Problem solving: How to make better decisions
With truly important decisions, we do well to approach the matter a bit differently than we do with everyday matters. Here's how to do it.
[Note: this remains an incomplete, although revised and improved, draft of this document. I hope soon to add some illustrations of the more technical parts of it. Please do not distribute it to anyone without my permission. If you have any questions, contact me at tc (AT) tomcloyd (DOT) com]
Introduction - there IS a better way
It has been said that "life is about solving problems." At least some of the time, this is surely true. While there are many ways to solve problems which can work well, depending upon the nature of the problem and skill of the problem solver, one method which is particularly well suited to important and complex problems is formal decision making.
All of us sometimes get into trouble with the decisions we make. Usually, the consequences of this are bearable, but sometimes our mistakes are truly costly. For those times when making a good decision is genuinely important we need a way be reasonably assured that we're thinking correctly. Such a way exists - I know and use it, and will describe it here. Its formal name is Multi-Attribute Decision making, or MAD, for short.
I'm really no better at solving problems than most other people, but I have had the good fortune of being able to do graduate study in formal problem solving and decision making, with a nationally known authority - a psychology professor at Portland State University (Oregon) who worked with corporations and state governments in the area of formal problem solving and decision making. While these subjects can certainly get rather technical, the basics are straightforward and can be used by almost anyone. I would like to tell you how to do just that.
The mistakes we all make - and can avoid
Careful research on what people actually do when trying to solve problems and make good decisions has produced some striking findings. Basically, we all tend to make the same kinds of mistakes. It appears that the brain is designed to make merely adequate decisions - to do "good enough". The difficulty with this is that some times good enough is NOT good enough.
Here are some of the most basic errors we tend to make:
- We rush through the first part of problem solving: getting an understanding of the problem itself.
- We don't adequately explore the range of solutions that we would find acceptable, as well as those that appear to be available.
- We don't consider all aspects of each solution carefully, so as to arrive at a sensible choice. Instead, we tend to ignore a lot of the information we could use, in good part because we simply cannot hold it all in our head.
A better way to think things through
Most generally, we will do a lot better if we (a) slow down, (b) write things down (instead of relying on our memory), (c) get a little consultation, and (d) do a simple calculation to arrive at the best solution (rather than just impulsively adopting a solution that looks "good enough"). This can turn out to be an elaborate, complex process, but it doesn't have to be. Simple ways of doing this generally work rather well, and don't take much additional time. They produce significantly better results, too.
Specifically, here is what we ought to be doing when the stakes are high:
Slow down. Look at the problem from as many points of view as we can. How does it arise? What factors feed into it? Are we missing any essential pieces, in our description of it? Can we write out each significant event that leads to the problem (if that's relevant)? Have we considered all the ways it affects us? (This matters because a good problem solution ought to deal with at least the most important ways it affect us.)
Get minimal consultation. When trying to understand the problem, as well as in the next two recommendations, below, one simple change in what many people do has been shown to very significantly improve the quality of the outcome: ask one other person for their opinion. This persons doesn't even have to be an expert on the sort of problem you're facing, often. The most important effect of "getting outside the box" of your own brain is to give you some new perspectives.
Develop a broad range of solutions to your problem. When looking at solutions, once again slow down! Ask yourself: what do I really want? Describe it well, preferably in writing. Ask yourself also: what sorts of solutions have other people come up with? Try to get as broad a range of solutions as you possible can. Do NOT allow yourself to critique any of them at this point - that's for a later step.
Make your values known. Take the time to carefully consider the key aspects of what you would consider to be a good solution. Be careful to write this all down. You are looking here for your essential values - for what makes a solution "good" to YOU. These "values" can be any quality that you can describe - cost, speed, physical access, color, social acceptability…anything that matters to you.
Calculate the best decision. Finally, each reasonable possible solution should be rated on each of values you've arrived at, and this rating should be used to determine what is the best solution. Use this arithmetical process rather than something more intuitive precisely because it acts to keep you from throwing out information you simply cannot hold in your head!
You may be wondering at this point what one does if the process described here produces a supposed best solution that you don't like. This can happen, but only if you make a mistake somewhere. Should this happen, you need to go back and reconsider the "values of a good solution" questions again, and then check your ratings. This won't take long, and you'll surely find the discrepancy, fix it, and then have a result that you like AND which makes sense.
A practical example: Getting a new job
So, now let's work through an example. I've left out a few of the details, above, and this example will help to spell them out.
Preliminary description of the problem situation
Let's suppose I've decided that I want more than I'm getting from my job. The idea of "moving' on" looks better to me every week. But there are some drawbacks to this idea. The more I think about it the more confused I get. There seem to be an awful lot of things to consider, and I really don't want to mess up this whole think up.
Is this a suitable problem?
Not all problems involve decisions that are suitable for M.A.D. In fact, most of our daily problems are not suitable. They're just too simple, and we can quickly produce a "good enough" solution and be on our way without looking back. Our brain is generally rather good at doing just this.
This possible-job-change example involves a rather complex decision that truly matters. These two qualities - complexity and importance - make this problem ideal for the process described here. Trivial problems can also be dealt with by this method, but with less important problems it is best to simplify the process as much as possible, or to use just part of the process, to improve some aspect of your thinking that is weak.
Step ONE: Define the problem carefully
This is the most important step. Get this step wrong, and everything else will be a waste of time.
So, looking at my job dissatisfaction, the first thing I notice is that I've never really calmly considered what's wrong. It's not yet clear to me what the problem really IS.
Of course my boss is a problem for me. No surprise there - they almost all are! (Well, humor aside, they are at the least NOT us, and that puts them in conflict with us some of the time.) But maybe this is fixable. Have I been properly assertive to him/her about what I need to be happy at work? If not, then I don't know that he/she cannot provide what I need. The problem may be my lack of assertion rather than my boss, and I need to know which it is - and it could be both, of course.
For this example, let's assume that my boss is unresponsive to my reasonable, clear, and repeated requests for some basic changes. Now I know that to a degree my boss IS part of the problem.
What else could be contributing to my job dissatisfaction? Could the job also be a problem for me in part because of problems I'm having elsewhere in my life? Could the problem be other employees? Bad work environment? Inadequate compensation? One needs at this point to get as specific as possible as to the nature of the problem.
Let's assume that I've exhausted all reasonable options for somehow modifying my job so that I might stay there and be happy. So, now I can say that my job ill suits me, and that maybe a change would fix the problem. Working things through to this point has had the effect of making my problem more simple, and that will make it easier to solve. Eliminating possibilities allow me to focus better.
The point to be made here is critical: one simply MUST do a careful problem analysis, as I've already said. Nothing is as worthless as a solution to the wrong problem, so one wants to be sure about focusing on the right one.
As I said before, getting a little consultation here can be very helpful. Do NOT get help from a supportive friend. You don't need support, you need a more or less objective critique. Your thinking, not your feelings, needs checking here. Do your thinking badly badly, and you'll have plenty of feelings - bad ones - with which to occupy your time, in the future. Do your thinking well, and you can be assured that your chances of trying to solving the wrong problem have been significantly reduced.
When you think you are truly ready, write down a plain description of your problem, as you now see it. At this point, you have probably the clearest view of the problem you've ever had. A clearly written problem statement will help keep your efforts well-focused, without having to struggle with your memory, as you work through the next steps.
So, let's assume that we now see the problem as this: I want a new job, one that will be more satisfying for me, one with which I can be happier.
Step TWO: Identify your values
We will now begin to develop an internal discussion between (a) your view of what might solve your problem and (b) what it is that makes any possible solution appealing or not. Well done, this internal discussion leads to an increasingly acute understanding of what you really want, which is the only thing which will best satisfy you, in the final analysis. Begun here, this discussion should continue until you finally make a decision, and possibly even after that.
[ insert here: diagram of this internal dialog, and how one knows that it has finished ]
Develop your "ideal solutions" list
Begin first by imagining your most ideal solution - in my example, this would be my "dream job". Write down this "ideal solution" as the first item of list of ideal solutions to your problem.
Allow yourself to stretch your ideas a bit. If you're like most people, you may have trouble turning off your internal critic, but try to do it anyway. Allow yourself to get just a little "wild and crazy". Dream up some really outrageous solutions to your problem. Write every thought down. Call this your "wild and crazy" list, if that gives you "permission" to produce a richly varied list of possibilities. Don't reject anything on the list yet. Doing that at this point will NOT help, and likely will hurt your chances of getting a good result from this problem-solving process.
Find out why these solutions appeal to you
When you can think of now more solutions, for the moment, begin consideration of each item on the list. Ask yourself: what exactly makes it seem to you like a possible ideal solution What is most important to you about this solution? Look for multiple qualities, and write them down in a new list with the heading VALUES. They can be anything at all. A perfect spouse, horse, house, job, vacation, or car would all have key qualities that would be rather unique. These qualities would be different for different people. What are they for YOU? This is a critical part of this decision making process, so don't rush it.
With each item on this list, ask the same questions. What makes a given item - a given possible solution - appealing in any way? Each answer you come up with goes on your values list. If you already have on your value list a quality you discover through your questioning, merely note this, and keep investigating the list items until you feel sure you have done enough detective work.
In my job search example, I have described my dream job, and a number of others that I pushed myself to think up. I did my detective work as to why each made it onto my list, and I now feel confident that a good job for me would:
- allow a lot of independent decision making;
- offer me pay for my living costs plus some for savings;
- allow me to focus on people-problems, as opposed to other sorts of problems;
- allow me flexible, self-structured scheduling of my work;
- allow me to exercise my love of creative thinking and acting;
- allow me a wide range of activities in carrying out my work.
This, I casually note, might describe a minister, a financial consultant, a psychotherapist, a physician, a teacher, and a number of other professions (most of which were on my initial list of "ideal solutions"). What I don't know is which of these possibilities - or possibly some others - is the BEST solution to my problem.
Develop "weights" for your values
This is the most technical part of this step, but it probably won't be too challenging if you work through the process with care; there are only two steps. However, you can skip it altogether, at least initially. Many people do, and it often doesn't affect the final results significantly.
1 - We begin by prioritizing the list of values. I look at the list and pick out the one most important value, and put it at the head of a new list - PRIORITY VALUES. I continue returning to the source list and pulling out the most important value still left, until all are moved to the new list, where they are now placed in approximate priority order.
2 - Consolidate the prioritized list into a group of priority clusters. The goal here is to have a small number of priority levels, at least some of which contain multiple values. Four to five clusters or less is probably best. To form the clusters, simply look for adjacent groups of values which seem to have approximately the same level of importance.
3 - Assign "weights" to value priorities clusters. An easy way to do this is to assign the top priority level a weight equal to the number of priority cluster levels you have developed. Then, assign each lower level cluster the next lower number. The lowest level will receive a weight of "1"..
4 - Adjust your weightings. Look carefully at the weights you have assigned. For example, if you have four level clusters, is the top level really four times much more important the lowest level? You will probably want to make some adjustments. Do not become anxious about getting the weights precisely right. An approximation will work just fine, according to research that has been done on the value of working to get very precise weights (it was found that it generally is NOT worth the effort!).
This little exercise should seem familiar to anyone whose ever had a teacher tell them that the final exam in a course will count for twice what the midterm will, and that homework will, in sum, count exactly as much as the midterm. It's the same idea, only applied to the values that are critical to your making your important decision.
When you've finished with this step, you ought to feel rather confident about your values - about what that it is that makes a "good" solution good for YOU. You should also have a decent approximation to their relative importance.
Step THREE: Identify solutions
First: What are YOUR solutions?
You've already developed a list of imagined solutions to your problem, in the previous step. Take time now to once again consider all those ideas floating around inside your mind about what sort of option, life change, choice, or whatever, would solve your identified life problem. You well may find that considering your list of values will suggest to you some additional solutions which ought to go onto your solutions list.
Second: What are other people's solutions?
Develop some solutions you have NOT yet thought of. You can do this by consulting with other people, and by looking at the sorts of solutions to your problem that have worked for other people like you. This approach can be particularly good for business problems, but works well also for many other kinds of problems.
For example, maybe you are trying to figure what sort of house would be best for you, now that your children are grown up. You spend time fantasizing the perfect cottage on the coast, or a mountain cabin, or…then you notice that your uncle, at this point in his life, simply sold his house, and he and your aunt took to the road in a motor home. And they're still out there, seeing the world. You didn't think of that solution, but they did, and you can add their solution to your list, if it has any appeal for your at all. Remember to hold off being critical at this point. That's not your job right now.
One can do more. There are often specialists in dealing with certain types of problems - these people can be consulted. With my imagined find-a-new-job problem, I know that professional occupational counselors may be found at community colleges and four-year colleges, and that they have all sorts of skills, tests, and computer programs to help people make a good decision. I would do well to consult with one to get a better idea of what sort of jobs might suite me.
This brings me in contact with jobs that work for other people like me. By looking at other people's solutions to MY problem, I have simply expanded my range of options, and this increases my chances of coming up with a really good solution. I write down every idea that looks like even a remote possibility. The result is that my list is now much larger than I'd thought it would be.
So, let's assume that I now have about ten options. Some look rather good, and some rather not-so-good, but again, I'm going to try not to get too critical at this point. Having this list in hand, we're finally ready to look carefully at each option, which will lead us to a decision.
Step FOUR: Make a decision
At this point, we're ready to get really productive.
Get your materials together
If you can, find a large piece of paper. You might want to tape two pieces together, or tear up a grocery sack to get a large surface to work on.
You're going to draw a matrix - a large box with rows and columns. With lines marking the rows and columns it will look something like a checker board, only with a number of rows and columns which reflect YOUR problem.
For each of the prioritized values, make a row. Write down the values you developed, in any order, so that they label each row, on the left side of the matrix. After each value, in parentheses, write in the weighting you developed.
For each of the solution option you developed that appears to have even one of the values to any significant degree at all, make a column. Label the columns with a letter or number which should also be placed by the appropriate item on your SOLUTIONS list.
Rate your solutions
Can you guess what happens next? You're going to score each possible solution on each value. The really "slick trick" about this process is that you're handling in this process all this information that your brain couldn't possible hold all at once, and you're losing nothing, ignoring nothing, and not overloading your brain at all. It's actually quite easy.
How do you get the score? There are many ways, and they basically all work. I suggest this:
- Plan on writing the "raw score" in the upper left of each little box (cell) in the matrix, in small print, then the weighted score in larger print in the rest of the cell. If the weight for a value is "1", you'll obviously not be changing the number, so just write it in the full cell.
- To get a raw score for a value, for each option, use a 0 to 10 scale. Draw out a rough ruler-like line somewhere, roughly 10 inches or centimeters long. Label the left end "0", and continue along the line, every inch or centimeter, with "1", "2", etc., until you get to "10", at the far end of the line. To derive a score, ask yourself how much of a value of interest is to be found in a given option. In my example, I might ask of the "Minister" option how much of an adequate income it might be expected to provide. YOU DO NOT NEED AN EXACT ANSWER. Just score your impression. I would score this about a 4. Adopt a score that FEELS right, given what you know. This will be good enough, except in really, really critical situations.
- When all the raw scores are in place, for those options which have a weight greater than 1, multiply the weight by the raw score to get the weighted score, and place that in large print in the appropriate cell.
Step FIVE: Discover your optimal solution
This is easy. Add up the scores for each column. Put the summed scores at the bottom, right below each column.
Note the highest score. Start a new list, composed of two thin columns and one fat one. In the first column place the highest score. In the second column, place the letter which identifies the column, in your matrix. In the fat column, write the name of the option.
You will typically only be interested in about the first five high scoring options. If one really stands above the others, you have an clearly unambiguous situation. If not, the situation bears careful analysis. You will want to give it careful examination in any case if you find that this process has picked a solution for your that you do not like. If that has occurred (and this is relatively common), you either have not well described your true values or you have made a calculation error. You can check either concern first, but continue the check until you've found the problem and fixed it.
The result will either be a change in the option rankings, or an understanding that the process really did work, IF you consider all of your values.
Do you need help at this point?
The process described here, while basically rather simple, can still be too much to take on if you've never done it before, or if you have trouble working you way slowly through written directions, or for any of several other reasons. If you find yourself facing obstacles such as these, get help. I do formal problem solving consultations, as part of my professional practice, and I may be able to help you locate someone with the same skills, if you are not in my general region.
Another alternative is to do the consultation over the telephone or the Internet. This is actually a very reasonable idea. Not all mental health professionals are comfortable working at-a-distance, but I've had considerable experience doing it, with all sorts of situations, and would have no reluctance a doing problem solving consultation in this way. In addition, I have very recently developed an online spreadsheet application by means of which two or more people can work on a decision problem at the same time, while talking over their work. The spreadsheet does all the calculations for you, and helps to organize your work easily.
The first main point to consider here is that this process can work for you. It's widely used in business, industry, government, and the miliary for important decisions. The second main point to consider is that you can get help in getting it to work, if you need to. You CAN dramatically improve the quality of your decision making, when it really matters. I've just shown you how it can be done.
How to print this page
Use the page print function built into your browser. It's usually an item in the File menu right below the caption of the window in which this page is displayed.
Only the page's core content will be printed. All images outside of the main content area, all navigation tools and links, and extraneous header and footer material will be omitted from the printed page.
Many browsers also have a print preview function on the same menu - you can use this to see how the printed page will look before you actually print it.