How to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills

The ability to effectively solve problems is one of the traits that the greatest leaders possess. For those who are not that effective at problem solving, the good news is that it is a teachable skill. It is possible for you to improve your problem solving skills by practicing. In 1926, in his book, “The Art of Thought,” Graham Wallas outlined the four stages of creativity, which is also used for problem solving. And like most innovators, Wallas built on the work of others. In this instance, he built on the work of Hermann von Helmholtz, the German physiologist and physicist by adding another stage to the process. There are four stages in the problem solving process.

4 Stages of Problem Solving

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Inspiration
  4. Verification

Stage One - Preparation: Data Gathering

When you have a problem to solve, the first step is to prepare. In the Preparation Stage, you describe the problem and investigate it from many different angles. Develop a set of criteria to judge the quality of the solution. You collect information – look at what has been done before, interview subject matter experts, listen to what others have to say about the problem, brainstorm with your colleagues….Read all the information you collected, look at it from many angles, then synthesize what you have learned.

Stage Two – Incubation: Sleep on It

Turn the problem over to your subconscious mind – sleep on it. Or take a break to work on an unrelated task. You can also immerse yourself in an activity that fosters creativity.

Stage Three – Illumination: Eureka Moment!

When you least expect it, you have a Eureka moment, a flash of insight into how to solve the problem. The length of the Incubation stage varies, it could be instantaneous (which is highly unlikely), or it could take weeks or even months. The important thing is that you have to work through the initial stages of the problem solving model.

Stage Four - Verification/Implementation: Shaping & Developing the Idea

When you get solutions to your problems, they are seldom in a form that you can immediately use. You have to test and refine the solution using the established criteria from Stage One. After you have refined your solution, implement and evaluate it. If it doesn’t solve the problem adequately, go through the four stages of the problem solving model again.

Additionally, in 1939, 13 years after Graham Wallas outlined the problem solving model in The Art of Thought, James Webb Young introduced “A Technique for Producing Ideas.” James Webb Young built on Wallas’ work by adding another section to the model. An important aspect of his model that is worth noting is in the data gathering stage. He included general data gathering, which is a lifelong practice of saving information that you find interesting. Using the Evernote Clipper app, you can save and archive information you find online, so that when you are faced with a problem, it is easy to search your Evernote folders to see if you have any information that can aid your problem solving.

The more you work with the Graham Wallas Model, you will be better able to hone your problem solving skills, and you will find yourself implementing more creative solutions.