This post was originally published on October 18, 2019, and updated most recently on May 20, 2021.
There are three common approaches to any problem. One: Panic. Two: Bury your head in the sand. And three: Tackle it. While we all succumb to option one or two from time to time, let’s focus on the problem-solving techniques that will get you to option three.
Learning to overcome problems effectively is one of the most valuable things you can learn for both your professional and personal life. If you hold a senior or managerial position, then you’ll not only need to know how to solve personal challenges but also to figure out how to make decisions on behalf of your team or organization. These larger problems often need to be turned into projects.
Whether your project is personal or organizational, big or small, using a methodical approach will help tackle it more effectively. First, let’s take a look at what problem-solving is.
What is problem-solving?
Solving a problem involves strategically working through every aspect of an issue to reach a solution.
First, you need to define the problem. Then, you need to evaluate potential fixes. After that comes implementation, and finally, confirmation that the problem has been resolved.
This process can be done individually or as a group. Collective problem solving is more common in business scenarios because workplace decisions usually affect more than one person.
How to solve any problem in 5 steps
These stages can help anyone start solving an issue. They also come in handy during times of stress because they give you a clear route to follow.
1. Define the problem
It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not always as clear-cut as you might think — especially when there are multiple stages of factors.
Say, for example, the issue is a missed deadline. It might not be as simple as turning to the person responsible for delivery. There may have been a chain of events that had just as valid of an impact. First, define the nature of the issue —what are the signs something’s wrong? Then work your way back through the potential causes.
You don’t have to be concrete here, simply keep your options open and evaluate everything. If you need to involve other people to find out what’s gone wrong, keep your tone non-accusatory. People can clam up and blame others when they feel under threat. To stop that happening, reiterate it’s not about blame; it’s about finding a solution.
There are diagrams you can use to help you out here. A fishbone diagram (aka a ‘cause and effect diagram,’ is one method that can help you locate the route cause.
The five whys approach
Another option is an exercise called ‘five whys,’ which involves asking employees to methodically dig deeper into the problem than they might otherwise.
Simply start with the question ‘why did x happen,’ and then ask ‘why is that?’ five or more times to unearth more details. Obviously, asking this in person makes you sound a little interrogatory, so you might consider creating a form for the exercise. If you really prefer in-person interaction, let people know what you’re doing ahead of time. Mix up your ‘why is that’ with similar variations. And remember to smile and keep the tone light. This is about reaching a solution together, not blame.
2. Find a solution
This could be something you work through on your own. But, if you’re operating within an organization, it may be better to solve the issue as a small group.
Your solution really depends on the problem you have. But for the best chance of success, come up with as many options as possible, then narrow your selection down to three or so. We’ll go into more detail about how to come up with solutions a little later on in the article.
3. Evaluate your options
Once you’ve chosen your favorite solutions, evaluate each one and decide on the best route (that includes a primary solution and a contingency plan). You may want to involve relevant colleagues to help you reach a decision — especially if your choice will impact different departments.
4. Implement your plan
Once you’ve set the wheels in motion, you need to keep a close eye on how your chosen solution is performing. Does it fix the issue, or do you need to implement your contingency plan?
If you’re managing a team, then helping everyone feel organized is crucial if you want to keep stress to a minimum. Project management software is a good option here because it means you and your team can track progress in real-time, share updates, and collaborate more freely, ironing out barriers that could lead to confusion.
5. Assess the project’s success
As an optional fifth and final stage, you can evaluate your chosen route to see whether it was effective, either as a post-mortem meeting or a via some number crunching — whatever works for you.
Evaluating everything post-event gives you a better understanding of what went wrong and how well you managed it — which can help you if something similar happens again.
Two problem-solving techniques you need to know
Now you know the steps involved in problem-solving, here are some of the problem-solving techniques you can use to help you define your solution.
1. Creative Problem Solving (CPS)
CPS isn’t just about coming up with ad-hoc ideas. It’s a legitimate process formulated by Alex Faickney Osborn — the father of traditional brainstorming — and academic Sid Parnes, designed to help teams think more creatively.
3 key phases make up the CPS method.
- Brainstorm as many ideas as you can. Don’t evaluate, critique, or prioritize them — just write them all down. The idea is to keep moving. The faster you go, the more you’ll get into your creative flow. If you’re not into brainstorming, a group mind map works just as well.
- Turn all your problems into questions. This encourages the group (or you) to address the situation more creatively and helps remove the burden of blame.
- Keep your language positive and affirmative. Avoid words like ‘no’ and ‘no but’ like the plague. Instead, ask ‘yes and’ to keep the conversation flowing and expand ideas.
2. Process-oriented problem solving
This is a formally defined approach that can be scaled to fit the task. The good thing about this method is that the journey to fixing the problem is already defined, which makes that initial jumping-off point a little less intimidating. There are several routes you can take, but we’ll focus on the three most popular options.
- Hurson’s Productive Thinking Model: In his 2007 book Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking, Tim Hurson defines six steps intended to give structure to solution planning while maintaining creativity.
It involves working together to answer the following questions: 1) What’s going on? 2) What is success? 3) What is the question? 4) Generate answers 5) Create the solution 6) Align resources.
- Means-End Analysis (MEA): This approach is designed to reduce the difference between the problem and the goal. To narrow this gap, teams collect all the information they believe has led them to the problem, then systematically try to eliminate the issues one by one, starting with the biggest.
- Plan Do Check Act (PDCA): A favorite of developers, this iterative technique focuses on continually improving the process, one step at a time. Teams begin by setting out objectives, then implement the plan, compare it against previous results, then define the solution based on the knowledge gained. And then they repeat.
Common barriers to problem-solving
Ever heard of reproductive thinking? No, it’s nothing to do with the birds and the bees. It’s a term coined by psychologists to describe how people reproduce past experiences to help them deal with current problems.
Problems arise when the mind becomes so focused on one particular solution that it can’t comprehend any other route — something that’s known as mental entrenchment. This usually happens when you’re drawing too heavily from past experience: You want to do something you know worked previously, even if it has little relation to your current issue.
Keep your mind open and pay attention to any biases you may have developed. The best way to do this is to get a second opinion and listen to what others think. Their fresh perspective may help illuminate routes you hadn’t previously considered.
Other barriers include:
- Confirmation bias: This is when you search for or interpret information that confirms your existing belief while disregarding data that doesn’t support it.
- Unnecessary constraints: This happens when people get overwhelmed with the drama of a problem and make the situation more confusing than it needs to be. The best way to avoid this is to have a plan in place and a clear schedule to help people work toward a solution.
- Fixedness: This is when people are inflexible and can’t accept different perspectives.
- Groupthink: This happens when people start agreeing with each other because it’s easier than risking the challenge of conflict.
- Rigidity: People naturally want to resist change. It’s important to have self-awareness, so you can spot when you (or your team) are avoiding learning or implementing something new just because it’s never been done before. One way to change perspective is through something called constructive controversy. Split people into two teams and ask one group to play devil’s advocate to refute a solution, while the other defends it. Forcing people to discuss the pros and cons objectively brings any unconscious bias to the surface and helps people think more flexibly.
Problems are an inherent part of working life, and when things go wrong, it’s natural to feel stressed and confused. The secret to keeping a calm head is having pre-defined steps in place before things go belly up — so that when they do, you don’t need to panic and scramble around for a solution. If you approach each task with an open mind, the right project management tools, and a methodical plan, you’ll soon learn to take issues big and small in your stride.