There are two kinds of people in the world and they solve problems very differently. Some people look forward to solve the problem; others look backward to understand the problem. Both have a role to play, but for darn sure we should know not only our own natural approach, but also that of others on our teams.
I think backwards. Always have. Any time I am faced with a problem/opportunity, I always look backwards to try to understand the problem before I look forward to try to solve it. I have been accused of over-thinking; it is a very fair accusation. While it may sound counter-intuitive, my lifetime experience is that the most efficient way to move forward, to create elegant and sustainable solutions, is first to look backward.
Here are the two simple steps that I have found utterly invaluable when faced with even the most complex problems:
First, understand the nature of the problem. This is not new advice; The Art of War is packed with references to understanding the nature of the enemy (a problem) before engaging in battle (problem solving).
Second, paint a picture of your ideal outcome. There are many processes that will help you paint this picture: design thinking, ideating, brainstorming, gaming, reflection, writing, and more. All of these are just mechanical tools, the pallet and paints if you like. Pick a set of tools and just do it. Everything flows from there.
We don’t spend nearly enough time on these two first steps. We rush to brainstorm and then spend loads of resources to implement solutions. I have found that once these two steps are completed, the rest of problem solving is actually pretty easy. All we have to do to bring the picture to life is to find and align the right resources.
I have yet to find a problem or opportunity in the for-profit world, school settings, or my personal life where this does not work. An exception would be when the problem is a metaphorical lion charging out of the brush a few meters away. You don’t have time to think; you react or die. We addressed that with my classes of West Point cadets in The Falconer seminars, except it was real people shooting real bullets, not metaphorical lions. In this case, the best solutions come from having done all you can to have processed those two first steps well in advance, to have practiced your response with the benefit of clear understanding and a desired outcome before bad things happen fast.
So many examples of how and why these two simple steps work in a school setting, but those stories will be for another day!