Better Problem Solving by Thinking About What You Could Do

Monday, July 9, 2018
Fatou Darboe

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Problems can be hard to fix when we only know what the issue it but none of the steps to fix it. It can be even more daunting to figure out what those steps are.

Some problems, like repairing a broken laptop are relatively easy to solve if you have the technical know-how. Otherwise, you know what you should do to fix it – take it to a technician.

Other problems, like figuring out what you want to do with your life can be hard because the answer is subjective. It takes time and experience to solve an issue like that.

Perhaps it would help to ask yourself what you could do, instead of what you should do?

Let’s explore that.

Think About What You Could Do, Not What You Should Do When Solving Problems

According to researchers at Harvard University, when you are faced with a question that requires morality-based answers, you need to ask yourself, “what can I do?” as opposed to “what should I do?”

The idea is based on the concept that a “should” question makes you choose between alternatives, whereas, a “could” question makes you think of creative solutions. The “could” mindset also creates greater moral insight, in the sense that two competing ideas are not exclusively compatible.

The researchers, in a series of online experiments, asked participants to think about hypothetical dilemmas like whether they should hire an unqualified son of a prominent person for an internship.

They found that the “could’ mental mode led participants to have better moral insight. They were able to come up with solutions that cut the tension between opposing objectives. They came up with solutions that didn’t really select one route at the expense of the other.

They also found that a “should” mindset narrows your thinking to one answer while a “could” mindset allows you to stay more open-minded; and motivates you to come up with more creative solutions.

We all have that “what could we do?” co-worker who seemingly seems to be slowing everything down. They are the people the ask the “what ifs” and “how about” questions to add options to discussions.

Those “rebels” understand the importance of taking their time under pressure to reflect and regroup their thoughts and ideas.

Consider the example (provided by one of the study authors in this Harvard Business Review article) of Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of a USAirways jetliner. The plane hit a flock of birds and lost both of its engines shortly after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in January 2009.

There were 155 people on board and very little time to find a place to land in a city of skyscrapers. Most other pilots would arguably try to land at the nearest airport. However, Sully worked through the standard emergency protocols (what he should do) but also allowed himself to think about what he could do.

He decided to land the plane on the Hudson River and everyone survived. All because he used a “could” mindset.

Rebels, like Sully, usually cause conflict at work as they are prone to disagreement. However, tension can be a positive thing in the work environment as it can push people to see past what they “should” do to “could” do. Research has shown that when we experience conflict, we get more original solutions that when we are in a compliant mood.

When there is some tension, we typically tend to look more deeply into options which lead to fresh insights. A company that understands this is Ariel Investments, a money management firm in Chicago.

They appoint a rebel during meetings to poke holes at solutions and ideas. The strategy has helped the firm to weather out the 2008 financial crisis. They were able to be more thoughtful about the stocks they followed as they would have opposing viewpoints on each stock before buying and selling them.

Francesca Gino, one of the authors of the Harvard study, has found that people’s ideas are more innovative when there is a little conflict involved.

Gino’s research team invited study participants to use limited supplies to construct prototypes of various products, while telling some to build novel products and some cheap products. A third group was instructed to build a novel product while keeping costs at a minimum. Another group was asked to evaluate the products based on originality.

Interestingly, or perhaps it’s not surprising to you, the products that got the highest scores were created by those who had conflicting goals at the beginning. That conflict led to the achievement of better results.

Gino posits that leaders should aim to be rebels for that very reason. They should do the unexpected when solving problems by thinking about what they could do instead of what they should do.

When a team sees their leader doing the unexpected, they embrace it and it becomes an ethos of the team.

Although your ethical dilemmas are not going to become easy by asking “could’ instead of “should” questions, this research is part of knowledge that could help you make a moral decision. You shouldn’t rely solely on this mental trick – simply use it to hone your decision-making process.

How else can you hone your decision-making and problem-solving skills?

Perhaps you could adopt a scientific mindset in the business environment. Here are some reasons why that may be a good idea and how the scientific process can translate well to your company or organization.

Approach Problems in a Scientific Way

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Scientists are Skeptical and Curious

Scientists have to be skeptical by nature. Similar to their colleagues in business, they also have to innovate. And to be innovative, they need to strike a delicate balance between curiosity, innovation and skepticism.

Their work is driven forward by curiosity and guided by intuition and knowledge. However, things like external and internal peer reviews and randomized control trials are embedded in the way they think in order to avoid bias and blind optimism.

Organizations can apply that mindset by inviting sceptics and people who are not experts in their fields in. Their initiatives can be checked by someone outside of their team or even industry.

Scientists Compete but Collaborate

The best scientists in the field collaborate and compete with one another. That is because someone in a different field or institute could have the key to unlocking the problem they are trying to solve.

When the problems get tough, scientists look to build the best team even if their team member is a fierce competitor. At some point in time, collaboration and sharing data was restricted to big science, i.e. the scientists at CERN.

We now see collaborations all the time when it works in the best interest to bring together different teams to tackle complex problems.

You should evaluate the problems and opportunities in your company that you cannot solve alone. For example, if you have significant technological requirements or are dealing with trying to solve an issue in cyber security, those are areas that could benefit from collaboration across industries and sectors.

When businesses come together, like they do at Davos, great things can happen. So collaborate like a scientist.

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Scientists Have a Certain Confidence

Scientists constantly deal with the unknown, all the time. When something is unknown, it is an opportunity to be pursued instead of avoided. That requires the ability to handle ambiguity and uncertainty – two things that most people find difficult.

Science is advanced by a lack of correlation in experiments, as much as it is moved by positive correlations. No information is ever complete. Scientists are able to move forward decisively with partial or tricky data sets. They tackle the biggest problems in a systematic and rational way.

How can you emulate that? You should aim to break down problems into smaller hypotheses and test them out.

Evaluate probabilities and interrelations between factors that affect probability; and move forward with that imperfect knowledge.

You should build a team that can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty by combining their understanding and gaining assurance.

Indeed, scientists are a classic example of people with a “could do” mindset. If you’re having trouble adapting the scientific mindset to your problem solving processes, you could slowly hone your problem-solving skills by using the following methods.

But first, allow us to clarify the statement that problem-solving skills can be honed. Being a problem-solver is not just an ability or skill, it is a mindset. A mindset that enables people to bring out the best in themselves and to impact the world in a positive way.

True problem-solvers, rather than accepting the status quo, proactively frame and mold their environment. Think Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, etc. They all have that in common.

It is vital to acquire problem-solving skills because we all have to make decisions. Whether you are a businessperson, a parent, a student, you have to solve problems daily. Whether it is saving your company, keeping your job, eating better or sleeping more. Again, you have to solve problems constantly.

That being said, some people are natural problem solvers but almost anyone can hone their problem-solving skills with very little effort. Here are some ways you can practice your problem solving skills and get into the mindset.

Hone Your Problem-Solving Skills

Be Objective

Problems usually occur because people are unaware of the behind-the-scenes of the problem-solving process. They get focused on a specific method or goal and unintentionally ignore the warning signs.

Great problem solvers however approach each new problem as if it were brand new. In that way, they can apply a specific solution to the problem instead of a fix that may only work halfway.

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Use Data in an Actionable Way

We all get lost in the data and anecdotes once in a while in this data-driven world. Although data is important, you will have to take action at some point.

Great problem-solvers really comprehend that problems wouldn’t arise if solutions always existed in the past. Because of that, they compile enough research or data to understand the issues and then use their creativity to find new ways to solve old issues.

Find the Opportunity

Often times, great opportunities are found in simple problems and you may have noticed that great problem solvers are quite the opportunists.

They assess all external factors and consider a future that is free of bottlenecks before they try to fix a problem. They sometimes end up discovering a new and more effective business model.

Create a Team of Open-Minded People

When trying to solve a problem, you may be tempted to pick anyone with a brain to help you. However, close-minded team members may prevent you from finding a solution before the deadline or snowball the problem you are trying to solve into a much bigger one.

Great problem-solvers acknowledge that the best solutions come from open-minded people. The problem-solving team requires the ability to step outside the box and be uncomfortable. This approach will unearth new creative solutions.

List The Obstacles

Problems are rarely isolated. There are certain fixes that can set off unwanted chain reactions in other processes or divisions.

Great problem solvers take a high-level view of the issues and write down a list of all the probable factors that might get in the way of a solution. They then approach the issue in a comprehensive manner with a high degree of success.

Tear Apart Silos

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All companies, large or small, can suffer from poor communication. Even two people in a department within the same company could be really productive but oblivious to what the other is doing.

Good problem-solvers are also good facilitators. They use their communication skills to help their team to communicate effectively and share information so that all their bases are covered. They then encourage people to work together outside of their set roles to achieve greater outcomes, overall.


Many problems that we encounter cannot be solved linearly. Great problem solvers can picture the ideal work situation and then come up with a methodology that will put it into effect.

They then have to articulate that vision to those who understand how to implement the methodology.

Get Rid of the Ego

Sometimes, the best solutions to problems are cast aside because a leader wants the solution to be their idea.

Great leaders and problem-solvers are happy to give credit to anyone that resolves a problem and have no qualms about giving credit where it’s due because there are a lot of problems to solve.

Wrapping Up

Problems and challenges are part of life. Whether or not you are dealing with a big issue or a small one, we all set goals for ourselves and try to meet them or overcome challenges.

Most people are adequately able to work through small issues or avoid them. But those who master problem-solving have a distinct advantage in obtaining success in life.

They usually become leaders among their peers and the bigger the problems that they can solve, the more they can achieve and the more respect they earn.

There is an easy way to arrive at effective solutions; and there is a universal and fundamental approach to solving problems. Those approaches have been covered in this article. So, bookmark it and refer to it as a resource for honing your problem-solving skills.

So what will you do? What you should do, or could do?