Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

Identifying the desired outcome

We are too busy mopping the floor to think to turn off the tap.


Motivation and outcomes

What will solving this problem actually do for me/my organisation? There are four basic drivers that motivate people and therefore organisations, and they will dictate the nature of the desired outcome:

  • 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.

For example, a salesperson might be assigned a new territory that has proved difficult to sell to in the past. Why are they taking on this challenge? For the sales commission, certainly, but the salesperson may also be motivated to meet a difficult challenge. If they have already done this type of thing before, they may see this as an opportunity to either defend or build on their reputation as a trouble-shooter.

The sales person may also see this as an opportunity to create new relationships and to spread their network of contacts. Finally, they could see tackling the problem territory as a way of learning and developing their skills.

Why is it important to make these distinctions? Because the underlying aims and motivations will affect the way that the purpose is translated into an outcome. This becomes obvious if you compare a football team that is playing defensively as opposed to one that is attacking. In each case, their game plan and their way of organising things will be quite different. It will be different again if the game is part of a teambuilding exercise, to improve, say, a management team’s relationships or develop leadership skills

So, the question becomes, ‘in this context, what do I want to acquire, defend, relate to or learn?’ It may not just be for you, of course. It may include, or be on behalf of, other people, such as family or work colleagues.

Useful models

Once we have defined the problem, we are ready to identify the desired outcome. We should aim to make our desired outcome SMART. By using a SMART objective here, in conjunction with the problem definition grid we created earlier in the process, we will nail down precisely what we are and are not trying to achieve.


This may seem like a lot of work before we actually get on with solving the problem but if we consider the example of lost luggage we will see that some problem-solving exercises can end up as pretty large projects with very substantial results...

In 2008, British Airways carried 35.7 million passengers. Some 23 passengers in every thousand suffer lost luggage, so BA loses around 821,100 pieces of luggage each year. Most of that has to be found, stored securely and then transported to its owner.

In the event that we end by turning our problem-solving exercise into a major project, we can prevent scope creep by identifying the scale of the project from the outset, thereby avoiding false starts.