Developing a problem solving primer

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

What is central to effective problem solving? What should be remembered and applied when prioritising and addressing problems and difficult situations?

  • For Patricia Kelly, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, it includes “to start without preconceptions, i.e. be open to fundamental questions about who best deliver the required outcomes, what different structures might be more efficient and what collaborations or partnerships might achieve better outcomes”
  • For Carmel McGregor, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Defence, “Diversity of thought and perspectives are critical components.”
  • For Paul Harris, Deputy Director with the HC Coombs Policy Forum “We live in an era shaped by science and technology, where our heroes are innovators and we long for clean, technical solutions to complex problems. But we know that science and technology contribute to the creation of these problems, and that it is rare that more evidence or a particular technological innovation alone can solve them.”
  • For Lucille Halloran, Managing Director, it includes “Learn to say NO. Prioritising is no longer about what to focus on first, it’s also about what to stop doing or delegate.”
  • For Doron Ben-Meir, CEO of Commercialisation Australia, “Importantly, I never commit all of my resources up-front as one learns through execution so provision for contingency is wise.”
  • For Ralph Aston of the Australian Futures Project, he notes that “Complex problems can be scary. While our schooling and incentive structures might suggest otherwise – you can’t just work out an answer like it’s an exam. There is no single solution and many different ways to look at the problem.”
  • For Mark Cully, Chief Economist at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, “first-best policy responses are rarely ideal for difficult issues. Leave virtue to priests and academics. For policy makers, perfect can be the enemy of the good.”
  • Robert Flynn of Vuca Concepts nominates the key thing to remember as “There is a saying which most of us in the ‘complexity’ community like to embrace. ‘For every complex problem there is a simple solution – and it’s WRONG!‘”
  • For Mark Elliott of Collabforge “Define the problem together, in simple terms that everyone understands and agrees with.”
  • For Julie Ustinoff at the Australian Taxation Office, “Avoid treading the path of ‘this is how it’s always been done’ and embrace the opportunity to find new ways of doing things, new solutions and viable alternatives.”
  • And for Judy Matthews of the Queensland University of Technology “Set aside time to define, frame and iteratively reframe the issues before seeking new ideas. Always present information in a visual form.”

These are just some snippets from a collection of answers we have put together about problem solving.

Earlier in the year DesignGov facilitated an event looking at the wide range of tools, techniques, methods and strategies that exist and how they might connect, integrate or complement each other.

From that event, and from other discussions, it is clear that (unsurprisingly) there is no single answer or unifying theory that encompasses all of the possible approaches that can be used in problem solving. Nor is there an easy way to determine which to use when, to know what problems, preconditions and people are best suited to what combination of tools and methods.

But what we do know is that there are many experienced decision-makers and practitioners who have a lot of wisdom about how to approach problem-solving. And we know the more this wisdom can be shared and discussed, the better.

So we approached some of these people from across our networks to contribute to a collective ‘concentrated wisdom’. We asked them to contribute a short piece to one or more of these four questions:

  • What one thing would you recommend when dealing with limited resources and competing priorities?
  • What is the key thing to remember when you are confronted by complex problems?
  • When you’re confronted with a difficult issue, where do you start?
  • What is your favourite tool or technique to use in problem solving?

And as you can see from the introductory snippets, we got some great contributions. The full collection is on our website.

Over time we hope to use this concentrated wisdom to develop a primer for problem solving – to educate, to inspire and to prompt, and to help foster a conversation about what make for effective problem solving (and what role design, innovation, behavioural economics and other strategic tools and approaches have).

And that’s where you, our readers, come in.

Seeking your input to expand the collective wisdom

What tools do you use? What do you rely on to help you in problem solving? What approaches, what disciplines help you? When are they useful and when are they not?

On our ideas platform we are seeking your assistance to help build on the contributions we have so far. We are seeking your contribution to the following:

  • What advice would you give to others about problem solving?
  • What tools and techniques do you use?

We also want to know about the references and websites that you might use. For instance, in design there are some great resources at Service Design Toolkit and at Service Design Tools.

We don’t want to (and can’t hope to) replicate what is already out there – but we can help people navigate the resources by sharing the views of the wider crowd about which resources they use and why. There is so much information out there and it can be hard to know what is relevant and what is useful. If we can leverage your expertise and experience, then we can hopefully help others find their way when they are confronted by difficult problems.

So – can you help us help others with their problem solving?