Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

Types of problem

‘Problems’ come in different shapes and sizes, so there is no simple and straightforward, one-size-fits-all type of solution.


In the example below, ‘Inertia’, you may have a clear understanding of where you are now and a clear understanding of where you want to go and a clear idea of how you are going to get there. The major difficulty is deciding when! This could be for a variety of reasons: a lack of confidence, either in the end point or in the cost/benefit of solving the problem, a lack of funding for the solution, a lack of political will/authority or even, in the ‘best’ traditions of organisational procrastination, that fact that you are less likely to be criticised for doing nothing than for doing the ‘wrong’ thing.

The best way to overcome inertia is to revisit the cost/benefit analysis and create a sound business case for the solution, then use all your influencing skills on the authority figures whose approval you need, especially if you are that authority figure!


More common may be the situation referred to below as a ‘Puzzle’, which occurs when you know where you are and where you want to be, but simply cannot see how to get there. This is one of those situations where you can see no path forward.

In this instance, you may be best advised to ‘think outside the box’. You can have a brainstorm or use six thinking hats; alternatively, you might want to see if someone else has ever had a similar problem and, if so, find out what path they followed. See the topic on Creative Thinking for more ideas.


Perhaps an equally common issue is that shown in the example here as the ‘Dilemma’: we know where we are and we know where we want to be, but there are several options and we can’t decide which one to take.

The ‘Dilemma’ we are talking about here is not one in which there is an obvious right or wrong answer (such as the crossword clue, ‘Could be black (3), where we already have ‘_at’ so the right answer could be ‘hat’, ‘cat’ or ‘bat’). We are looking at the more complex issue of the ‘right’ path being dependent on factors probably outside our control. For example, ‘We could reduce the unit price to undercut our competitors and try to sell a higher volume of units, or we could increase our unit price and market our product with an exclusive/limited edition message, but we don’t know what the competition will do and what effect that will have on us’. In order to select the ‘right’ path, we will need to assess all the factors that effect the environment of our problem. To do this, we will use such tools as SWOT analysis and So what? analysis. We may also look at PESTLE or other models of factors. See the topic on Management Tools and Models for more tools.


Another type of problem is shown here as a ‘Conflict’: in a business situation, or any situation where we are working with others, an example might be where we have differences of opinion as to where we are trying to go, and whether we want to be a high volume commodity supplier or a specialist niche supplier. If we could agree on the answer to that question, the path would be obvious to all, but sadly we simply haven’t yet agreed where we want to be.

In order to be able to start moving down a path, we must decide where we want to go. In this case, we will want to ensure that we consider the Vision and Mission of the organisation and, from those, set a SMART objective. See the topics on Vision and Mission, and Goal Setting.


We might have an all-too-common situation: we know that something is going wrong, but we don’t know what we are going to do about it and we don’t necessarily know what the solution will look like either. This is called a ‘Mess’!

In this situation, it is critically important to understand first where we want to go, so we can then look for the appropriate path. In most messes, there is a tendency to just muddle along until the pain becomes too much. The lack of a clear end point tends to create denial and procrastination, so as soon as you can see that there is a mess, making rapid moves to identify the end point will generate its own momentum to move down a path.

If the company is in a mess, we need to quickly generate a series of alternative end points (so we move to a ‘conflict’), with the aim of identifying/agreeing which end point we want to aim for. Once we have identified a number of potential paths, we have a ‘dilemma’, and to deal with this we now have to choose the ‘right’ path for us. All that remains is to find the ways and means to overcome the ‘inertia’ and... problem solved.

So the only common way to approach these different types of problem is to follow a process: