valuable. I use a free mind-mapping program (FreeMind, for Windows & Mac) to document all my ideas in expanding hierarchies, but of course, you can do the same thing with a pencil and paper, too (good practice for a future low-tech world?).

I encourage you to share with other PPers your own perspective on problem solving and about any techniques or resources you use and can recommend. And I invite you to describe not only what has worked well for you, but also what has not worked well for you – I think there's a lot to learn from understanding what did not work well, and why. In fact, my favorite technique from one problem-solving resource (“Animal Crackers,” http://www.gocreate.com/animal/desc.htm) is to ask ourselves how we have previously failed at the type of challenge we're facing again. I found such insights to be quite valuable.

As Peak Prosperity readers have come to understand all too well, we find ourselves with some very challenging problems to deal with. While this article may be the bearer of bad news, i.e., that your unaided brain isn't optimized for problem solving, I hope what I've shared here has whetted your appetite for going beyond your brain's inherent limitations, so that you'll learn about and apply the many techniques available for Enhanced Problem Solving. After all, why not work smarter, not harder?

~ Terry

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/enhanced-problem-solving/

Really enjoyed this Terry. Thank you!
I'm trying out one of your techniques already.  I need to build a hutch to get my rabbits off the ground when the wet weather returns.  I don't want to spend money on supplies so I'm trying to make due with what I have already on site.  I was struggling with the design and I came inside to let my mind wander for a minute before trying to solve it.  Meanwhile I found your article, decided to try picking a word at random from papers on my desk and use that to develop associations until I arrived at a solution.

The word was "restrictions" and after playing with it for a minute and going to some unexpected and seemingly unhelpful places, I realized that with some bracing using old deck boards I can make the design work. Pretty cool!


Good job!! Lots of great info here.
I suspect feelings are designed to interfere with rational thought to ensure that cultural rules (morals) and belief systems (religion) are followed even if they are irrational. The human is a social group animal designed to interpret and conform to the "values" of the group. Out of box thinkers who can think disconnected from "feelings" would threaten disintegration of the group.  Anyone challenging the current societal norms is therefore labeled a heretic or revolutionary.

The human race can't function in large numbers if everyone has wildly different values. So I suspect the brain has a safety switch built in to block deviation to cold logic and truth or deviation in general, thereby ensuring conformance. This "feature" was coined "thought stopping" in a recent podcast, the idea that when confronted by an idea that threatens beliefs the rational brain literally shuts down.

I believe however that this hardwiring can be recognized even if not disabled. By recognizing this limitation we can choose to become open to the logical propositions from others that trigger it - enough to go away and quietly think about them in a process of self-reprogramming. I have never however seen a person who could change belief systems or discard a single belief-concept without some significant pressure and time to self-reflect - think intervention of cult followers and you'll see what I mean.  You see examples of this in the comments people make on PP all the time. 

The "cure" for this limitation might be to learn a belief system that has fewer rigid irrational rules, maybe something based on science or psychology, maybe a derivative of classic Buddhism (which is really based on understanding of the human condition). With fewer moral/ideal/belief blockages truly open, broad thinking leading to better solutions to societal problems may then be possible.