Solving Problems/Thinking tools

This is a list of many thinking tools, thought experiments, problem solving skills, debugging techniques, imagination aids, thought processes, and other aids to thinking that can be helpful in solving problems. In addition to the tools listed in the links above and those listed below, consider the Wikipedia list of thought experiments, and conceptual modeling.

Tools can help improve our thinking.

The Wikiversity course Thinking Tools expands on and illustrates the application of several of these tools. Also, more thinking tools are in this list of additional thinking tools.

Abductive Reasoning—What theory, context, model, diagnosis, or explanation could account for the known facts?

Accidental complexity—Identifying aspects of the solution that are unnecessarily complex and can be simplified.

Aesthetics—Beauty often reveals the essential solution.

Affinity diagram—is a business tool used to organize ideas and data. It is one of the Seven Management and Planning Tools.

Analogy—What is this like?

Analytic hierarchy process—is a structured technique for organizing and analyzing complex decisions, based on mathematics and psychology.

Ask an expert—It is very likely that someone who is an expert in this or a related subject can offer good advice for solving the problem. Beware of imposters, wannabes, and charlatans.

Analysis paralysis—Delaying a decision unnecessarily, perhaps while waiting for information that is unlikely to become available, or out of some anxiety or discomfort. Avoid analysis paralysis when solving problems. Avoid overthinking the problem. Contrast with embracing ambiguity.

Backward induction—is reasoning backward in time, from the end of a problem or situation, to determine a sequence of optimal actions.

Benchmarking—is the practice of comparing business processes and performance metrics to industry bests and best practices from other companies.

Best practice—is a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means or because it has become a standard way of doing things, e.g., a standard way of complying with legal or ethical requirements.

Beyond the false dilemma—When the given alternatives are only black and white, look for the grey, and then look for the colors. Reject false dilemmas and seek out additional alternatives.

Brainstorming—a group creativity technique used to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its members.

Business intelligence—comprises the strategies and technologies used for the data analysis and management of business information. Common functions of business intelligence technologies include reporting, online analytical processing, analytics, dashboard development, data mining, process mining, complex event processing, business performance management, benchmarking, text mining, predictive analytics, and prescriptive analytics.

Cause and Effect—Enumerating the many potential causes of some problem. The Wikiversity course Attributing Blame prevents this technique in detail.

Challenging assumptions—Questioning the accuracy and applicability of stated and unstated assumptions.

Charrette—an intense period of design or planning activity.

Cleaving frames[1]—decomposing a problem into contributing elements.

Collective intelligence—Increased problem-solving ability that results from collaborations. Perhaps two (or more) heads are better than one. The Wikiversity course on Pursuing Collective Wisdom explores this in depth.

Common sense—Perhaps an obvious (in retrospect) practical solution to the problem can be found.

Conceptual framework—Organizing principles used to organize ideas.

Counterfactual thinking—What if “A” happened instead of “B”?

Critical Thinking—analyzing available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments to form a judgment. The Wikiversity Clear Thinking curriculum includes several courses on critical thinking.

Crowdsourcing—engaging a large number of people to contribute ideas, or offer solutions.

Data mining—is a process of searching, extracting, and analyzing (that may include) discovering various types of text graphic patterns (as calligraphic for example), language and literary figures, stylistics, in large amounts of textual or mixed visual and textual data sets, that also involves methods at the intersection of machine learning, formal linguistics analyses as textual statistics, and database systems.

Decision matrix—is a list of values in rows and columns that allows an analyst to systematically identify, analyze, and rate the performance of relationships between sets of values and information. Elements of a decision matrix show decisions based on certain decision criteria. The matrix is useful for looking at large masses of decision factors and assessing each factor's relative significance.

Decision tree—is a decision support tool that uses a tree-like model of decisions and their possible consequences, including chance event outcomes, resource costs, and utility.

Decomposition—breaking a complex problem or system into parts that are easier to conceive, understand, program, and maintain.

Deductive reasoning—drawing valid conclusions from premises. The Wikiversity course on Deductive Logic is dedicated to this topic.

Describe an ideal solution—Allow constraints to magically disappear so you can imagine and then describe an ideal solution to the problem. Use this description to identify constraints and assumptions that have been preventing you from seeing and considering various solutions. Work to remove those constraints. Also, use the ideal solution as a reference standard by which to evaluate the various practical solution approaches you are considering.

Design thinking—is a set of cognitive, strategic, and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for products, buildings, machines, communications, etc.) are developed.

Dialogue—is the creative thinking together that can emerge when genuine empathetic listening, respect for all participants, safety, peer relationships, suspending judgment, sincere inquiry, courageous speech, and discovering and disclosing assumptions work together to guide our conversations. It is an activity of curiosity, cooperation, creativity, discovery, and learning rather than persuasion, competition, fear, and conflict. Dialogue is the only symmetrical form of communication. Dialogue emerges from trusting relationships.

Discovering the essential complexity—the minimum functions, features, or capabilities need to solve the problem. Discover the simplest solution to the problem.

Eight disciplines of problem solving—is a method developed at Ford Motor Company used to approach and to resolve problems, typically employed by quality engineers or other professionals. Focused on product and process improvement, its purpose is to identify, correct, and eliminate recurring problems.

Elegance—is a beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity.

Embracing ambiguity—becoming comfortable with ambiguous, conflicting, or incomplete information so that the investigation can proceed without prematurely collapsing into certainty. The Wikiversity course on Finding Common Ground addresses the importance of embracing ambiguity.

Emotional competency—responding constructively to emotions can make it easier to solve problems.

Evaluating evidence—Investigating to determine what is actually happening can help to find a solution.

Failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA)—is the process of reviewing as many components, assemblies, and subsystems as possible to identify potential failure modes in a system and their causes and effects.

Failures of imagination—avoid circumstance wherein something undesirable yet seemingly predictable (particularly from hindsight) was not planned for. Increase the scope of your imagination. Beware of black swan events.

Feedback loops—occur when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop. Feedback loops often occur in complex systems and need to be identified and analyzed to understand the system causes and effects. Receiving accurate feedback on the problems being studied and proposed solutions can help to guide the solutions toward solving the problem.

Find common ground—Reality is our common ground. We can each find that common ground by advancing toward the single reality we all share.

First principles—are basic propositions or assumptions that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. Identifying the relevant first principles of physics, engineering, human nature, design, or problem solving can help to provide a firm foundation for solving problems.

Five whys—asking why each time an answer is provided can lead to a deeper understanding of the problem or the solution space. Often iterating about five time will uncover new insights and begin to reveal deeper causes, and perhaps root causes, of the problem being investigated.

Flow—is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time. Attaining the flow state while working to solve a problem may lead to an innovative solution or deeper insights into the problem.

Flowchart—is a type of diagram that represents a workflow or process. A flowchart can also be defined as a diagrammatic representation of an algorithm, a step-by-step approach to solving a task.

Focus group—is a group interview involving a small number of demographically similar people or participants who have other common traits/experiences. Their reactions to specific researcher/evaluator-posed questions are studied. Focus groups are used in market research to understand better people's reactions to products or services or participants' perceptions of shared experiences.

Fool proofing—describes designs that cannot be misused either inherently, or by use of defensive design principles. The related term poka-yoke is any mechanism in a process that helps an equipment operator avoid mistakes and defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur.

Force-field analysis—In social science, force-field analysis provides a framework for looking at the factors ("forces") that influence a situation, originally social situations. It looks at forces that are either driving movement toward a goal (helping forces) or blocking movement toward a goal (hindering forces).

Formal logic—is the study of correct reasoning or valid arguments. The solution is more likely to be found by applying sound logic than faulty logic. The Wikiversity Clear Thinking curriculum includes several courses on logic.

Four causes—according to Aristotle, there are four fundamental types of answer to the question "why?", in analysis of change or movement in nature: the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final. This may provide a useful structure for framing some stages of the problem investigation.

Fuzzy logic—is a form of many-valued logic in which the truth value of variables may be any real number between 0 and 1. It is employed to handle the concept of partial truth, where the truth value may range between completely true and completely false.

Game theory—is the study of mathematical models of strategic interactions among rational agents. Now it is used as an umbrella term for the science of logical decision making in humans, animals, as well as computers.

Greenfield—What would you do if you could start from the beginning?

Inductive reasoning—is a method of reasoning in which a body of observations is synthesized to come up with a general principle. It consists of making broad generalizations based on specific observations. It can be powerful, and it also can be wrong.

Inference—describes steps in reasoning, moving from premises to logical consequences.

Informal logic—employing the principles of logic and logical thought outside of a formal setting.

Intellectual Honesty—Accurate communications based on true beliefs.

Intuition—is the ability to acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning. The solution may be obvious to some expert in the field.

Jugaad—is a hack or simple workaround that solves (or avoids) a problem, at least temporarily.

Known unknowns—what you know you don’t yet know.

Lateral thinking—is a manner of solving problems using an indirect and creative approach via reasoning that is not immediately obvious. It involves ideas that may not be obtainable using only traditional step-by-step logic.

Listening—if you listen carefully enough you might find that someone is telling you the answer.

Logic tree—is a graphical breakdown of a question that dissects it into its different components vertically and that progresses into details as it reads to the right.

Logical fallacies—are the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning, or "wrong moves", in the construction of an argument, which may appear stronger than it really is if the fallacy is not spotted. Learn to spot logical fallacies and remove them. Unsound arguments occur very often. The Wikiversity course Recognizing Fallacies treats this topic.

Loss function—Characterizing the costs of sub-optimal outcomes.

Magical thinking—is the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them, particularly because of supernatural effects. Magical thinking is a distraction from solving problems.

MECE principle—is a grouping principle for separating a set of items into subsets that are mutually exclusive (ME) and collectively exhaustive (CE). When decomposing a problem, seek to create logic trees that are MECE.

Mind map—is a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole. It is often created around a single concept, drawn as an image in the center of a blank page, to which associated representations of ideas such as images, words and parts of words are added. Major ideas are connected directly to the central concept, and other ideas branch out from those major ideas.

Model—is an informative representation of an object, person, or system. A diagram of the problem or proposed solution is a simple model that can be very useful. More representative models can provide more insights. Note that all models are wrong, although some are useful.

Motivational interviewing—is a directive, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence.

Negative brainstorming—brainstorming ideas to discover what can make the problem worse. This can provide insights into a variety of causes of the problem and may lead to innovative solutions.

Occam’s razor—Prefer the explanation that requires fewer assumptions. Simpler hypotheses are generally better than complex ones.

Paradigm—is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field. Solving problems may require a paradigm shift, including superseding the dominant paradigm.

Pareto analysis—is a formal technique useful where many possible courses of action are competing for attention. In essence, the problem-solver estimates the benefit delivered by each action, then selects a few the most effective actions that deliver a total benefit reasonably close to the maximal possible one. Pareto is often listed as one of the seven basic tools of quality.

PDCA—Plan, do, check, act.

Playing—Enjoy exploring the possibilities.

Prioritize—decide what is most important now and focus only on that.

Pro-social values—perhaps love really is all we need.

Pugh concept selection—is a qualitative technique used to rank the multi-dimensional options of an option set. It is frequently used in engineering for making design decisions but can also be used to rank investment options, vendor options, product options or any other set of multidimensional entities.

Program management—is the process of managing several related projects, often with the intention of improving an organization's performance.

Project management—is the process of leading the work of a team to achieve all project goals within the given constraints

Propositional logic—deals with propositions (which can be true or false) and relations between propositions, including the construction of arguments based on them.

Randomized controlled trials—are a form of scientific experiment used to control factors not under direct experimental control. Examples of RCTs are clinical trials that compare the effects of drugs, surgical techniques, medical devices, diagnostic procedures, or other medical treatments.

Research—is "creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge". If the solution is not yet apparent, dig deeper to understand more completely what is happening and what is true.

Reverse Engineering—learning how some existing device, process, system, or piece of software accomplishes a task. Disassembling and examining a competitor’s product is one example.

Robust design—are statistical methods, developed by Genichi Taguchi to improve the quality of manufactured goods, and more recently also applied to engineering, biotechnology, marketing, and advertising.

Root cause analysis—is a method of solving problems used for identifying the root causes—deepest underlying cause—of faults or problems.

Sanity check—is a basic test to quickly evaluate whether a claim or the result of a calculation can possibly be true.

Sankey diagrams are a type of flow diagram in which the width of the arrows is proportional to the flow rate. They can also visualize the energy accounts, material flow accounts on a regional or national level, and cost breakdowns. The diagrams are often used in the visualization of material flow analysis.

SCAMPER—A structured brainstorming technique.

Scout mindset[2]—The motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.

Seeing beyond illusion—much of what we perceive is an illusion. Work to see beyond illusions that are occluding your view of reality.

Serendipity—is an unplanned fortunate discovery. Serendipity is a common occurrence throughout the history of product invention and scientific discovery.

Seven basic tools of quality—describes a set of graphical techniques identified as being most helpful in troubleshooting issues related to quality. Each of the seven basic tools can be helpful in solving problems.

Seven management and planning tools—have their roots in operations research work done after World War II and the Japanese total quality control (TQC) research. Each of the seven planning tools can be helpful in solving problems.

Simplicity—The design is probably not complete until it cannot be made any simpler. What can be removed to improve this design? Albert Einstein advised “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Synthesis—seeks to solve problems by building prototype solutions. It is an early integration of solution elements to better understand their interconnections and interactions.

Systems thinking—is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. It is the application of systems theory to solving problems.

Talking to the dog—describing the problem to a good listener can often reveal solutions. A stuffed animal is sufficient if you don’t have a live dog handy.

Teamwork—is the collaborative effort of a group to achieve a common goal or to complete a task in the most effective and efficient way.

Test and learn—is a set of practices followed by retailers, banks, and other consumer-focused companies to test ideas in a small number of locations or customers to predict impact.

Thought experiment—is a hypothetical situation in which a hypothesis, theory,[1] or principle is laid out for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. Consider several types of thought experiments listed here.

Tradeoffs—are situational decisions that involves diminishing or losing one quality, quantity, or property of a set or design in return for gains in other aspects. In simple terms, a tradeoff is where one thing increases, and another must decrease. Tradeoffs often occur when considering design solutions. Examine them carefully to determine if they can be avoided, or that the tradeoffs are consistent with the primary design considerations.

Transcending conflict—resolving contradictory goals.

Trial and error—is characterized by repeated, varied attempts which are continued until success, or until the trying stops.

Troubleshooting—is a form of problem solving, often applied to repair failed products or processes on a machine or a system. It is a logical, systematic search for the source of a problem to solve it and make the product or process operational again. Debugging is one form of troubleshooting.

True beliefs—True beliefs are more likely to lead to a solution than false beliefs.

Tweaking—refers to fine-tuning or adjusting a complex system, usually an electronic device. Tweaks are any small modifications intended to improve a system.

Unintended consequences—are outcomes of a purposeful action that are not intended or foreseen. These may be unexpected benefits or more often unexpected drawbacks. Understand any unintended consequences of your proposed solution. Capture any unintended benefits to solve related problems.

Value engineering—is a systematic method to improve the value of goods or products and services by using an examination of function.

What you can change and what you cannot change—Gain the wisdom to know the difference.

Workaround—is a bypass of a recognized problem or limitation in a system or policy. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed. But workarounds are frequently as creative as true solutions, involving outside the box thinking in their creation.

Working hypothesis—is a hypothesis that is provisionally accepted as a basis for further ongoing research in the hope that a tenable theory will be produced, even if the hypothesis ultimately fails.

  1. Cleaving frames, Bill Synnot and Associates, Technique 2.93
  2. Galef, Julia (April 13, 2021). The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't. Piatkus. ISBN 978-0349427645.