Two kinds of problems- John's take on problem solving

Two kinds of problems
Google Tutorial - Search Strategies

John's article about local library computers

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Just two
Problems have either been solved already or they haven't. In a talk by Dr. James H. Lytle, Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools at the time, circa 2002, he addressed problem solving strategies for educators and said these two kinds of problems have been called the 'technical' (solved already) and the 'adaptive' (not already solved). When problem solvers first face a problem, it's likely they don't know whether a solution already exists. The prudent thing to do would be to proceed as though one does and to attempt to find it. If, after much searching, a solution has not been found, then the resolute solver will try to create a solution, possibly a brand new one. Computer users fall into the category of problem solvers more often than they might admit. A computer is often both the source of problems and the best means for solving them.

Using Google to resolve technical issues involving computers
Resources for searching for answers to computer problems abound in the Internet. Google is a favorite tool, though searching is best approached with a plan of action in place. Here follow some tips on strategic googling.

Every Google search starts with a search string that is typed or pasted into Google's search field. The words in your string are all used by Google in the search; it considers them to have a logical 'AND' between them as opposed to a logical 'OR.' This condition may be reversed for particular terms if an operator like '-' is used, which is the logical 'NOT.' For example, the search string [martin luther] will return results containing both words and will include online articles that reference Martin Luther, the 16th Century seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader. However, the search string [martin luther -king] will tend to suppress search results that reference Dr. King. There are other logical operators and advanced search options that Google Search offers. Check the links to the left for details.

Searching for the right words
Effective search strings can be just error messages and error codes alone. Even just the text near the top of windows that appear seemingly from nowhere during the startup process and sometimes randomly during a user's session, can be used as starting points in the search for answers to problems that computers pose. But it often happens that there is a mysterious problem with the computer and the would-be problem solver does not know the exact terms to use.  In this case he should enter a string using his own words. The results produced will likely pertain to the problem at hand and contain more accurate terms that can be included in further searches. The trick is to either read over the few lines that Google returns for each 'hit' it finds, scanning as you read for the better terms, or to click and follow the links returned that seem to offer more promising results.

Search results produced by Google are presented in order of the number of search-string terms it finds in web sites, and as close as possible to the order of those terms as given by you. If the results seem too general or just too many, try enclosing any terms that are part of a phrase in quotation marks. This forces Google to consider the phrase in quotes as a single term. You can also just add more words to the search string. This forces Google to be more selective and to return fewer hits. Conversely, if the results seem too few, use fewer words or different words in your search string.

Remember too that Google will only take you into the public domain and is barred from proprietary resources. Click the appropriate link at the left to review John's earlier article on using computers and computer resources brought to you by your local and county libraries.

When more creative strategies are required
Telling someone to BE creative is much easier than telling him HOW to be creative. There is a general way to proceed, however. It's best to begin by resolving any and all technical issues associated with the problem, and by treating identifiable parts of the problem as technical issues. In other words, get as much help as you can find. Try to understand the problem as deeply as possible, and try to find tools associated with the kind of problem at hand. Some tools are general and may be applied across varied categories of problems: spreadsheets are made for crunching numbers, but can double as list handlers; free scripting tools like javascript and the Windows command line interpreter and AppleScript all allow a user to program a Windows or a Macintosh computer to accomplish a task using an easy-to-acquire language with simple, English-like syntax. In any case, know your tools well before you begin this work.

Creative method
Ways to approach creative problem solving have been identified. Here is John's favorite: Concentrate on the problem and then forget about it. Alec Baldwin's character, Jack Donaghy, on the TV comedy, 30 Rock, called it the 'shower principle.' The idea is to think about the problem intensely for a while and then go to sleep, or take a shower, or anything that takes the mind off the problem. Eventually a solution comes. Trust the force.

Further reading
• Heifetz, R. A. & Linksy, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. Subtitled as Staying alive through the dangers of leading. This is the work to which Dr. Lytle referred that describes two kinds of problems, except that with computers there's no conflict of values as there can be in dealing with people problems, and thus no real danger. Just fun.
March 9, 2013

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