H Problem Solving Assistance
To begin with, here are three short stories; all of them start at 5.30 p.m. and end at 6.01 p.m.
Nina is studying at the University. The professor ends today's lecture punctually at half past five. Nina collects her things and remembers that there was a book she had been wanting to buy for some time. Since her train does not leave until 6 p.m., she goes to the book shop. As well as the book she wanted, she also finds other interesting ones. At five minutes to six she looks at her watch and runs to the station since she does not want to miss the volley-ball practice that begins at half-past seven. Just as she turns on to the platform she sees the train leave.
Peter is tied up at a meeting where, after two-and-a-half hours of endless discussion, they finally get around to the item on the agenda that concerns and interests him. He joins in the debate enthusiastically until all the points are settled to his satisfaction. He leans back, relaxed, and starts to collect his things. This evening at eight o'clock there will be an election meeting in his village where he wants to make a good impression. He looks at his watch. Dash it - one minute to six! He bids a hasty goodbye and runs out of the conference room. Even though his meeting has taken place in the station building itself, all he sees is the rear lights of the departing train.
Paula accompanies her aunt to the station. They drink a cup of coffee at the platform bar and chat about the aunt's visit which they have both enjoyed. At ten to six they walk along the platform together and auntie finds the seat she wants facing the engine. The train leaves punctually at 6 p.m.. "Railways are reliable", thinks Paula as she waves to her aunt in the departing train.
Paula turns and heads for the platform exit. There she meets two friends, Nina and Peter racing round the corner.
"How stupid," calls Nina, "Now I shall be late for volley-ball practice."
"Dash it all," Peter gasps, "Trains never wait for me!"
Peter and Nina express their annoyance with a couple more sighs and then decide to go and have a drink of coffee with Paula to decide what is to be done.
They tell each other "their story of the missed train" and realize that each of them had a different experience with the departing train:
For Paula everything went according to plan while for Nina and Peter it went against their wishes.
They realized that the problem was not the departing train but the fact that Nina and Peter had wanted to catch it and had failed.
Then Paula asks for more details about the plans for the evening.
Nina wanted to go to volley-ball practice and now realizes that she will get there very late. Since her team has no shortage of players and, in any case, she is going to miss the next two games, she decides to spend the evening working on a study paper and to forgo the practice. In the course of the conversation she has reconsidered her plans for the evening and modified them.
Peter, on the other hand, is worried about the forthcoming election meeting. If he arrives late his chances of being elected will be slim. Punctuality is a virtue people like to see in their local authorities! He must find a way of getting to the meeting on time.
"But why did you get here late?" Paula aks.
Nina tells her about the book shop where she had been browsing and Peter reports sulkily about his meeting where his item on the agenda was, as always, left till last - and anyway...
Paula tries to get this information into some sort of logical order.
The elements of Nina's story are easily set in a chain of cause and effect.
Peters story, on the other hand, seems to her rather more complicated. His problem is really the missed train. And he left the meeting so late because "his" item on the agenda was discussed only at the end. But there are a whole series of other reasons hidden behind all this which Paula begins to discover when she asks further questions.
For example, Peter had neglected to tell the chairman of the meeting which items on the agenda interested him particularly and that he absolutely had to leave at five to six. But that was difficult, too, because Peter had already arrived late at the meeting and the agenda had been settled before he got there - and obviously it seemed to suit all the other participants in the meeting.
A whole collection of causes for Peters problem starts to develop in Paula's head (in addition to the consequences they had already discussed).
Then she also thinks that Peter seems to have got himself into a vicious circle - first he arrives late, then things don't go as he wishes, then it all lasts longer than planned, then he misses the train and, finally, he's going to be late again ...
The main thing is that the person concerned defines the problem on the basis of available knowledge and that the counsellor accepts this as a (provisionally) accurate view of the problem. This provides the basis for further action. Before the problem has been defined by the person concerned any suggestions from the counsellor for solving it are inappropriate since they miss the point.
Finally Paula asks herself whether she shouldn't sit down with Peter and draw up a clear plan of all the interlinked causes and effects about his missed train and his deadlines in order to help him sort out all his hectic activities. But this was certainly not the right moment.
So they spent some fifteen minutes, during which Nina changed her programme for the evening and Peter gave a detailed account of his problem. Shrugging his shoulders Peter wonders out loud, what would be the best for him to do. But he can think of nothing sensible at the moment.
Paula and Nina then put their minds to work and give Peter plenty of solutions to his problem of how to get to his election meeting on time:
· Why not just take a taxi? . Hitchhike!
· Call the air-rescue team!
· Take the next train and run the 10 km to the meeting place, then everyone will elect you athlete of the year!
· Rent a bicycle at the station!
· Ask around the station if anyone has a car!
· Call your wife and ask her to fetch you at the station!
"Wait a minute!" Peter finally says. "It's marvellous, all the things you think of, but we can forget about the air-rescue team - that's out of the question. All the other ideas are feasible but none of them really convinces me. I want to be sure of arriving on time (hitchhiking is too risky); I don't want to pay a fortune (taxis are too expensive); I am not very interested in becoming a famous athlete; but whether asking around the station ..."
After much discussion on the criteria to be used in choosing the best option, and more suggestions from Paula and Nina, Peter decides on a solution: He will catch the 7 o'clock train. Before leaving he will call his friend in the party and ask him to pick him up at the station and drive him the 10 km to the meeting.
Paula and Nina do not think this the best solution the idea of the rented bicycle or the celebrated athlete appeal to them much more. But in the end they realize that Peter has to take the decision; after all, he is the one to deal with the consequences.
The Golden Rule is:
A well-defined problem is already half way to being solved !
1) The people concerned know a solution --> the counsellor encourages them to put it into action.
2) The people concerned consider a solution --> the counsellor helps clarify remaining questions.
3) The people concerned know of no solution --> the counsellor suggests ways of tackling the matter.
4) Neither the people concerned nor the counsellor know of a solution --> contact specialists, writ
After Peter has telephoned his friend in the party and told his wife about his dilemma, he pays for the coffees, thanks Paula warmly and goes with Nina to the platform - this time ten minutes before departure time.
The people concerned must decide for themselves which option to use to solve the problem.
Now everything goes according to plan.
Next morning, Nina and Peter meet again at the station. Peter is satisfied - everything went well the previous evening; he got to the meeting in time. And his wife welcomed him home with a good bottle of wine.
In the train Nina tells Peter about the papers she had studied the day before. They include the description of a procedure for systematically solving problems. On the last page there is a diagram summing up this procedure:
Their discussion the previous day followed pretty well the steps of the diagram.
"Except," wonders Nina, "weren't the solutions we found yesterday a kind of instant measure to minimize the effects of our being late?"
Peter clears his throat, "But that was a good thing - at least I got there in time."
"This time, yes," Nina points out, "but shouldn't we find out what we can do to avoid being faced with the same problem again tomorrow?"
Peter thinks this over and agrees. Nina goes on, "You know, your problem was that you arrived late and as a result you very nearly missed your election meeting. But the reason for all that lay in the other meeting, in the unfortunate arrangement of the agenda and in the fact that your watch doesn't whistle you out of the conference room ..."
"That's it exactly!" exclaims Peter. "Let me think about this for a minute."
Nina promises to give him a copy of her study paper. Peter leafs through it during the next few days. There he finds a whole series of principles and rules for the various steps in this problem-solving process; and for each step in the process there are useful checklists.
Retain what has proved successful
Remember the steps which improved progress
Discover the weak points
Measures taken against the consequences have only a short-term effect (treating symptoms)
Measures taken against the causes have a more durable effect (radical solutions)
Extension as assistance In problem-solving means giving people support in solving their problem by helping them to analyze it in a structured way, as well as by informing and motivating them to solve it.
Four hints for helping to solve problems:
Helping to solve a problem aims at
The problem-solving helper:
· GTZ/BMZ; 1987: Landwirtschaftliche Beratung. TZ-Verlag, Rossdorf.
· Working papers of LBL seminars, LBL and DSE, (unpublished)
· GOPP (Goal Oriented Project Planning): GTZ
· MSE (Methoden systematischer Entscheidfindung, GmbH, Lange Strasse 3, D-7000 Stuttgart 1: Papers.
Written and compiled by
Ernst Bolliger, Tonino Zellweger
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