In this guide we show you how to solve problems. We introduce a simple 5-step approach to problem solving that will help solve complicated business problems. It is a proven and practical approach to problem solving that works equally well for large or small problems and simple or complex situations.
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Table of Contents
Guide to Problem Solving
Problem solving―finding solutions―is a creative process that usually starts with a perceived need or operational problem.
Whether we are faced with a problem in our area of responsibility or we are asked to solve a problem for someone else we must adopt a systematic and logical approach. Moreover, we must recognise that most business problems are open-ended. That is, they will undoubtedly have more than one correct solution. Therefore be creative and start generating ideas!
Ideation noun The process of forming ideas or images.
Thus, the problem solver is responsible for presenting the customer with multiple solutions before fixing on the preferred option. What follows is my take on problem solving. I use a basic 5-step process.
- DESCRIBE – Define the problem
- DISCOVER – Collect pertinent information
- DESIGN – Generate alternative solutions
- DECIDE – Choose the best solution
- DELIVER – Test and implement the solution
Define the Problem
Successful problem solving starts with a clear unambiguous definition of the problem. This is not always straightforward. It may take time to develop a complete understanding of the problem because a natural tendency (in business) is for people to articulate their need as a solution. For instance, senior managers may say “We need a new IT system” or “Let’s restructure” or “You need to go on a team building exercise.” Defining the problem is not the same as recognising a need. So start by separating the problem from the solution.
Defining the problem is not the same as recognising a need.
Why? Well first and foremost, the most obvious problem may not be the right one to solve!
For example, a project team may experience more than its fair share of interpersonal conflict. Deadlines are missed and blame is rife. Senior management notice the constant bickering and finger pointing. Their solution is to arrange a team building exercise. However, this fails to change behaviour.
In the illustration, the problem wasn’t a lack of buy-in or skill. Rather, it was the absence of a proper processes and well defined roles that gave rise to a dysfunctional team. Focusing on a solution concealed the real need.
Therefore it is important to spend time identifying the true needs of the business and preparing a solution-neutral problem statement. This is a beneficial exercise that takes into account the different ideas and opinions of stakeholders. Moreover, the problem statement can later be used to evaluate design choices and prepare test cases.
Collect Pertinent Information
The next step in this guide to problem solving is about collecting relevant information. This is an important step and often overlooked. Concentrate on collecting all the information that relates to the problem. Engage your stakeholders and ask clarifying questions.
If you don’t understand the problem neither will the people you’re working with.
The type of question depends largely on the type of problem: introducing a new service, cost reduction, making things easier, developing or changing a procedure and so on. Nonetheless, your questions may include
- Is the problem statement accurate?
- What problem is the business experiencing with their product?
- What problems are their customers or users experiencing with the product?
- Is there really a need for a new solution?
- Are there existing solutions to the problem?
- How much does the business want to invest for a solution?
- Are there any guiding principles or strategies that should be applied to the solution?
- What other factors are important? For instance, legislation, environmental issues and so on.
If you don’t understand the problem neither will the people you work with. Questioning helps identify what is not fully understood and allows you to acknowledge and resolve those gaps. Problem solving is largely about communication and dealing with subject matter experts.
Generate Alternative Solutions
Problem noun A thing difficult to achieve or accomplish.
This step in the problem solving process is about generating ideas: alternative solutions to the design problem. Most business problems are open-ended. That is, there is usually more than one possible solution. Therefore start by generating many new ideas.
It is important to create the widest possible range of solutions as this will significantly increase the likelihood of finding the best possible solution. And remember, the key is flexibility; it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes during this step.
Creating ideas is not a systematic process. Intuition, inventiveness, and insight are crucial. Therefore take advantage of team synergy to produce better overall results. And involve people with different views. Use ideas produced by one person to trigger new ideas and suggestions in others. What’s more, create a relaxed environment and use (reverse) brainstorming; avoid criticism and never reject an idea until it is fully explored.
Choose the Best Solution
Intuition, inventiveness and insight are crucial.
So you’ve got lots of ideas and options. The next to the last step to problem solving is to test the options and decide which solution is best. But what makes a good solution?
Before eliminating potential solutions it is necessary to agree which characteristics define a good practical solution. Therefore analysis needs to consider many attributes including the following
Use decision-making techniques to evaluate each solution. One of my favourite approaches is paired comparison analysis. An alternative is the decision matrix. These help you to specify and justify the best solution by deciding the relative importance of different options.
Test and Implement the Solution
The last step of the problem solving process is to refine and develop the best solution. This includes prototyping and feasibility studies, documenting the design, and testing and verification.
The problem solver may need to prove the design. A feasibility study is often beneficial and looks at the viability of the solution and aims to find potential problems. It answers the question: will the design work as expected?
Next, the design is documented. This important step is not simply about documenting your work. It is about communication. The solution to a design problem must be communicated through language that is understood by those benefiting from and those delivering the solution.
Finally, remember problem solving is not complete until the solution is implemented and tested. Verification is necessary throughout implementation to make sure the solution is not flawed. Without adequate testing you will find that mistakes prove much more costly later.
He who insists on seeing with perfect clearness before he decides never decides. – Henri Frederic Amiel
Problem solving involves a number of disciplined steps. From the identification of the problem, gathering information, looking for possible solutions using creative techniques, deciding on the best solution, and finally testing the approach.
At the heart of problem solving is creativity, good communication and decision-making.
Creative Commons image courtesy Kaptain Kobold.