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“How to Solve Problems” 1947-style

I recently discovered this 8th grade arithmetic book from 1947 on the bookshelves at my parents’ house. It’s got a great collection of images that match the mid-century art style of Idea Sandbox. In addition to the images, I found this piece on page 304 providing suggestions for students on problem solving.
Hot to Solve Problems

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HOW TO SOLVE PROBLEMS

Before you try to work any problem, read it carefully to be sure you understand it; then follow this plan:

  1. Find what the problem tells.
  2. Find what the problem asks for.
  3. Decide what process or processes should be used and in what order.
  4. Estimate about what the answer should be.
  5. Solve the problem.
  6. Check your work to be sure you made no mistakes.
  7. Check your answer with your estimate and see if it is reasonable.

You can stop reading at this point if you’d like. But I want to go on a bit further and dig a little deeper. How may these math rules apply to everyday problem solving.

1. Find what the problem tells.

In investigating your problem, what do you know about it? What facts do you have? What can you be sure of? What are you perhaps taking as a given or an assumption that may not actually hold true. Gather the facts.

2. Find what the problem asks for.

What is missing? What are you solving for? In math you have an ‘eventual’ solution, for example you know you’re looking for the value of x. Business problems aren’t necessarily that straight forward. So, instead of an ‘eventual’ solution, what are your ‘potential’ solutions? What customers our groups do you need to consider?

3. Decide what process or processes should be used and in what order.

What marketing tools do you already have in place that may help solve your problem? What additional tools should you consider. In business, as in math… If you try to solve a problem using the wrong method you won’t end up with the intended (or correct) result.

4. Estimate about what the answer should be.

I like this step. Before you do any work, think about your intended outcome. An estimate will do two things for you (a) it helps you play out the situation as a dress rehearsal in your mind. (b) It allows you to estimate the outcome. To predict – based on what you know, and where you want to go – what your result will be.

5. Solve the problem.

Ah, working it out. I see this step as crafting your plan. Create the approach. Not launching something at this stage. First build the plan that answers what the problem asks, from step 2, using information, including what you know from step 1.

6. Check your work to be sure you made no mistakes.

Now make that plan bullet proof… weave it out of Kevlar. Did you account for all the things the problem is asking for? Have conditions or assumptions changed since you started building the solution?

7. Check your answer with your estimate and see if it is reasonable.

That makes perfect sense in math, but we don’t necessarily do that every time in business, do we? I like this step. Take the picture of the outcome you painted in step 4 and see if what you have come up with matches that expectation. Nice.

In the end, I see this list as a project management flow. These are key steps that help you ensure you’re not forgetting something important, and proceed with clear expectations in mind. I like it.

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