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Problem Solving

Notes on the science of problem solving.

General Information

Problem solving occurs when an agent does not know how to proceed from a given state to a desired goal state.

It is part of the “larger problem process” that also includes problem finding and problem shaping.

From wikipedia: Based on work by Dietrich Dörner Joachim Funke, difficult problems have typical characteristics:

  • Opacity (lack of clarity of the situation)
    • commencement opacity
    • continuation opacity
  • Polytely (multiple goals)
    • inexpressiveness
    • opposition
    • transience
  • Complexity (large numbers of items, interrelations, and decisions)
    • enumerability
    • connectivity (hierarchy relation, communication relation, allocation relation)
    • heterogeneity
  • Dynamics (time considerations)
    • temporal constraints
    • temporal sensitivity
    • phase effects
    • dynamic unpredictability

The resolution of difficult problems requires a direct attack on each of these characteristics that are encountered.

Time and dynamics

A number of these characteristics are temporal (e.g. “dynamic unpredictability”). But these temporal features are rarely considered - unless the problem is intrinsically temporal - and almost never taught. This leads to people thinking that a problem is static and, once solved, will not recur.

Problem-solving often requires “freezing” the problem, or has an implicit assumption that the problem is static.

Best solutions

One often reads that design involves choosing/identifying the “best” design. But “best” is a relative term, which should be defined with respect to:

  • the candidate designs known to the agents,
  • the accuracy and completeness of the requirements with respect to the real world situation at the time the requirements were set, and
  • the accuracy of the requirements with respect to the real world situation in the future (e.g. when the design is implemented).

Problem-solving often ignores these post-solution effects.


Once the “best” design is implemented, it will influence the real-world situation (context) in which it exists.

  • The context will change.
  • Is the design still the best in the new context?

Problem-solving often ignores these post-solution effects.

Note: requirements are models of real-world situations, and as such are always imperfect.


Related Terms

  • Problem: An obstacle that prevents achieving a desired state from the current state.
  • Problem finding: the specific task of discovering a problem. Typically, this involves finding the real problem; related to diagnosis in that symptoms are (usually) not the real problem in a disease.
  • Problem shaping: Changing/expanding a problem statement to facilitate its solution.


See Also


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research/problem_solving.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)