How to solve problems


Key message: It is not enough to just name the steps of the problem-solving process, each step must be explained and understood.


What is a problem?

How to solve problems - What is a problem? - The steps of problem solving -


I have a problem when I am dissatisfied with a current situation, but at the moment I am not able to achieve the desired target situation (the goal). It may be that I do not know what the goal looks like or the means to achieve the goal are unknown or an obstacle must be overcome on the way to the goal (e.g. the required means may be known but not available). So a problem has four main elements: the initial situation, the obstacle, the goal and the method to achieve the goal.


"A problem occurs when a problem solver has a goal but initially does not know how to achieve the goal. This definition has three parts: (1) the current state - the problems begins in a given state; (2) the goal state - the problem solver wants the problem to be in a different state, and problem solving is required to transform the problem from the current (or given) state into the goal state, and (3) obstacles - the problem solver does not know the correct solution and an effective solution method is not obvious to the problem solver." (, 24.01.20)


In order to solve a problem, three main steps must always be carried out:

  1. analyze the problem
  2. generate several alternative solutions (find existing ideas or create new ones)
  3. make a decision.

(Lindemann, U. (2009). Methodische Entwicklung technischer Produkte. Heidelberg: Springer, p. 46)


The problem-solving process

"A common misconception regarding the CPS [creative problem-solving] process is that it is a freewheeling, unstructured, almost mystical process. This belief is fostered by anecdotes of creative breakthroughs occurring during periods of unconscious sleep or via some subconscious thought process. Although entirely possible, research on creativity has found the CPS process to require much more methodical, disciplined, and sustained cognitive effort ...

... the CPS process involves some degree of problem preparation followed by periods of idea generation, idea evaluation and refinement, and idea implementation. During problem preparation, the problem is identified, relevant information gathered, and the problem further delineated, producing a clear
problem definition. Problem preparation is then followed by a period of “solution finding” where activities are undertaken to generate, to evaluate, and to refine new ideas that ultimately lead to a creative solution(s) to the problem. Finally, the solution is administered or implemented to actually
resolve the problem." (Titus, P. A. (2000). Marketing and the creative problem-solving process. Journal of Marketing Education, 22, p. 226)


The following figure shows my understanding of the problem-solving process:

How to solve problems? 9 steps to solve a problem: see and understand it, set goals, have ideas, evaluate ideas, turn ideas into methods, choose and apply a method, evaluate goal situation

We go through this process quite quickly when we want to solve small problems: We want to achieve a goal, but we don't know how to do it. We see the problem and try to understand it. We estimate how much time we have to achieve the goal. Based on our existing knowledge, we develop ideas for solving the problem. We think about which of these ideas can be implemented and what this implementation would look like. Then we select the best idea and its implementation and apply it. We look at what we have achieved and check whether we are satisfied with it.


With major problems, every step in the process is difficult. Read the explanation for every step of the problem-solving process:

The problem-solving process begins with the recognition or anticipation of a problem. Many problems are very difficult or impossible to solve because they were not recognized in time.


"The ability to detect problems at early stages can lead to more timely and effective interventions. Conversely, failures of early problem detection can result in accidents and performance breakdowns if action is not initiated until the situation has deteriorated to the point where recovery is impossible." (Klein, G., Pliske, R. Crandall, B., & Woods, D. D. (2005). Problem detection. Cognition, Technology & Work 7(1), p. 14)


Recognizing problems is also a chance to set and achieve new goals.


"In artificial cognitive systems, goals serve functions similar to those they do in people. ... Autonomy involves not only the capacity to achieve given goals, but it also concerns the ability to recognize new problems and to propose goals that are worth achieving. ... Both opportunities and threats in the world require an agent to anticipate events within the context of its interests." (Cox, M. T. (2013). Goal-Driven Autonomy and Question-Based Problem Recognition. In Poster Collection. Palo Alto, CA: Cognitive Systems Foundation., 29.08.21, p. 2)


What knowledge and skills do we need to solve problems?

"... we defend the position that the ... assertion (ie that the central focus of education should be to inculcate general skills like critical thinking, problem solving, clinical reasoning and reflection) is indeed a myth. ... the evidence demonstrates again and again that the essence of expertise is the possession of a large, organised and retrievable body of both formal and experiential knowledge, not any kind of general thinking skills." (Monteiro S, Sherbino J, Sibbald M, Norman G. Critical thinking, biases and dual processing: The enduring myth of generalisable skills. Med Educ. 2020;54(1), p. 66)


"Consider ... the myth examined by Monteiro et al [see the quote above] in this issue of Medical Education. ... The authors call into question the utility of dedicating valuable teaching time to content‐independent general cognitive skills when the impact of this type of education on improving rates of diagnostic error remains unclear." (Dehmoobad Sharifabadi A, Clarkin C, Doja A. Myths in medicine: How did we get here? Med Educ. 2020 Jan;54(1), p. 13)


Nobody claims that "the central focus of education should be to teach general skills":


"... ‘skills’ means the ability to apply knowledge ... skills are described as cognitive (involving the use of logical, intuitive and creative thinking) or practical (involving manual dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and instruments)" (, 14.11.20)


Without knowledge there are no (cognitive) skills. Without knowledge it is not possible to apply knowledge and solve problems. Each step of the problem solving process requires a great deal of knowledge related to the problem at hand. It is important to recognize what knowledge is applicable to solve the problem and if knowledge is missing. It is easy for people with no experience in problem solving to make mistakes here. In my experience, people with problem-solving skills put more effort into gathering the necessary knowledge because they want to find an optimal solution and due to their experience they take into account what can go wrong.


These are some problem solving skills derived from the problem solving process: analysis, synthesis, system thinking, goal setting, creativity, evaluation, methodology, decision making, optimization and quality management.


Nobody claims that these skills should be taught content-free. Skill is the ability to do something well. If you want to do something well, you have to practice it beforehand. The same applies to knowledge: Knowledge can be learned by heart, but if you want to know something well, you have to practice it. How can an expert come into "possession of a large, organised and retrievable body of both formal and experiential knowledge" (the request of the above articles)? Can she learn everything by heart?


"Understanding is about transfer ... To be truly able requires the ability to transfer what we have learned to new and sometimes confusing settings. The ability to transfer our knowledge and skill effectively involves the capacity to take what we know and use it creatively, flexibly, fluently, in different settings or problems, on our own. Transferability is not mere plugging in of previously learned knowledge and skill." (Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, p. 40)

How to improve knowledge - transfer, practice, training, experience, expert -

With knowledge "a mile wide and an inch deep" you can not solve problems. Expertise and creativity are necessary to solve problems. Creativity requires domain specific knowledge, general knowledge and "general" problem solving knowledge.


"Indeed, thinking imaginatively is one part of creativity, but two others are also essential: expertise and motivation.
Expertise encompasses everything that a person knows and can do in the broad domain of his or her work. ...

Creative thinking, as noted above, refers to how people approach problems and solutions - their capacity to put existing ideas together in new combinations. ...

Expertise and creative thinking are an individual's raw materials - his or her natural resources, if you will. But a third factor - motivation - determines what people will actually do." (Amabile, T. M. (1998). ‘How to kill creativity’. Harvard Business Review, Sept/Oct, p. 78,79)


Read on Learn-Study-Work: "How to be creative", "How to motivate someone"


Here is an example how to solve a problem:


How to solve the climate change problem?

LEARN-STUDY-WORK is not a political website. Therefore this is just an example how to apply the first steps of the problems solving process shown in the image above.


First step: See the problem

At first people did not realize that industrialization is causing climate change.


Second step: Understand the problem

Then people understood that climate change is an unsatisfactory situation because as a result glaciers and sea ice melt, the sea level rises, more flooding and droughts occur, hurricanes and other storms become stronger, species become extinct and some diseases can spread due to migration.


Third step: Set the goal

The goal is to stop the climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


Unfortunately this is not easy to do because there are two obstacles:

1. To stop the climate change, many people would have to change their lifestyles considerably but not enough people agree.

2. To stop the climate change without changing the lifestyle would cost a huge amount of money but not enough countries are able or agree to invest this amount of money.


Fourth step: Find or have new ideas for the solution

After understanding the situation, the obstacles and the goal it is necessary to think about possible solutions how to overcome the obstacles and to achieve the goal. Here is a list of possible strategies (a strategie is a long-term plan):


How to solve the climate change problem? -


*) "Use economic power" means buying green products and services and investing in "green" business.


Everyone must decide for himself which of these alternative strategies is effective and is in line with his values. Probably only a combination of different strategies will lead to solving the problem of climate change. Maybe you are creative and can find further strategies.