Problem solving basics

Some ideas about classifying problems and approaching their solution

When facing important decisions, most of us feel at least somewhat unsure of ourselves: “Have I considered all the options? Did I use the right criteria? Will this really get me what I want?” In a group or organization, where the consequences can be even greater, these concerns are often intensified, along with the complications of social dynamics.

Using a structured approach and graphical tools allows you to consider a problem thoroughly, examine your thinking along the way, and reach a decision you can live with. This can ensure your peace of mind when you tackle a thorny problem or critical decision.

Problem solving concepts diagram

Problem solving concepts diagram

Recognizing the various components of a problem or decision can be a helpful first step. This diagram shows some common terminology of different aspects of problems and the problem solving process.

We instinctively recognize that problems range from simple to complex, and most of us don’t need help deciding how to solve simple problems. But the diversity of complex problems is vast, with widely varying characteristics. What are the critical factors which make a problem complex? And how should our solution process change for complex problems versus simple ones?

There is a tendency to approach all problems as simple, or to simplify complex ones to tame them. When simplistic or authoritarian solutions are applied to complex problems, they just get worse. Being aware of a problem’s characteristics can avoid this trap.

Is my problem simple or complex?

Problem complexity spectrum diagram

Problem complexity spectrum diagram

I’ve found it helpful, when learning new concepts, to think of a line defining a polarity with a range of values, then estimating where a given situation falls along that line. The problem complexity spectrum illustrates several ways to view problem complexity. To me, the most critical of the common themes is that as social complexity—the number and diversity of people involved—increases, problem complexity increases. This has important implications for appropriate solution processes: the most important, complex problems society faces can only be solved through the combined wisdom of all the affected people.

The lower part of the diagram identifies some common solution approaches along the problem complexity continuum, and lays out some tools and methods in rough correlation. Many of the tools will be familiar from your education, professional, and life experience, and have application in a wide variety of situations. Visual tools can help in any situation. Consulting another person to augment your own thinking about a problem is generally beneficial. The various interaction tools are especially important for complex, “tough”, or “wicked” problems. Many of the visual and interaction tools are described elsewhere on this website.

Where can I learn more about solving problems?

A worksheet or graphic organizer might help you get a handle on a problem, or jump start your thinking about it.

Links to worksheets and diagrams

Problem Solving Jump Start Graphic Organizer
Problem Analysis Overview
Problem Analysis Questionnaire Worksheet (for those more comfortable with a text format)


Norman Edmunds’ Scientific Method


The Art of Problem Solving: Accompanied by Ackoff’s Fables, Russell L. Ackoff, 1978, John Wiley & Sons, NY, NY

Practical Systems Thinking, Alan Waring, 1996, International Thomson Business Press, London, UK and Boston, MA

Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Life Decisions, John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, Howard Raiffa, 1999, Broadway Books, NY, NY

Brain Power: Learn to Improve Your Thinking Skills, Karl Albrecht, 1980, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ

The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More With Less, Richard Koch, 1998, Currency, NY, NY