A thorough process guides you through each stage of the problem solving journey, from identifying the problem to implementing a working solution. This helps to ensure that your solutions are creative, robust and well considered.
An industrial strength project management process
The ten problem solving stages that we will work through in a project, are as follows:
- Step 1: Identify the Problem : Understanding the type of problem, and if the situation is even causing a problem, is the first step.
- Step 2: Define the Problem: When the problem seems obvious, it is easy to skip this most important step. The more carefully you define the problem, the more effective your efforts will be in finding the best solution.
- Step 3: Deciding If And When To Act: Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to decide that it is not actually a problem! Hence the great quote: “According to my calculations, you do not have a problem…” Whilst this approach is not always valid, in Step 3, you will learn in which circumstances it can be legitimately applied.
- Step 4: Understand Everyone’s Interests: An organisational problem will typically impact on many people, including investors, managers, staff, shareholders, customers and suppliers. By understanding the interests and needs of these different groups, you will have more support for your efforts and your solution will be more readily accepted.
- Step 5: Develop Alternatives: Often, defining a problem points directly to its solution, however it is important to resist grasping at the first or most obvious solution, particularly if the problem has been unsuccessfully tackled before.
- Step 6: Analyse the Risks: Any solution carries both expected benefits and risks, because implementing a solution requires change. By understanding the risks involved, you can make an informed decision about how to move forwards.
- Step 7: Analyse the Alternatives : Having developed possible solutions and assessed their relative risks, you can now select your preferred solution.
- Step 8: Sell the Solution: Solutions to complex problems often involve compromise, which means that not everyone involved will agree with your choice of ‘best’ solution. In order to gain support, you may have to sell your solution to the people or groups involved.
- Step 9: Implement the Solution: Implementing the solution requires focus, dedication, care and tact. This stage may require testing the solution on prototypes and models prior to a full scale implementation; all part of managing the risk of the solution.
- Step 10: Evaluation: In any complex system, changing one part affects the entire system in ways that may not be predictable. Careful monitoring, evaluation and adjustment are required to ensure that the solution is effective and long lasting.
Problem solving is a cyclical process
Problem solving is not always a linear process, because you may need to revisit certain steps in order to move towards a successful solution.
This is especially true of more complex problems, where investigation can throw up more issues or options, and the needs of the business can evolve during the problem solving process.
Rather than seeing problem solving as a linear, sequential process, I have represented it here as an overall cycle comprised of 2 mini-cycles.
Steps 2, 3 and 4 are connected, because the problem is largely defined by the people who are affected by it, therefore their interests are often inseparable from the fact finding process.
Looping through steps 5, 6, 7 and 8 may be necessary if your chosen solution is not accepted by stakeholders or decision makers, and you need to revise your approach. This may also be necessary when the business environment or stakeholder needs change while you are still formulating your solution.
Steps 9 and 10 are important in an ongoing implementation, because the more complex the problem, the more unpredictable the implementation can be, regardless of the care you take in building prototypes and performing small scale tests.
I’ve found it useful to bear three points in mind when thinking about your overall approach to the problem solving process:
- If you find that you’re not making progress at a particular stage of the cycle, that’s a good indication that you need to go back a stage. It could be that the problem definition isn’t quite right, or it could be that you don’t have the right stakeholders on board. Taking a step back, both literally and metaphorically, will help you to move forwards.
- Start with a positive outlook. The first thing you should do when faced with a difficult problem is to start with a positive outlook. Sometimes our first reaction is to fear the unknown, which is entirely natural. However, I’ve realised over the years that it is the unknown that has given us, as individuals and as the human race, the curiosity to try new things and aim for the stars. Don’t fear the problem itself. Look at it as an opportunity.
- Approach the problem with an open mind. An old saying goes, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail”. The way you have done things in the past may not always work for all situations and there are often many solutions to a given problem. When faced with a difficult problem, do not assume you know the answer at the start. Stop and take the time to understand what the problem is before applying a solution. Be open to all possibilities and do not presume that every problem is a nail.