Chapter 1: The Problem with Education
Chapter 2: Problem Based Learning
Chapter 3: Learning Problem Solving Principles
Chapter 4: Mental Models are not Reality
Chapter 5: Be Willing to Reframe the Problem
Chapter 6: Seek Understanding through Exploration
Chapter 7: Create Maps of Complex Problems
Chapter 8: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
Chapter 9: Manage the Planning Fallacy
Chapter 10: Employ Minimum Necessary Control
Chapter 11: The Real World May Fight Back


Conventional classroom education has not been a breeding ground for a problem solving perspective. In order to have the opportunity to develop problem solving skills, we have to actually engage in real problem solving.

Because we are seldom given latitude to shape the process by which we solve problems in school, little time is devoted to reflecting on the process – where we made mistakes, what alternative approaches we might have taken. Our natural inclination to being curious is discouraged.

Gurus of education, such as Howard Gardner at Harvard, see this century as presenting new challenges to education at all levels. He argues that the educational philosophy of one hundred years ago was attuned to the need for an educated elite with a general population having only basic literacy skills.

Nowadays, however, almost any function that can be executed through the application of regular procedures will sooner or later be computerized. To be attractive to employers, an individual must be highly literate, flexible, capable of troubleshooting and problem-finding, and not incidentally, able to shift roles or even vocations should his current position become outmoded.

The goal of education should be long term understanding, not short term performance on tests.


At all levels of education, the effectiveness of the teacher talks - students listen paradigm is being challenged. The notion of education consisting of an accumulation of facts is giving way to a more student centered approach. For example, in Singapore, the mantra of the Ministry of Education is Less Teaching More Learning. Under several guises, the new approach focuses on the initiative of the student to define problems, inquire, explore and generate solutions. The teacher is recast as a mentor, selecting appropriate problems, guiding the student’s efforts, and helping the student assess progress.


Problem based education provides students a firm foundation for learning the principles of effective problem solving presented in this book. Mechanisms are presented for integrating each of the forty-four problem solving strategies into a problem based learning setting.


PRINCIPLE #1: Guard against overconfidence, confirmation bias, and the Einstellung Effect where we assume that solutions to problems we have encountered in the past are equally applicable to a new situation.

Problems exist when we can imagine a world that is better. This imagining takes place in our minds. We create and manipulate mental models of reality. We model the world as it is, and as it could be. Our minds are well adapted to creating these models; they are the foundation for building predictions of how the world will turn, and of the consequences of our actions. For all their power, mental models are flawed. They often guide us to see only what we want to see. They can imbue us with overconfidence. To combat these shortcomings, we need to maintain awareness that our mental models are not, in fact, the real world itself. They are highly selective models that may miss crucial details. As we confront problems, we may be under the illusion that we have seen it all before. But each real world situation brings its own unique considerations.

Problem solving Principle #1 calls for us to monitor our problem solving efforts with a critical eye, to recognize that mental models are not reality. We must employ self-conscious strategies to guard against overconfidence and our tendency to seek out information that confirms our preconceived assumptions.


PRINCIPLE #2: Effective problem solvers monitor their progress toward a solution. They question whether the problem representation they have chosen is actually moving them in the right direction. Is it adequately exposing the landscape of possibilities? Are the rules and procedures associated with the representation getting results? If not, effective problem solvers are willing to reframe the problem.

Frames guide our efforts at problem solving. Once we have adopted a frame, it guides our collection of information and the steps we take to fabricate a solution. Frames have a powerful grip on our imagination. When they are not working, we tend to try harder within the same frame rather than looking at the problem in a new light. We fall victim to the trap of Principle #1, treating our mental model of the problem as if it were reality. In addition, our conception of the boundaries of a problem is shaped by the frame we have selected to solve it. We need to be aware of our progress in solving a problem and be willing to reframe it when our current frame is not moving us toward a solution.


PRINCIPLE #3: Problems have a structure that needs to be discovered and explored. We cannot know in advance where the hard parts of the problem are hiding or where we might find the opportunities for great solutions. Problem exploration requires the discipline and the imagination to move from one aspect of a problem to another, from one perspective to another, to discover the pitfalls and possibilities.

Even problems that are apparently simple may conceal challenges and opportunities beneath the surface. Effective problem solvers start the problem solving process by exploring the nooks and crannies of a problem, seeking an understanding of its possibilities.

Problem exploration requires discipline and imagination. The goal of problem exploration is to discover a wide range of possible solutions. The problem explorer does this by investigating potential solutions to each aspect of the problem independent of the constraints presented by other aspects. Through this process, we will discover both the hard parts of the problem and the opportunities for innovative solutions. Discipline is required to move quickly from one part of the problem to the next without becoming bogged down in any one area. Imagination is required to consider the full range of possibilities, throwing off preconceptions or limitations that early conceptual commitments might impose.

Effective problem solving calls for a period of rapid-fire problem exploration. We should explore all aspects of the problem with an open mind before we firm up decisions in any one area.


PRINCIPLE #4: Problems are made up of interrelated parts. Even on the most complex projects, the relationships among the parts of the problem can be mapped in such a way that participants in the problem solving effort can find their way about.

Some problems are mind numbingly complex. They require the integration of many interests, the coordination of many components of a solution, and may require the management of a problem solving process that takes many years. Problems are made up of interrelated parts. Even on the most complex projects, we can map the relationships among the parts in such a way that participants in the problem solving effort can find their way about. Just as with simpler problems, exploration of the challenges and possibilities of complex problems is essential before locking into any aspects of a solution. It is particularly tempting on more complex projects to try to simplify the problem by breaking it up into manageable subproblems to be pursued independently. If we do this before the problem has been fully investigated, some opportunities for great solutions may be foregone. If a problem is to be broken up into parts, it is essential that we explore the interrelationships among the parts before defining subproblems.


PRINCIPLE #5: The perfect is the enemy of the good. Goals often require compromise. Markets require negotiation.

When we are given problems in school, we seek the correct or perfect answers. Our performance is measured by test scores. But in life, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Chasing after the perfect solutions to life’s problems can be a fool’s errand. Problem solving in the real world is rife with compromise. Often we must integrate goals of several people into a single purpose. We must weigh the trade-off between risk and potential benefits. We must decide when continued investment of time and other resources in refining the solution to a problem is no longer worth the cost. We may learn, as we pursue a solution, that our goals are unrealistic or that we must stretch the boundaries of the problem to expand the realm of possibilities. Seeking perfect answers to life’s questions can blind us to the possibilities for simple, even elegant, solutions.


PRINCIPLE #6: We underestimate the time it will take to complete tasks, and we overestimate the benefits that will accrue. This is true even when we undertake tasks where we have experience on comparable tasks. Set firm intermediate goals. Look to experience to test and challenge projections.

In life, we learn that things take longer than expected, cost more than budgeted, and often fall short in delivering the benefits that we had hoped for. These realities were dubbed The Planning Fallacy by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. The more complex the project, the more that predictions of cost, time, and quality appear to be the result of wishful thinking.


PRINCIPLE #7: In order to reduce the probability of unwanted side effects, the meta problem solver gets things done with the least control that will achieve his objectives.

In the world of work, customers and managers set the agenda; contractors and employees carry it out. This is not to say that the control of one person over another is total. In fact, a controlling entity might want to minimize the degree of control that it exercises in order to reduce unanticipated consequences. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov captured this notion brilliantly in the novel The End of Eternity. In his story, a group of Eternals who exist outside of time enter human history to make minimal changes to avert future disasters. They contrive to make the smallest changes possible in order to reduce or eliminate side effects.

In the world of families, parents want the best for their children but are constantly challenged to know how much control to exercise over their behavior, how involved to become in their lives. Fifty years ago, children in the United States were given considerable free time to play outside, learning to structure their own games, fend for themselves, and settle disputes. The ensuing generations of parents have taken a stronger hand in organizing the lives of the children. Sports teams, ballet lessons, and specialized camps have displaced free time. The merits of this evolution are worthy of debate.


PRINCIPLE #8: Problem solving occurs within a framework of established relationships among people and organizations. These relationships form a structure that resists change.

Unintended consequences flow like water from the actions we take to improve our corner of the world. Problems exist in an ecology of natural and human systems. Our actions interact with the forces of this ecology. It is in the nature of ecologies that they seek balance. Changes in one part of the system bring on a rebalancing of the rest. Our actions change the world of others, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. These others have a will of their own. They have their own agendas. They push back. For example, a state that increases taxes on certain categories of business creates an incentive for those businesses to move to another state. A state with charitable welfare programs with the goal of reducing poverty may attract individuals from other states that have less charitable welfare programs.

To guard against unintended consequences, we must realize that the context of a problem is not static. It will react to the actions we take. We may find ourselves in a game like chess, where every move is met by a counter-move. However, in the game of getting things done, our opponent is often hidden from view, and the rules of the game are cloudy at best. We must seek out these opponents and rules in order to avoid the trap of playing a naively offensive game.