I am a professional problem-solver. Okay, so my job title is not actually “problem-solver”, but really, it is the vast majority of what I do in my job. I am a manager, overseeing anywhere from 40-130 employees at any given point in time in a store, while also solving problems for customers. Problems can be well-defined or ill-defined; well-defined problems have a definite solution where ill-defined problems are more of a grey area, lacking in a definite goal or a definite method to arrive at a goal (Goldstein, 2011). The majority of the problems I solve are of the ill-defined variety, rather than the well-defined type of problem that has been studied more, but I will show you how some of the cognitive processes are the same in solving ill-defined problems in daily life.
Problems also can be a routine problem or a non-routine problem based on whether or not the individual working to solve the problem knows how to reach a solution or has to come up with a novel way to reach a solution (Mayer & Wittrock, 2009). As a manager, I am the one who gets called to help solve the non-routine problems, having to sometimes think of creative solutions to challenging problems. This type of problem solving uses divergent thinking; that is, it involves thinking through many potential answers to questions that may work to find something that is a good fit (Goldstein, 2011). This is in contrast to convergent thinking, which is when there is one single correct answer and the individual working on the problem gets closer and their thinking narrows in on the correct solution (Goldstein, 2011).
I have been working in my particular field for 14 years, which has given me a bit of expertise. This can be advantageous in solving problems in that I have a lot of background to reference when working on a solution to problems. Experts tend to have better results at problem solving in their area of expertise than someone who is not an expert does (Goldstein, 2011). Not only do experts have more knowledge about their subject of expertise, they also are better able to access it in their minds and better able to categorize the problem than a novice would (Goldstein, 2011). The only downfall to having expertise is that the expert can sometimes get hung up on the knowledge they already have and end up lacking necessary creativity to solve the problem (Goldstein, 2011).
A customer approaches me, looking for the marshmallows. This looks like a fairly well-defined problem, with a definite goal and single answer to it. The goal and answer are locating the marshmallows. The solution is to show the customer where they are located in the store. A well-defined, routine problem, which is encountered many times a day in my work, is solved. Now, a customer approaches me with another problem. This customer wants to participate in the promotion on pomegranates, but does not know how to eat this item or what it can be used for. This is an ill-defined problem, with many solutions. This is where expertise on the product can come into solving the problem, but also some creativity as well, since there are multiple solutions of what the particular product could be used for.
Problem solving is something that we all do on a daily basis in our work, at home and in school. There is more to learn regarding how we solve problems but we already know how creativity and expertise are involved in solving our routine and non-routine problems.
Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience (3rd Ed.). California: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Mayer, R., & Wittrock, M. (2009, December 23rd). Problem Solving. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/problem-solving1/