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How Do You Make Important Decisions?
editorial by David M. Switzer
When I was in high school I participated in a program called Future Problem Solving, which enhanced my teamwork and problem solving skills. The program was designed as a competition -- our four-person team competed against other teams of students at our level from other schools, most if not all from Canada and the US. I believe that many of the ideas used in that program are applicable in a broader context, which is why I'm bringing them to you here. In particular, the six-step process for solving a problem can be used to arrive at a good solution to any important problem.
The first thing we did was research a particular topic -- for example, one year the topics were energy sources, young people and the law, nutrition, and employment. There's no way we were going to come up with a useful solution to a problem unless we knew a lot about that topic. These days there's so much information people talk about information overload. But you can't let that stop you from finding out about things that are important to you. Research skills are certainly valuable to anyone who wants to know in-depth information about any topic. Talk to a librarian -- the ones I know are both friendly and helpful.
On the day of the competition we were given a "scenario," a one-page description of a hypothetical situation in the future based on that topic. We had two hours to work through the six-step process -- luckily in real life we usually have more time. Before launching into the steps the first thing we had to do was make sure we understood the situation. That might seem trivial but these days it seems like a lot of people make decisions without understanding the situation.
In two of the steps, brainstorming is used. You may be familiar with brainstorming, but here's a quick refresher. The goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible, because the more ideas you have the better the chance that you'll have a great idea. No evaluation of ideas is made at this stage -- each idea is treated equally. Silly ideas are encouraged, because they could trigger more practical ideas. Ideas that combine or improve on previous ideas are also encouraged.
The first step is coming up with subproblems. We used brainstorming to get as many subproblems as we could think of. Once the brainstorming was done, we narrowed it down to the 20 best subproblems. We were encouraged to cite sources of our information. From a scenario about the elderly, here's an example of a subproblem: "Due to the smaller proportion of young, working people, there are fewer people in the work force to provide health care (e.g., doctors, nurses)."
The second step is identifying the underlying problem -- the problem that, if solved, would solve many of the other problems. For example: "How might we provide services that would assure the psychological well-being of the elderly, without overburdening the tax payers?" The idea is to focus on one category of problem (e.g., social, legal, economic) since it's very difficult to solve all problems at once. A large problem is best solved by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems -- just like a large computer program is best written by breaking it into smaller, more manageable pieces.
The third step starts with another brainstorming process -- this time coming up with as many solutions to the underlying problem as we could. Then once again we narrowed it down to the 20 best solutions. For example: "Schools will offer continuing education courses; some seniors can teach as well as learn. This will get them learning new things and encourage socializing."
You might be saying to yourself that this isn't rocket science so far. But the fourth step was a bit of an epiphany for me. How do you decide which solution is best? You rate all the solutions according to objective criteria. So the fourth step is developing five criteria for judging the solutions. For example: "Which solution would pertain to the highest number of seniors?" Or: "Which solution would produce the most psychological benefits?"
The fifth step is, for each of your five criteria, ranking the 10 most promising solutions in order from 1 (poorest) to 10 (best). For example, the "continuing education" solution might receive a score of 6 on the "highest number of seniors" criterion, whereas a "silver pages for phone books" solution might receive a score of 10. Then we added up the scores to determine which solution was best. What if the chosen solution doesn't seem like the best one? Then there's something wrong with the criteria, or there's something wrong with the ranking, or we're confusing the best solution with the favourite solution.
The sixth step is writing a description of the best solution. Who's going to do it, where, when, and why? For example: "Our best solution is to encourage people in the community and the elderly to begin self-help groups for seniors. This solution would create an opportunity for seniors suffering psychological strain to gain support, and get help with their problems. As well, the groups would encourage seniors to socialize thus eliminating feelings of isolation. Stemming from the groups would be friendships and growth together as a community. The group would most importantly allow individual seniors to discuss and solve their psychological problems. The groups would cost little to start and once running, they would be totally self-sufficient as meetings would take place in members' homes. Thus it will not rely on any government money. Obstacles they encounter can be solved usually by a vote on what to do."
I won't explain how the whole contest was evaluated, but the best solution (i.e., the sixth step) was evaluated according to relevance, effectiveness, impact, and humaneness. Things that we should definitely be concerned about if we're solving an important problem.
At events where teams got together a seventh step was added: a five-minute presentation to persuade people that your solution is the best. The art of persuasion is important too -- if you have a solution to a problem and you can't persuade people of its merits, you're not going to get very far.
For more information, the Future Problem Solving web site is here.
Thanks to my fellow Future Problem Solving group members and our coach, Betty Mullin, who were at St. Marys DCVI.
Dave Switzer recently read the novels Burndive by Karin Lowachee, which was brilliant; and The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, which was startlingly bad. He also reread The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which might be the funniest thing he's ever read. He recently saw the movies The Triplets of Belleville, which was stunning; Shadow of the Vampire, which was surprisingly boring; and The Birdcage, which was hilarious.
Cover artist Britt Martin, a Michigan resident, is known nationally for his fantasy artwork, innovative ink drawings and comic book colorings which are considered by many critics as eye-catching and very creative. Britt has been involved in the professional art world for more than six years. The individual who has most influenced Britt's work is art icon Frank Frazetta. He also admires the work of Alphonse Mucha, Leonardo Da Vinci and Monet. Look for Britt Martin's work on his web site here. You can also e-mail Britt about his work at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: July 26, 2009
Copyright © 2004 David M. Switzer