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Critical Thinking Skills: The Important Role of Solving Problems

Critical Thinking Skills: The Important Role of Solving Problems

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The decision making process is a very important one. How you approach an issue and begin to solve it can affect the entire implementation process. There is an overall decision making method that can be followed by anyone. Of course, the entire process involves the necessary information needed being available to the necessary individuals.

Overall, the decision making process involves the following overarching steps:

  1. Defining the problem or issue at hand
  2. Identifying the limiting factors or potential roadblocks
  3. Developing viable alternatives to issues and limiting factors
  4. Analyzing those alternatives
  5. Selecting the most viable alternative
  6. Implementing the necessary decisions
  7. Establishing a research, development, control and evaluation process for the implementation procedure

The decision making process begins once a problem is identified. An accurate model and understanding of the problem is tied to its definition. Therefore, it is necessary to fully understand the problem as the decision making process initiates. Of course, a problem might be defined as separate from the symptoms of that problem. The core must be tackled, not only the issues stemming from the core. Also, any underlying symptoms must be identified and dealt with. That is, the factors causing the issues must be focused on as well.

All those in charge of solving the problem want to make the best decisions they can. However, oftentimes, it seems that to solve the problem, ideal conditions must be met. Usually, no one operates under ideal conditions. There may not be enough time, equipment, funds, personnel or information. Further, it may not always be possible to fully identify limiting factors. This may cause those who must make the decisions to satisfice, or to make the best decision they can with what is available to them, in terms of time, equipment, funds, personnel or information.

One of the best ways to develop alternatives is to brainstorm ideas. This can be done either as a group, or on an individual level. Sometimes, it is best to brainstorm individually, then come together as a group to combine ideas, debate them and choose the best ones to move forward from. The basic tenet of brainstorming, however, is indeed the group dynamic that is brings about. Being in a group, especially after an individual has had a chance to come up with their own ideas, can stimulate thinking and pattern making. Ideally, as one person offers ideas, others will as well, and the ideas will continue to flow from everyone involved. Brainstorming does not have to take much time: it can span from 30 to 60 minutes, and still be a productive session. It is best, however, to keep the time spent on brainstorming to a reasonable length--too much time spent on one thing can cause mental fatigue, and a decrease in idea generation.

During brainstorming, the problem at hand should be concentrated on. There should be minimal distractions and movements away from this single task. Specifics should be addressed regarding a single issue, rather than a myriad of issues. It helps reduce a group's tendency to stray away from core issues and go on tangents.

Further, all ideas should be entertained. The more ideas that are generated, typically, the better. In other words, there are no bad ideas. Only ones that are viable at this point, and ones that may not be. However, everyone should be open to all ideas, and none should be criticized. The group should be encouraged to freely offer up their thoughts, without fear of being criticized. Members of the brainstorming session should refrain from evaluating others' ideas at that session. Judgments should be presented until everyone involved has had a chance to present their thoughts. Once this occurs, the groups can begin to filter out the better ideas.

Though brainstorming is an effective and popular method, there are alternatives that may be just as viable. These include:

  1. The nominal group technique
  2. The Delphi technique

The nominal group technique involves highly structured meetings, with complete agendas and keeps interpersonal discussion out of the meeting. This technique can be very effective, since it keeps every member of the group on task, and every member has equal input in the decision making process. The nominal group technique aims to reduce hierarchy and group dominance, and instead, bring out interactive and focused meetings. It also aims to reduce conflict and hostility between the group members involved.

The Delphi technique requires that the participants of the group do not meet. Rather, a group leader uses written questionnaires to conduct the decision making process. The Delphi technique is a structure communication process, developed to be systematic and interactive in its own right. The participants typically engage in two or more rounds of questionnaires. After each questionnaire round, the group leader provides an anonymous summary of the questionnaires. This summary includes any reasons the participants provided for their judgments. The participants are then encouraged to modify their replies in response to hearing what others have said. The idea is to decrease the range of answers, thus acting as a filtering mechanism. This filtering mechanism will hopefully converge onto o single, and viable, answer. The process is terminated after a pre-defined stop, such as the number of rounds, the level on consensus among the answers, or the viability of the answers.

Key characteristics of the Delphi technique include participant anonymity. There is also a structure to the information flow, with understood rounds and the sequences that those rounds follow. Further, there is regular feedback, where individuals can constantly edit their thoughts. The technique is also convenient, as it could be conducted online.

Regardless of the method used, whether brainstorming, nominal group, or Delphi techniques, the idea behind these decision making processes bring about an understanding of the potential advantages and disadvantages of various answers. Groups can provide a broader perspective; final decisions are likely to be made, with the proper personnel chosen to implement those decisions; key decision makers can ask questions directly, reducing their hesitation and increasing their understanding.

These methods, however, can be time-consuming. Any decisions reached may be more compromise, rather than an optimal solution. There is always the concern of groupthink: the tendency of members of a group to conform to that group's prevailing opinions and thoughts. This may not always be a bad thing, especially when a convergence of thoughts are not. However, it can indeed be a bad thing, and a sort of herd effect, where all follow one or few.

Now, of course, the idea behind the use of groups is to help decide the merits of each idea. Ultimately, managers, or whoever is in charge, must make the final decision.

Evaluating the alternatives generated requires determining the pros and cons of each one. A cost-benefit analysis should be performed, looking at the available resources, and the projected needs.

Regardless of the technique utilized, a decision maker needs to evaluate each alternative in terms of its:

  1. Feasibility/Viability: can it be done?
  2. Effectiveness: how well does it resolve the issues at hand?
  3. Consequences: what will be the costs, whether that be financial or nonfinancial. What are the projected profits, if any? What are the results if the alternative is not implemented?

Of course, the best alternative is the one with the least number of disadvantages and the greatest number of advantages. Sometimes, the optimal solution will be an amalgamation of several alternatives. It is fine to bring together idea and converge them.

Evaluation systems work to provide real-time feedback on how well a certain decision implemented is reaching goals. The evaluation process monitors the results, consequences, how easily the system is being implemented, the cost analyses, and how well the projected outcomes are going.

The evaluation system must also be in progress once the work is completed. Have goals been reached? Is the problem resolved? Or, if the problem has not been resolved, is a solution closer now that it had been when the alternative had first been implemented? What else needs to be done?

Of course, if the goal has not been reached, an analysis of why and what went wrong needs to be done.

An analysis like this should include the following questions:

  1. Was the wrong alternative chosen? If this is deemed to be the case, it is now necessary to determine why the alternative was insufficient. It may be that tweaking an aspect of that alternative may be all that is necessary to make it the optimal solution. However, it could be that the other alternatives may be the optimal ones. These should be re-evaluated and filtered. If none of the already-generated alternatives are deemed sufficient, the entire decision making process may need to be re-implemented.
  2. Was the correct alternative chosen, but not implemented correctly? It could be that the answer is to change how the solution is implemented, perhaps changing an instrument used, or modifying a certain step of the procedure.
  3. Perhaps the original property was misidentified. It may be that what was thought to be the underlying issue is not it.
  4. It could be that the alternative implemented is the optimal one, but it needs more time.

Decision making is a multi-step process. It is not a clear-cut road, where each step is taken one by one and will positively reach an end. Revisions may be necessary, and may have to occur multiple times before an issue is worked out completely, or at least to satisfaction. There is no reason to feel as if having to revise inculcates a decision maker; the world we live in is not ideal, and there could be a number of variables at play preventing the proper first-time execution of an alternative.

One thing that is important to keep in mind is to evaluate all variables at play. Look at any confounding variables, those things that may reduce efficacy, or may prevent proper implementation, but are not necessarily readily foreseen. Always evaluating for all the things that may affect the implementation process--and constantly adjusting as needed--is an important aspect to decision making. Revising and modifying are key terms to making decisions.

Further, being aware--metacognitive--of cognitive biases are important in decision making. Cognitive biases are patterns of thoughts that relate to reasoning and decision making, and can cloud judgment. Everyone is subject to cognitive biases. The important thing is to be aware of them.

There is the dual process theory of thinking. In this theory, there are two systems: System I and System II. System I is intuitive, while System II is more rational and deliberate. In System I, it is more hard-wired thinking, far more heuristic than the scientifically rigorous System II thinking. System I, therefore, is more vulnerable to errors and biases, and there is a more emotional involvement in the processes. In System II, thought is slower, and there is a much higher and consistent reliability. It is less prone to biases and errors, and has a low emotional attachment. Cognitive biases fit into the System I mode of thinking.

Here is a list of some popular ones people tend to engage in:

  1. Anchoring Bias is also called premature closure. In this bias, once a diagnosis is made, the case is closed mentally; no more thinking occurs regarding the diagnosis and reasonable alternatives.
  2. Attribution error occurs when individuals engage in negative or prejudicial stereotype, which leads to them ignoring or dismissing the symptoms of what could end up being a fatal error
  3. Confirmation Bias is the tendency to look for evidence that supports our initial hypothesis. In this bias, disconfirming evidence is not searched for, and if any are found, it is disregarded. Essentially, evidence is cherry-picked.
  4. Framing Effect refers to the human tendency to react differently to situations depending on how they are framed in terms of losses or gains. Essentially, a framing effect occurs when logically equivalent, yet not transparently equivalent, phrases are employed (60% lives-saved rate or 40% lives-lost rate), which causes individuals to respond differently and change their decisions or perspectives.
  5. Emotional responses to environmental stimuli often precede conscious consideration. Visceral Bias describes how feelings (or visceral responses) can impact decisions we make regarding how to approach problems and solve them
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