Problem solving

  • Problem definition
  • The hypothermia example
  • How do experts solve their problems?
  • Situation awareness

Problem solving is the process of determining and preparing to execute a course appropriate to the circumstances. All outdoor leaders need the skills and techniques to properly analyse situations, and the options presented in this chapter help bridge the gap from the theoretical to what to do in practice.

There are many books available which describe a wide variety of problem-solving techniques, but most of these books are based on situations which are quite different from those you are likely to face in the outdoors. The approaches suggested are typically along the following lines:

  • break the issue up into its components and analyse them
  • develop a set of possible solutions
  • weigh up the costs and benefits of each option
  • select the best option.

Problem definition

These techniques are usually applied to problems with well-defined characteristics:

  • most of the parts of the problem are known
  • the problem is stable and remains constant in complexity or becomes simpler as the solution is implemented
  • the solution to the problem is usually rational without an interpersonal or emotional dimension.

Typical examples of this class of problem for walkers and skiers include answering questions such as ‘Where are we?’ or ‘What’s for dinner?’, however, the really critical problems that confront walkers and skiers are more complex, less well-understood and less stable.

The problems which require the full application of a leader’s skills are those which have most at stake, are complex, have a time limit for their solution and whose nature may change as time progresses. The most enthralling and hair-raising stories about ski trips or bushwalks have all or most of these ingredients. These stories recirculate either as case studies in leadership courses or campfire and party stories, both of which create lively discussion. People repeatedly ask ‘Well what would you have done then?’

The hypothermia example

One commonly discussed problem concerns parties with a large proportion of inexperienced members in which several are beginning to be affected by hypothermia.

The weather is appalling and the party is heading towards home at the end of a trip, but will take an hour or more to reach safety. Work through this scenario yourself. The stakes are as high as they can be, and the immediate problem, preserving lives, is not the only one. Others include:

  • deciding whether to stay or move
  • maintaining morale
  • conserving the strength of all the members
  • assessing the necessity for raising the alarm and weighing this against the costs and benefits of allowing the alarm to be raised when you are overdue.

As time goes on, whether you do something, nothing or simply take time thinking, the situation changes:

  • more may become affected by hypothermia
  • for those affected, hypothermia becomes deeper
  • the group’s capacity to act becomes diminished with time
  • the weather may get worse (or better).

Each course of action taken by you or available to you to fulfil a necessary goal conflicts with another necessary goal. For example:

  • you may modify the effects of the weather by putting up tents or digging in (but now your progress is zero)
  • some of your more experienced party members may go for help (but your resources to deal with problems in the main party are diminished)
  • you may continue to head for home (but your party members will become progressively worse)
  • if that wasn’t bad enough, you really don’t know how long any of your party members can safely endure the current conditions—time is at a premium, and you don’t know how much you’ve got.

The characteristics of the important problems that a leader will face have been outlined and the question of how to deal with them now arises. People whose daily work entails problem solving of this type and importance, notably firefighters, usually say that when they fight fires they do not make choices or develop and evaluate options, they act on their experience and generate a plan of action, modifying it as the situation develops. They rarely compare even two options and find that the time spent in analysis and evaluation leads to the situation developing out of their control.

How do experts solve their problems?

There are three parts of a process called recognition-primed decision making. These are:

  • They recognise the situation immediately, having already been expecting it and assessing the situation as the problem arose. They directly apply a solution which from experience seems appropriate.
  • If the problem confronting them is not immediately recognisable, they search for clues and cues which allow them to place it into an already known category of problem and then apply the solution.
  • If the situation is not recognised as being familiar, then the analysis of action options begins by modifying the typical solution that most closely resembles the one corresponding to the nearest known situation. This initial selection of a solution is followed by a continuing cycle of action, monitoring and evaluation that makes small adjustments to the solution as events unfold.

This method differs from the classic problem solving strategies in that:

  • monitoring of the situation is continuous
  • changes made to the solution once under way are generally relatively small.

Situation awareness

The monitoring process, known technically as 'situation awareness', is a key feature of this method of problem solving because, in effect, it enables the problem to be largely solved before it arises. In situation awareness, a person finds salient features of their environment, locates them and notes their current state and behaviour, decides on their immediate significance with respect to what’s going on, tries to predict what they’ll do later and how that will affect future plans. This is nothing special—we do it every day and only become aware of it when it fails. An expert real-world problem solver (and good leader) has a background process continually in play which notes, sizes up and anticipates. In this way, there is a constant sorting and rating of more or less pre-programmed possible courses of action going on so that, when action becomes necessary, the action plan has been under development for some time.

An expert real world problem solver has a consistent set of characteristics:

  • a willingness to assume leadership
  • an ability to maintain situation awareness
  • an ability to take controlled risks, through self confidence and self awareness
  • emotional stability
  • decisiveness
  • experience.

The importance of each of these becomes apparent when we consider ways in which problem solving can break down. First, a solution is of no value unless it is implemented. This feature illustrates the point that the leader is not always the person in charge. Often the assuming of leadership lasts only as long as it takes to ensure that an appropriate solution is adopted and that implementation has begun. It may also last as long as it takes to deal with the problem and its aftermath.

A failure of situation awareness may result in important things being ignored and emerging as shocks later in the process. Situation awareness may be distorted by expectations, so that changes and events may be interpreted as being better than they really are. This leads to an underestimation of the emerging difficulty of the problem and an inadequate response. Here, a good sense of self awareness is essential so that feelings of comfort and complacency can be detected and the state of the environment assessed realistically with a clear mind.

The ability to let go of feelings of comfort in a difficult situation requires a good deal of self confidence. If a solution to a problem was begun, and subsequently left to run its pre-planned course without ongoing evaluation, the solution may become irrelevant as circumstances change. Self confidence, decisiveness and the ability or willingness to take controlled risks is important, because the expert problem solver adjusts the process under way and then stands back to observe their effects.

There are two ways in which problems are not solved effectively: by solving the wrong problem correctly, or by solving the right problem wrongly. Avoiding these two errors can only come as the result of experience. Experience is either learned (often the hard way) or taught. The price of experience is being involved directly in the solution of a problem.

There are many ways to learn about problem solving. These include formal training, listening to considered accounts of others’ experiences, and practise in dealing with the sorts of problems that may be encountered on a trip. All of these are encouraged, and all may help you to gain experience and to add to your readily available solutions.

Further reading

Flin R 1996. Sitting in the Hot Seat. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.

Kerstholt J. H. 1996. Dynamic decision making. PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam (unpubl.).

McLennan J. & Omodei M. 1996. The role of pre priming in recognition primed decision making. Perceptual and Motor Skills 82, 1059–1069.

Sternberg R. J. 1995. Expertise in complex problem solving: A comparison of alternative conceptions. In: Frensch P. A. & Funke J. eds. Complex Problem Solving.: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.