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Problem Solving Techniques

Samuel Oyewole | Computer Science | 15CG03682

Introduction
What is a problem? A friend of mine, Nicholas defined a problem as anything that
needs a solution. I agree with Nick. Every day we are faced with situations that
require solutions. From complex problems like how to program a robot to making
a decision on what to eat, we cannot avoid problems.
For me, the best way to look at a problem is to see it as a challenge. A challenge is
something that needs to be overcome, that means there is a way to overcome it.
This means that there is no problem or challenge without a solution. If the
problem is still there, it simply means that you havent found the solution.
Magnifying, or should I say focusing our view of problems to the field of Computer
science, we have a more refined definition.

What is Problem Solving?


Reading a Lecture note by Mr Azubuike Ezenwoke, Problem solving is the
application of ideas, skills, or factual information as inputs in specific sequence of
steps to attain to the solution to a problem or to reach a desired goal
state.(Azubuike.E; Overview of Problems and Problem solving Concepts). In
other words, to solve a problem, we apply a set of information called inputs in a
specific sequence called the solutions. After this process, we should have solved
this problem. For example, we are faced with the problem of addition.
Find the sum of any two numbers and square the result.
The first thing we will need to do is find those two numbers. These two numbers
are called our inputs. Let us take 2 and 3 to be our inputs. Next we would need to
apply a series of steps to those inputs. For the problem above, the solution to it
should look like:
Add 2 and 3 i.e. 2+3
Next, Square their result i.e. (2+3)^2
After applying those sequence of steps, you should have the output of 25. Please
note that the solution to a problem might not be as simple as that, some require
complex calculations, others, a good deal of trial-and-error.

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Techniques
The topic of Problem Solving is a large one. There is still the discussion of the
types of problems, their complexities and types of solutions as well but in this
article, we will be focusing on some techniques in problem solving. There are a
large number of techniques so I will advise that you go and do some research on
others not discussed in this article. For the sake of this article, we will only be
touching five sample techniques in solving problems.

Research
The first solving technique we will be dealing with is the tool of research. This is,
to me, the easiest technique because this is something all of us do with regards to
our works of life. Be it an assignment, article, complex calculations in which you
have no clue on how to solve, research is key. Research is simply an investigation,
study or exploration of a particular topic. Research as it relates to problem solving,
is employing existing ideas or adapting existing solutions to similar problems. This
is the tool I employed in this article. Basically, I was faced with the problem of
writing a report on problem solving techniques. What did I do? I went to look for
existing solutions to this problem, that is, write ups, ideas, articles of others who
had similar problems and found solutions and then I adapted it and what was the
result? The result is what you are reading right now. The problem was solved and
this work is a product of research. This is a very simple and common tool which I
am sure you are using right now. Learn to do research. Trust me, you dont have all
the knowledge in the world.

Divide and Conquer [1+2+3+4+5+6 = (1+2) + (3+4) + (5+6)]


Imagine I presented you with this problem: find the sum of (2,3,7,4,9,11,6,18,10,5),
seems like a big problem right? Now what if I gave you a series of simple problems,
that is, find the sum(2,3), done with that? Now find the sum(7,4), easy right? Do
the same for (9,11) ,(6,18) and (10,5). Write down all your answers, then take them a
pair and repeat the same steps till you are left with one. When you are done with
that, get your calculator and solve the problem above. Got the same answer right?
That is the basic concept behind the technique we will be discussing now. The key
word in this technique is recursion. In mathematics, Recursion is an expression
such that each term is generated by repeating a particular mathematical operation
(source: WordWeb Dictionary). According to the same source, in computing, it

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means calling a function from the same function. Keep those definitions, we will
come back to them. In Divide-and-Conquer, there are three major steps in which
one is repeated. They are: Divide, Conquer, Combine. For the example above, we
have a problem like this.
Sum(2,3,7,4,9,11,6,18,10,5)

Figure 1

The first step to take is to divide it into smaller parts call sub-problems.

Sum(2,3,7,4,9,11,6,18,10,5)

Divide
Sum(6,18,10,5)

Sum(2,,3,7,4,9,11)

Figure 2

We keep on dividing till we have the simplest sub-problem

Sum(2,3,7,4,9, 11)

Divide

Sum(2,3,7,4)

Sum(2,3)

Sum(9,11)

Sum(7,4)

Figure 3

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Next, we repeat the steps of conquer and combine i.e. After solving the smallest
parts of the operation, we combine each result and then conquer them again till
we get our final result. It should look something like this:

75

Conquer
and
Combine

20

36

16

39

15

24

Figure 4

Root Cause Analysis


According to Wikipedia.com, Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem
solving used for identifying the root causes of faults or problems
(source:Wikipedia.com). When dealing with problems, we need to make sure we
are dealing with the root cause so as to avoid unnecessarily repeating steps. The
best way to explain this is to do so in medical terms. A broken wrist, for example,
really hurts! But painkillers will only take away the symptoms; you'll need a
different treatment to help your bones heal properly. (source: Root Cause Analysis
Problem Solving From MindTools.com). The Root-Cause Analysis deals with the
reason why the problem occurred in the first place. This problem is what we call
the Root Cause. Imagine a tower built from cards. This tower to us is a problem.
Tackling the root cause means taking the last card on the bottom and letting that
whole tower crash.

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Brain-Storming
The origin of this idea is credited to Alex. F. Osborn in 1953. It involves coming up
with a lot of ideas and solutions to a problem through critical thinking. This
technique can be used to solve a large number and nature of problems and some of
these solutions can be used to solve more than one problem. This can be done
alone as an individual or together as a group. More results are expected to come
when brainstorming as a group because of the large human capacity. It is funny
and amazing what the human brain can produce when it is put to work. However,
there are some rules to follow when brainstorming:

No criticism: There must be no criticism of ideas during the brainstorming


session whether it is being done as an individual or as a group. This rule
applies most to group brainstorming because of the tendency to feel one
idea to be better than the other. Judgement reduces creativity and increases
tension.
There is freedom of expression: During group brainstorming session,
members are free to express themselves. There should not be any trying to
please a particular person or be bound by another member.
All ideas are accepted and recorded: All the ideas are recorded on a flip
chart and are put in front of the team regardless of similarity between ideas.
The quantity, not the quality of ideas is what counts.
Evaluation occurs after brainstorming: After all the problems have been
harvested, then evaluation begins. Here criticism of ideas occur until a most
preferable solution is identified.

Lateral Thinking
In the words of Edward de Bono Creative thinking is not a talent, it is a skill that
can be learnt. The word lateral means situated at or extending to the side
(source:WordWeb Dictionary. Lateral thinking is just as its definition. Lateral
thinking involves thinking aside from the normal thinking, you might call it
thinking outside the box. It is moving away from that which is the standard or
the orthodox way of doing things. Lateral thinking is a skill that must be learnt
and developed because there are some problems which just cant be solved by
normal, rigid networks. This is an example of Lateral thinking: A graduate had
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been trying to get into investment banking, but without success and had
exhausted all the normal routes. As a last resort, he had 100 postcard-sized CVs
printed. He then went round the "Square Mile" in the City, where all the main
financial organisations in London are located and proceeded to place one of these
CVs under the windscreen of every Rolls Royce and top of the range BMW and
Mercedes he came across. Next day, he had several phone calls offering him
interviews from the senior executives whom the cars belonged to. (example from:
http://www.kent.ac.uk/careers/sk/lateral . University of Kent, Lateral Thinking
Skills). This way of thinking is truly unorthodox but so are innovators. So out of all
the problem solving techniques, the one which is dearest to my heart is this
because not only does it increase your brain capacity to reason, it brings in
creativity. So no matter what field you are in, learn to be a Lateral Thinker.
Innovators are lateral thinkers. Thank you for reading.

(Ezenwoke, 2016, p. 8) (MindTools, editorial team, n.d.) (Exforsys, 2006)

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