Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

In a nutshell

1. What is a problem?

The word ‘problem’ derives from Latin, meaning ‘to throw something in front of’. ‘Opportunity’ derives from Greek, meaning ‘towards port’. Therefore, we can define a problem as something that prevents us from moving towards our ultimate goal or vision. Solve the problem and we can move forward, although we may still face difficulties (literally ‘not easy’). What sorts of things prevent us moving forward?

  • Not knowing where we are now and what is going on now
  • Not knowing what or where the goal or destination is
  • Not knowing how to get there, or being unable to take the necessary steps
  • Do we want to solve just this problem or do we need to ‘solve’ the cause?
  • How stable is the environment in which this problem appears?


2. Types of problem

There’s no simple and straightforward, one-size-fits-all methodology for finding solutions to problems, because they come in different shapes and sizes. What is stopping you from moving forward?

  • ‘Inertia’ may set in when you 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, but you don’t know when. Perhaps you need to revisit the cost/benefit analysis.
  • The ‘Puzzle’ problem occurs when you know where you are and where you want to be, but simply cannot see how to get there. Perhaps you need to think outside the box.
  • In 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 to get there. Management tools and models may be useful here.
  • A ‘Conflict’ may arise when we are working with others and cannot agree where we are going.
  • Sometimes, 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’.
  • So the only common way to approach these different types of problem is to follow a process: define the problem, identify desired outcomes, solve problem, test the solution, and move on.


3. Defining the problem

It may seem to be odd to ask what is and isn’t the problem, but it is a sensible way of setting the parameters of the task. How stable are the environmental factors in which this problem appears and what is the context of the problem?

  • Any problem sits within the sphere of influence of a variety of ‘factors’ and in a commercial situation, a manager may use such commonly known acronyms as PESTLIED.
  • The problem will also sit within a ‘context’, which may be defined as straightforward, volatile, complex, confused or chaotic.
  • When projects fail to fully deliver, despite the use of complex problem-solving systems, it’s often because factors change faster than the project can be adapted to meet the changes.
  • Do you need to solve the immediate problem or its root cause?


4. Identify the desired outcome

What will solving this problem actually do for me/my organisation? There are four basic drivers that motivate people and therefore organisations:

  • To acquire something they do not have, which can be tangible or intangible, such as income or market share
  • To defend or retain something they already have
  • To connect with other people – forming effective relationships with customers, for example
  • To learn and develop skills, products or services


5. Tools to help you solve problems

There are various tools that can help with problem solving.

  • Ishikawa cause and effect analysis uses a fishbone diagram to help us to identify the root cause or causes of a problem. This way, we have a chance of solving it today and preventing it from popping up again.
  • 5Y entails asking ‘why’ at least five times in order to drill down to the ‘root’ level.
  • Improvise, adapt, overcome: improvising is about taking something from outside our normal sphere and using it for a non-intended purpose; adaptation is about adapting what we already have or do in our normal sphere and using that to solve a problem, while overcome, in the arena of problem solving, is the action of swamping or flooding and thus solving the problem by sheer weight of numbers or effort.
  • In a ‘So What’ analysis you repeatedly ask so what until you have gathered all the implications of a situation.
  • There may be no need to reinvent the wheel: perhaps someone else, in another organisation, has already solved the problem.


6. Test the solution

Sometimes you either won’t need or won’t have time to test the solution you have come up with, but most of the time you will want to do so, if only to have a degree of confidence that you have actually cracked the problem.

  • You may want to use a risk assessment approach. If the impact of the solution failing would be high, then you will want to carry out further, and more exhaustive, tests to ensure that the probability of the solution failing is lower.
  • We need to test the immediate effectiveness of the solution, but we also need to test the longer-term, downstream impact of the solution. What effect might this solution have on other things that we do or on other people who are connected? Cause-and-effect analysis may help here.


7. Biases that mislead us

Your brain evolved to solve problems and make decisions in ‘real time’. To achieve this it takes shortcuts, but these can mislead us. Effective problem solvers are aware of these biases and factor them into their problem-solving processes.

  • In risk-averse environments, it is always tempting to be lazy and go with what you know and to just do the same thing you have done previously, possibly a bit harder or bigger, rather than stopping and trying to come up with a new solution.
  • It may be better in the long term, for you and for the company, to find or create the solution yourself, rather than going to a supposed expert.
  • You need to be wary of accepting givens and assumptions.
  • You need to allow problems to be aired, rather than assuming they will solve themselves.


8. Move on

The final stage is moving on – problem solved. But even though you have solved the problem, tested the solution and put it into practice, it is still wise to move on with a degree of careful thought and follow a process to ensure that the solution works well and everyone is happy.

  • You may need to take action to ensure the problem doesn’t reoccur.
  • Formalise any necessary changes to procedures and systems.
  • Give people credit for solving the problem.
  • Publicise your success.
  • Monitor the solution and check whether it is still effective if and when the environment changes.