Barriers to Problem Solving

A problem-solving barrier is something that stops people finding a successful solution to a problem. These barriers are often caused by cognitive blocks – how we think and feel – as well as by practical social and physical blocks.

Barriers to Problem Solving

Everybody has cognitive blocks, and each person will have different types and at different intensities. This will influence which barriers we encounter.

It is important that people are aware of the range of barriers, and that the impact they have on problem solving. In this way the barriers can be overcome.

Key Barriers to Problem Solving

Key Barriers are:

  • Confirmation bias
  • Mental set
  • Functional fixedness
  • Unnecessary constraints
  • Irrelevant information

What causes these barriers?

Perspective
Perspective causes us to see the world in different ways, and from different viewpoints. A marketing officer is likely to see a problem in a different way to a service manager.

Perspective can cause potential solutions to be missed or ignored as unworkable based on our beliefs, attitudes and opinions.

Emotion
Emotional blocks are the things that we feel that stop us to problem solve accurately. This could be not suggesting an idea because it may sound stupid, and make us appear silly.

Causes of Barriers

Another example, is fear of change, or feeling guilty that the problem occurred in the first place.

Intellectual
Intellectual barriers can be caused by not having the training, skills or knowledge to solve a problem. For example, it could be a lack of skills in evaluation or research etc.

Expression
This is about how we express ourselves. Poor expression of problems and solutions lead to misinterpretation and communication.

Many problem-solving techniques often have a way to solve this directly via creating a problem definition and the use of visual techniques. But people may still struggle to come up with an accurate description – using a best fit instead.

Environment (or functional constraints)

These are hindrances caused by the social or physical environment, and impact on our ability to think clearly or to perform a task. For example, a noisy office stops the problem solver being able to concentrate on the task.

However, environmental blocks can also be more practical, e.g. no access to a PC with the correct software. Environmental issues can be easy to overlook and relate directly to external experiences rather than internal thoughts and feelings.

Cultural
This works on three levels. One is about how we behave in relation to workplace culture and ethics. For example, in the workplace it may be discouraged to interrupt other employees in the work place, so you feel you can’t approach people to get their input. The next is about our own cultural bias. This includes all forms of discrimination. The final one is about how our own culture expects us to behave.

If you come from a culture where it is encouraged to be reserved, you may have issues sharing your ideas. If you come from a culture where discussion is encouraged, you may diverge from the topic. This often starts with ‘By the way’, ‘Before I forget’, or ‘While I remember’.

Problem Solving Barriers

Different blocks, and combinations of these result in a range of barriers to problem solving. There is no definitive way to link blocks to barriers but some suggestions are provided below.

Confirmation Bias
This is about not following the problem solving method, and so introducing bias. This can be the result of missing steps out, or not using them correctly. Confirmation Bias arises when the approach taken is to confirm a preconceived solution.

Basically, you would have found the solution before you found the problem, and perceive the problem solving method through this lens (perspective and intellectual blocks). For example, if you feel you already know everything about the problem, you won’t perform research, or only research things that confirm the appropriateness of the solution you want to use.

Mental Set
This comes from relying too heavily on heuristics – the clichés of problem solving, like a ‘rule of thumb’ or ‘common sense’ as a way to solve a problem, rather than actively looking for the best or simplest solution.

It is about reusing what has been successful in the past, rather than assessing and evaluating the problem.

The heuristic for mental mind set could be called ‘why reinvent the wheel’. It relies on previous experiences to direct how a problem can be solved. This could be an intellectual block, as the problem solver is not prepared to learn new problem solving skills, and emotionally relies on familiarity to feel comfortable with a solution.

Functional Fixedness
This is about not thinking creatively. It is a narrow mind-set. Functional Fixedness comes from people thinking that an object has only one function.

For example; a jug can only be used to pour fluids; it can’t be used as a mixing bowl. It can be summarized as ‘You can’t do that’. Functional Fixedness affects the time taken to make a decision. If you don’t have a mixing bowl, but won’t use the jug, you waste time going to buy a new mixing bowl. Because it relates to objects, often caused by an intellectual or environmental block.

Unnecessary Constraints
This barrier causes unwarranted boundaries to be placed on a problem. It links to trying to solve a problem using previous experience of what has worked in a situation and trying to force it to work in the current situation, rather than looking for a new solution.

This inhibits creativity. The barrier can be removed by insight. Most problem solving methods focus on developing insight into a problem – through information gathering, evaluation and assessment.

Unnecessary Constraints could be caused by an intellectual block, or an emotional one causing an over reliance on the known. An example would be trying to improve a service using current procedures and processes, rather than find a solution and design new procedures and processes.

Irrelevant Information
This is information that is not needed to solve the problem, often caused by people diverging from the problem itself, onto other topics they feel are related or presenting too much information.

Irrelevant information hinders problem solving as it slows the process down, can cause confusion or misunderstandings.

A brainstorming session can be impaired because people want to go off topic. This is why many brainstorming sessions have a facilitator to get things back on track. When gathering information, it can be getting distracted and looking at something that is interesting but not useful. It can result in too much information being collected, and people having trouble absorbing it.

For example, giving a problem-solving group full copies of all the information found, rather than summarising it as headlines, a graph or a mind map.

This could be an expression block – people struggle to summarise the information, an emotional one – people fear they won’t have enough information, or even a cultural one – full papers are always presented in meetings.

There are a range of barriers to problem solving based on cognitive blocks and practical social and physical jobs. These can be perceptual, emotional, intellectual, expressive, environmental, cultural.

Cognitive blocks are our ways of thinking and feeling. These contribute to how we approach and carry out problem solving, leading to barriers. They usually introduce bias, errors, and result in imperfect solutions. These barriers can be removed by awareness of the pitfalls in problem solving, and training in how to use a problem solving method correctly.

You can read more about Barriers to Problem Solving in our free eBook ‘Problem Solving for Managers’. Download it now for your PC, Mac, laptop, tablet, Kindle, eBook reader or Smartphone.

Key Points

  • Common barriers to problem solving are cognitive blocks that impede the ability to correctly solve problems.
  • These can be perceptual, emotional, intellectual, expressive, environmental, and cultural.
  • Everybody has cognitive blocks, and each person will have different types and at different intensities.
  • Five of the most common are: confirmation bias, mental set, functional fixedness, unnecessary constraints, and irrelevant information.
  • Confirmation Bias arises when the approach taken is to confirm a preconceived solution.
  • Mental Set results from reusing what has been successful in the past, rather than assessing and evaluating the problem.
  • Functional Fixedness comes from people thinking that an object has only one function.
  • Unnecessary Constraints links to trying to solve a problem using previous experience of what has worked in a situation and trying to force it to work in the current situation, rather than looking for a new solution.
  • Irrelevant Information is often caused by people diverging from the problem itself, onto other topics they feel are related or presenting too much information.
  • These barriers can be removed by awareness of the pitfalls in problem solving, and training in how to use a problem solving method correctly.

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