Problem Solving: How Computers Can Help

by Thomas Teepe

What's This About?
Solving problems is one of the most important things we humans can do. On the other hand, computers are one of our most useful inventions. So it is not surprising that computers are used for countless aspects of problem solving. (Moreover, they make invaluable contributions to the field of problem creation.) But helping people immediately with the job of thinking, of creating and evaluating ideas - that's where computers are much less often used. This article shows how it can be done.

Basic Ideas
The method is based on two building blocks, namely ● mind mapping software and

problem solving tools.

(We will come to the details in a moment.) This approach leads to the idea of using two mind maps at the same time: ● a work map, where we examine a given problem, and

a tool map, where we have collected and arranged tools for problem solving.

Mind Mapping Software
Mind mapping with pen and paper is a note taking technique using words and images. You use a sheet of paper size A4 or larger, you start in the middle of the sheet with the map's topic, and starting from this centre, you arrange your ideas in so called main branches and further branches. The main topic and all other ideas are captured in key words or small sketches. You should use only very few words per branch. Moreover, coloured pens can help to make the map more lively and highlight its structure. In comparison with ordinary linear written notes, mind maps have several advantages: ● It's easier to arrange ideas according to their subject matter relations.

Associative thinking is encouraged, spontaneous ideas can easily be added at an appropriate place in the map. Using key words saves time. Your capabilities of thinking in words a n d images are better used.

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In comparison with pen and paper mind maps, mind mapping software offers a lot of additional features: ● The layout is done automatically.
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There's practically no limit to the map size. Branches can be copied, moved and deleted. Branches can be folded and unfolded. This makes it easy to navigate even very large maps. Ordinary text can be attached to the branches. These so called text notes can be edited in an integrated editor. Hyperlinks to files or web sites can be added to the branches. The map content can be exported into other file formats - images, HTML or text documents. Branches can be highlighted - by colours, icons, boundaries, fonts and their size. Maps can be filtered to show only a collection of branches - e.g. all branches with a special icon. Handwritten maps can look rather messy. Computer mind maps are tidy, legible and better accepted in many working communities.

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Mind mapping software helps to take notes - and so do programs like Word and Excel. However, there are strong arguments for mind mapping software when it comes to handling ideas: ● Ideas can be arranged flexibly - in lists, chains, trees and tables in the textnotes.
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Ideas can be rearranged by drag and drop. Branches can be folded and unfolded, thus allowing changes between detail view and overview. It's fairly easy to handle large maps.

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Important ideas can be highlighted. Mind mapping software with text notes allow a combination of mind maps and ordinary texts: Overview and quick, intuitive work plus careful phrasing and a wealth of details and nuances. Mind mapping software allows working within a single program - from a first collection of ideas to the final document.

In this article we will use the software Freeplane. It's free and open source, and has forked from the arguably better known FreeMind software. Freeplane offers substantially more features. Freeplane can be downloaded from

Problem Solving Tools
What are problem solving tools? Here's a simple answer - naive yet useful: Everything that might help to solve a problem - a broad definition indeed: ● general problem solving strategies like - describe the problem - analyze causes - define goals - develop ideas and options - make a plan and carry it out - evaluate your experiences

creativity techniques like brainstorming, or the approach to transfer ideas from one area to another, more analytical approaches, like asking questions or dividing the problem into subproblems, common sense advice like "Sleep over it".

Besides such well-accustomed approaches, it's worthwhile to try out new tools. ● TRIZ: This method for solving invention problems in engineering has been developed over the last 60 years. It's the best example of a problem solving technology I know. Here are two main ideas from TRIZ: First, you narrow down the problem to a contradiction between physical parameters. Example: A part is supposed to be both stable and light, or to be both fast and light. Second, there's a list of about 40 basic principles of reconciling those contradictions - example: segmentation, using simple one-way components, or using composite materials. TRIZ has been developed from the analysis of tens of thousand patents, extracting from each the core idea of an invention.

Tool maps can contain advice on self motivation - mantras for starting and continuing work, images of people you admire, or favourite songs.

Tool Map Architecture
The concept of problem solving tools is suspiciously broad, and merely collecting a large heap of tools is arguably not the best we can do. Instead, we aim at something where we can find a useful tool for every problem situation. This idea leads to a number of different options for arranging tools in a tool map. And since mind mapping software makes it easy to deal with large maps, we can use all these options in a single map. Option 1: Arrange tools by problem solving stages We divide the problem solving process into several stages and collect useful tools for each stage. Here's an example: ● Stage 1: Describe the problem What is the problem? How can you describe the problem alternatively? What do stakeholders say? Take an unusual viewpoint - how do gums feel about tooth brushes? How would a Martian describe the situation?

Stage 2: Analyze causes What are the causes of a problem? What are the causes of causes - and so on? Divide the problem into subproblems. Stage 3: Define goals What do you want to achieve? What would Gandhi do? Stage 4: Collect and assess ideas Brainstorm. Search the internet. Steal good ideas. Transfer ideas from other areas. Ask experts. Use mail, internet forums, newsgroups etc. "No one is as smart as all of us." Stage 5: Develop a plan and carry it out Develop a step-by-step plan. Think of obstacles and plan for contingencies. Collaborate with others. Stage 6: Evaluate your experiences What worked well, what didn't? Why? How could you improve things for the future?

Option 2: Arrange tools by problem situations ● Situation: I need more information Collect open questions. Search the literature and the internet. Ask experts.

Situation: I'm stuck Check hypotheses. Detect hidden hypotheses. Find alternatives and opposites to previous approaches. Talk to other people. Check options systematically - useful is the MECE approach: Arrange options mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. Exploit the internet. Situation: I have no overview Analyze the problem top-down. Make a diagram. Arrange the material in tables and other suitable structures. Collect information. (You'll find tools for this above - add a link branch to the material here.)

Option 3: Arrange tools by topics

Here you can collect tools for handling special topics. If you're working as a programmer, you could collect tools for dealing with Java, C++ or SQL and their development environments.

Work Map Architecture
Here are some thoughts about how to arrange the work map. It's a good idea to use one central work map. I've found the following main branches useful: ● a branch "current work" for smaller topics that are on my mind

branches "Project A", "Project B" etc. for larger projects I work on a branch "later" for things I would like to examine in the future an "archive" branch as a container for work I've finished.

If a branch gets very large, you can export it to a separate map - the central work map will contain a link to this new map.

The Interplay Between Tool Map and Work Map
Here are some basic remarks about the functions of the tool map. Working on the tool map aims at two benefits, namely • saving tools in our memory, and • saving tools for later use in the tool map itself. While solving a problem, we can access tools from our memory or from the tool map. From this you may gather that the value of a tool map does not depend on how often you actually use it as a data file. In particular, don't feel compelled to use the tool map in every step of a problem solving process - this would only lead to interruptions of your thinking process. The tool map can help in different ways - before, during and after the work on a concrete problem. ● When first assembling a tool map, you get an overview over your repertoire of problem solving tools. Ask yourself when you can use which tool - this can lead to a number of valuable insights.

It's easy to use advice from the literature on problem solving in your tool map. This can dramatically shorten the way from "I've read about it" to "I'm actually using it myself". Before starting work on a problem, you can browse through the tool map and update your working memory. During the problem solving process, the tool map can act as a kind of mentor - reminding you of important tools, pointing out possible sources

of errors, motivating for further work.

Some tool map branches can be copied from the tool map to the work map and evaluated there. This is useful for lists of questions, lists of stimuli for certain creativity techniques or for complex problem solving templates. Technically, it works like this: You open the tool map and the work map separately. In the tool map, you start the drag and drop of a branch, and while keeping the left mouse button pressed, you hit the ALT + TAB keys to change to the work map. There you can finish the drag and drop process and place the branch as you wish. With suitable tools, you can check your work for fallacies, shortcomings and errors and develop alternatives and improvements. Finally, you can evaluate your experiences from the problem solving process. One important goal is the improvement of the tool map itself. One final technical note: With the usual CTRL + F we can search for words in the map.

The method has quite a number of advantages. Here are the most important. ● The work map helps to collect and arrange ideas, to keep an overview and to move between several aspects of a topic.

The material collected in the work map can be presented in a number of ways - e.g. in several graphic formats, in an HTML page or a text document. The tool map can be adapted to almost any age, any level of expertise and to any set of favourite tools. This flexibility is arguably one of the most important features of the method. The tool map can contain huge amounts of advice on problem solving, all of which can be accessed easily. The tool map allows a combination of methodical and domain specific knowledge in a single file. The tool map fosters thinking about your own behaviour in problem solving. It's easy to add new tools to the tool map and quickly start to use them in your own work. The tool map facilitates the exchange of tools between persons. With the help of a beamer, the method can be used for group work. The method can be adapted in a number of ways. One of the following paragraphs discusses some details.

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One Disadvantage
Here comes what is arguably the most painful shortcoming of the method: It's quite clumsy to use handwritten notes in a computerized mind map. But handwritten notes and sketches are vital for most problem solving processes in science and engineering, math, design and art. Some mind mapping software packages offer the feature to add small sketches to the branches, but the resolution is insufficient for serious work with formulae or detailed diagrams. What can be done? A combination of soft- and hardware will carry you a long way, if you are prepared to spend quite a lot of money. The most promising way I've found so far is a combination of a graphic tablet with some decent notebook software (I'm experimenting with OneNote from Microsoft). On the other hand, you can simply use pen and paper - without the extra benefits software can offer. And of course, you can use some pragmatic hybrid forms - making a handwritten diagram on paper and refer to it in a computer mind map. As touch screens become a standard feature of computer hardware, we may hope for decent diagram functions in mind mapping software in the near future.

Given the current state of technology (afternoon of November 20, 2010) , the method is most useful where diagrams, sketches and formulae are not central part of your work. Here are some applications. ● Writing texts - from school writing taks to complex social analysis, from a first collection of ideas to the final text.

Preparing discussions and debates, with clear arrangements of positions, arguments and counterarguments. If you're interested in this point, search the internet for "argument mapping." Use in education - for example, think of a tool map for examining historical texts and other sources. Use as a comprehensive creativity tool. Use in group discussions, with the help of a beamer. Support for all who want to make thinking a hobby.

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Variants of the Method
The building blocks of the method are mind mapping software and tools for problem solving, and the work map and tool map. From this, we can develop a number of variants: ● We replace mind mapping software by other software. With spreadsheet software, we can develop one or more "tool sheets" and use them in a

"work sheet" - not a bad idea, if tables are central to your work. Similar ideas can be developed for text processing.

We replace mind mapping software by pen and paper mind mapping. This has a number of advantages - there's no need for electricity and high tech, the hardware is dramatically cheaper, and it's easier to use diagrams and sketches. In this case, the tool map can be a poster or a folder with a collection of tool maps for different topics. We replace mind mapping software with adhesive notes. This works especially well with groups. If you're interested in more details, have a look at the book "Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It Notes" by David Straker. We abandon the separation of tool map and work map and use a tool branch in our work map. We can then use copies of single tool subbranches by pressing the CTRL key while drag'n'dropping a tool item. This works best with a large screen and when the tool branch is not too large. Otherwise, navigating between the tool branch and the work branches becomes a bit awkward. Instead of using the keyboard, we use speech recognition software. (I've tried this and it works.)

And now? Give it a try!
If you want to try the method, you can start right now. Download the free and open source mind mapping software Freeplane: Work Map: Tool Map:

This is a translation of an article I've written for the Mind-Akademie 2010.

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