The Process of Problem Solving

Nearly every person is expected to solve problems (within appropriate boundaries) as part of his or her job. Some people solve problems many times during a day, while others do so less frequently. But everyone needs to have effective problem-solving skills to be effective in their work.

Many people employ an intuitive approach to problem solving. Simply put, when they recognize a problem they quickly decide how to respond and take action to deal with it. However, in a surprising number of instances this approach does not actually solve the problem because only the symptoms or surface issues are addressed. In such cases, the problem recurs and must be dealt with again. Such “déjà vu” problems are all too common. Intuitive problem solving may not work often or consistently enough.

An effective problem-solving approach has five steps:

  1. Define the real or underlying problem
  2. Generate potential solutions
  3. Select the best or optimum solution
  4. Implement the solution
  5. Evaluate the results.

Far too often, problem solvers skip steps or take short cuts thinking they will save time. But when problems recur, no time has been saved.

Two types of thinking are necessary for effective problem solving. Divergent (broadening) thinking is invaluable in defining problems and generating creative solutions. Convergent (narrowing) thinking is used to select and implement solutions. The most effective problem solvers utilize both types of thinking at appropriate steps in the process.

Define the problem – Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Often a problem statement is too broad, too general, and too vague. Careful analysis and investigation helps identify underlying root causes of problems. It is at this level that successful problem solving happens.

Generate potential solutions – There is a tendency on the part of many problem solvers to stop too soon when considering solutions to problems. Creative thinking frequently can lead to better and more effective solutions. “Out of the box” possibilities may be called for to prevent problems recurring.

Select the best or optimal solution – Many problems have multiple potential solutions. Selecting the optimal solution means choosing one that works best not only for you, but also works for others who are impacted. Establishing decision criteria and looking at solutions from multiple perspectives increase the likelihood of a good solution.

Implement the solution – Rarely can a solution simply be announced. Solving a problem frequently means introducing change … and dealing with resistance to change. This “change management” aspect of problem solving requires a solid plan to communicate reasons for change, anticipate and deal with resistance, and work through unanticipated consequences. There is a rational component of change as well as a reactional element. Neither can be ignored in implementing solutions to problems

Evaluate the solution – Determining how well a problem has been solved requires measuring the results over time. Evaluating the impact shows the degree to which the hoped-for outcomes have been achieved and sustained. In addition, knowing what worked and what could be improved help with future problem-solving efforts.

These five problem solving steps incorporate a number of tools which, skillfully employed, lead to more efficient and effective solutions. A few examples include fishbone diagrams, brainstorming, affinity diagrams, and force field analysis (there are many more). Some of these tools are familiar, while others may be less familiar. The skillful use of such tools, combined with convergent and divergent thinking styles at appropriate steps in a well-defined problem-solving process lead to sustainable success.

Remember, an intuitive approach to solving problems that skips steps or takes ill-advised shortcuts will not give the same results over time as a disciplined, rigorous approach. If you think you don’t have time to solve problems this way, you will find that it takes even more time to resolve recurring “déjà vu” problems!

Dee Oviatt is Senior Facilitator at ATW Training Solutions.  He can be reached at dee@atwtraining.com.


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