Problem-Solving Skills for Adults

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In modern society, specialization and dependence on experts has made life more convenient for some; many adults, though, lack a method and the skills for solving many problems themselves. Some of the methods and skills for adult problem-solving are the same we would teach to children, albeit with the expectation that adults have a larger reservoir of knowledge and capabilities.

Educating for Process, Not Just Facts

  • Adult educators have discovered that teaching concepts and facts is insufficient to meet the challenges many adults will face when they try to put their education to practical use. Employers have complained that many adults with sufficient knowledge about a particular field still lack understanding and skills necessary to solve problems. Problems emerge that simple knowledge cannot tackle; what is needed is a process -- in addition to technical knowledge -- that moves a person or group from problem to solution.

Problem-Solving Process Loop

  • Problem-solving can be described simply as a four-stage loop that may repeat itself: identify the problem, generate a solution, try the solution, assess the solution -- and if the solution doesn't work, go back to generate a (different) solution. Sometimes what sounds easiest is the most difficult. Identifying the problem might be the most difficult part of any problem. You can see the effect of a problem; for example, things are going missing. But there may be more than one idea about why things go missing, and there may be more than one reason that things go missing.

Skills and Strategies

  • Defining or identifying problems requires certain skills, not least of which is pattern recognition, often a result of experience. Possible solutions will demand two important things: technical skills and a strategy. Strategies are often developed by planning backward. Backward planning is beginning with a vision of the result you want, then identifying the main things that have to change to get there. Each of those changes is then analyzed to see what has to be done to make the changes. In this way, the strategic planner works her way back to the problem, and has a road map of stages, tasks, and intermediate goals to achieve the final result.

Problem Complexity

  • Solving a mathematics problem is a simple matter of applying a process formula. Deciding what to prepare for a potluck might be a slightly more complex problem. Deciding who to hire for the construction of a massive office building is another degree of complexity. Resolving an international conflict is more complex still; and ending global warming is extremely complex. Complexity is determined by the scale of the problem, by the number of skills that will be required and by the strategies to be implemented. In addition to skills and strategies, as complexity increases, problem solving will involve many intermediate stages and many kinds of experimentation and innovation. These activities shift out of problem-solving and into the realm of management. Some problems may be insoluble, but that is impossible to know in advance.

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