The skills of problem solving

Problem solving requires two distinct types of mental skill, analytical and creative.

Analytical or logical thinking includes skills such as ordering, comparing, contrasting, evaluating and selecting. It provides a logical framework for problem solving and helps to select the best alternative from those available by narrowing down the range of possibilities (a convergent process).. Analytical thinking often predominates in solving closed problems, where the many possible causes have to be identified and analysed to find the real cause.

Problem solving

Creative thinking is a divergent process, using the imagination to create a large range of ideas for solutions. It requires us to look beyond the obvious, creating ideas which may, at first, seem unrealistic or have no logical connection with the problem. There is a large element of creative thinking in solving open problems.

The creative thinking skills can be divided into several key elements:

  • fluency - producing many ideas
  • flexibility - producing a broad range of ideas . originality - producing uncommon ideas
  • elaboration - developing ideas.

Effective problem solving requires a controlled mixture of analytical and creative thinking.

Research has shown that, in general terms, each side or hemisphere of the brain is specialised to serve one of these groups of skills. The degree of specialisation of each hemisphere varies from person to person, but it has given rise to the terms right-brain thinking and left-brain thinking. Left-brain thinking is more logical and analytical, and is predominantly verbal. Right-brain thinking is more holistic and is concerned with feelings and impressionistic relationships.

To be a good problem solver you need to be able to switch from one group of skills to the other and back again, although this is not always easy. Traditional education gives far greater encouragement to the development and use of left-brain thinking. This is reinforced in the way we are required to work, where emphasis is placed on rational, logical analysis of data in drawing conclusions.

Some other terms which are often used in discussions of creativity include:

Intuition - the ability to draw conclusions based on impressions and feelings rather than hard facts. It is a characteristic of right-brain thinking and some people rely on it more than others.

Incubation - the period between stopping conscious work on a problem and the time when we become aware of a solution or part solution. People struggling with problems often suddenly become aware of a solution after a period of incubation, during which the mind is occupied by other things.

Invention - the creation of new, meaningful ideas or concepts.

Innovation - putting new ideas or concepts to a practical use, as in the development of a new product or service.

Read the next article: Why people fail to solve problems effectively

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