Problems come in countless shapes and sizes, and further, their occurrence is unrelenting. Many times this can feel quite overwhelming! Honing your problem-solving skills in a systematic fashion can help you be more effective, efficient, and less stressed. In this article, we will take a look at problem-solving and a widely used strategy to turn you into an ideal problem-solver.

What is a ‘problem’?

Problems with which we are confronted can range on a continuum from those of everyday life to those that are quite rare or extreme. Regardless of the problem being faced, at its core, any problem has several elements in common—it warrants wanting or needing to achieve a particular goal, where the actions needed to solve the problem are not always clear, could be quite unknown, and/or might have steps that must to be carried out in a certain order for success(1).

The brain during problem-solving

Functional neuroimaging during problem-solving tasks is used to measure where and how much activation is occurring in the cortex of the brain, where the gray matter responsible for higher intellectual functions, such as perception and decision-making, resides. Because the planning component of solving problems is where the heavy lifting takes place, this has been the focus of the largest number of studies.

Planning relates to formation of strategy, coordinating and sequencing of mental activity, and holding information in memory (referred to as ‘working memory’). Findings show that the right prefrontal cortex is most involved in the construction of a plan, while the left prefrontal cortex is most active for control processes, in essence to supervise or oversee the plan’s execution(2).

Using the IDEAL Model

Can you activate these areas of your brain? The answer is a definite YES! You can do so by using a method that has over several decades been developed, refined, and is used widely(3). It is called the IDEAL Model and was developed by John Bransford, a professor of education and psychology, and Barry Stein, a professor of neuroscience(4).

Let’s dive into how it works…

1. I is for Identify.

The first step is to identify the problem. True, you may feel you know there is a problem because you can sense (either vaguely or strongly) that there is a problem. However, identification can be systematic and this will get you started on the right track for solving the problem effectively and efficiently. To do so, here are some recommended questions to ask yourself (and you may find it helpful to write down the answers):

·       Why is this a problem?

·       What are the most important elements of the problem?

·       What is fact and what is opinion?

·       How will I know if the problem is solved?

·       Have I encountered a similar problem that I solved successfully?

2. D is for Define.

The next step is to define the problem with more precision. Two different people could state that there is the same problem, but their definition of that problem could be very different. Let’s say the problem at hand is that sales are slipping at your company. You feel the reason is that the premiere product is not fully meeting the needs of the customers, but your co-worker believes the reason is that the marketing messages are weak. Who is right? It could be you, your co-worker, or both.

For you to participate in solving the problem, you need to define the problem more precisely as you see it. A powerful aspect is the evidence or data that would do so. To define the problem of customers’ needs not being met, you may decide to analyze customer feedback, reasons for support calls, and/or perhaps hold a focus group. Using this information you can then flesh out your general problem with specifics.

3. E is for Explore.

Being able to identify and define a problem does not automatically lead to a solution. To do this means exploring. This is both about generating possible solutions and strategies for how to do so.  There are several strategies that can make this exploration phase more fruitful.

·       If the problem is complex, one effective exercise is to break the bigger problem into smaller, and therefore more manageable, sub-problems.

·       Working backwards is also an effective strategy. This is particularly useful for time-sensitive problems. If you have to arrive to give a presentation at a certain time and it seems very tight, imagine being at the location on time and then work backwards to determine what has to occur and when in order to make that happen.

·       You can use trial and error, but this does not mean it has to be random. Keep track of what you want to try, keeping in mind that in many cases your next solution idea may be an improvement upon the first.

4. A is for Act.

Now you are ready to put your potential solution(s) into action. In this step, it is quite important to go back to the first step and the question, “How will I know this problem is solved?” As you try out various alternatives, you will want to do so relative to your target.

For instance, if your problem is that your teenager will not clean her room, what is your minimum acceptable standard for this problem to be considered solved? Must it be immaculate? Just that the bed is made? That the floor is clear? Then put your possible solutions into place. One could be that you offer the opportunity to gain privileges. Another that privileges are lost. Perhaps your solution is that you go in and clean the room yourself.

5. L is for Look.

As you put various solutions into place, you will want to see how effective they are for getting the result for which you are aiming. In the above example, it could be that the first and second of privileges gained or lost do not work. Instead the solution that you go in and clean it yourself has the reaction that your teen feels this is intrusive, and so begins to keep her room clean. Problem solved!

Closing Thoughts

In life, problems keep coming and we often have no control or heads up. This can cause quite a lot of stress and anxiety. Rather than being caught in these reactions, you now know you have a model to follow so that you can be an ideal problem-solver, no matter what comes your way.

Recommended Resources




1. Unterrainer, J. M., & Owen, A. M. (2006). Planning and problem solving: From neuropsychology to functional neuroimagingJournal of Physiology-Paris99, 308-317.

2. Newman, S. D., Carpenter, P. A., Varma, S., & Just, M. A. (2003). Frontal and parietal participation in problem solving in the Tower of London: fMRI and computational modeling of planning and high-level perceptionNeuropsychologia, 1668-1682.

3. Kirkley, J. (2003). Principles of teaching problem solving. Bloomington, MN: Plato Learning.

4. Bransford, J. D., & Stein, B. S. (1984). The IDEAL problem solver: A guide for improving thinking, learning, and creativity. New York, NY: WH Freeman and Company.


About the Author:

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.