|It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Albert Einstein|
No matter what your industry or your role, problem-solving is part of your job. Whether the problems you encounter are big or small, you solve problems every day. Learning how to apply problem-solving skills helps not only to enhance productivity, but also helps to cultivate relationships by focusing on shared goals and solutions.
You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what it is! The first step in solving any problem should be to define the problem itself. Oftentimes what we think is a problem is only a symptom of a larger issue. Take time to define the problem clearly, whether it’s an interpersonal conflict or a hitch in a supply line. Figuring out what the problem is exactly and clearly defining it means you can move forward with solutions that will actually solve it, rather than just resolve the symptoms or temporarily stop the chaos. Taking time to define the problem is especially important if emotions are running high or interactions are getting heated – it puts the focus back on shared goals and allows for everyone to be heard.
Once you’ve defined a problem, you can move on to solutions. It is important not to just choose the first solution that presents itself. Nor should you push your own preferred solution the exclusion of others. Instead, take the time to generate alternative solutions. Ask the others involved what ideas they have for solving the problem. Discuss the ways in which the alternative solutions might play out, problems they might encounter, and how any obstacles can be overcome. Apply active listening and clear communication throughout. When the group has generated many solutions, discuss which one(s) you would all like to move forward with.
With your list of alternative solutions generated, it is time to make plans and evaluate them. Give all alternative solutions equally fair treatment. Ask the group to brainstorm potential benefits to each alternative solution or plan. Then work with the group to anticipate potential obstacles or problems with each plan. Based on these discussions, evaluate which plan or plans seem to offer the greatest benefit with the fewest drawbacks. Also consider whether the necessary resources – people, time, materials, funding – are available for each proposed plan. As the plans are evaluated, it will quickly become clear which are entirely unworkable. Narrow the list until the most workable plans are found.
Once the most workable plan has been chosen, it’s time to implement it. It is important to communicate clearly about how the plan will be implemented, what each person’s role will be, and what the goals and expected outcomes are. The other soft skills you are developing – communication and teamwork – are vital here. People must feel as though they are part of the solution if you want them to buy in to it. Also provide a timeline for the plan, including the point at which the plan will be re-evaluated.
Re-evaluation of the plan is a step that often gets missed. Sometimes what appears to be the most workable plan on paper does not play out when put into action. It is important to take the time to re-evaluate the plan once it has been implemented so you can gauge how well it’s working. Depending on the results, you may need to make some changes to the plan, or implement a new plan altogether. Re-evaluation helps to determine whether the original problem has, in fact, been 0solved!
Enrique liked to be known as the fix-it guy. He prided himself on the ability to swoop in and resolve a crisis, and his coworkers appreciated his ability to quickly put an end to chaos or stop a situation from escalating. But he noticed that he seemed to put the same fires out over and over. He could help solve a problem in the short-term, but ultimately the same things kept coming up. His colleague in another department, Helen, asked Enrique what his process for solving problems was. Enrique couldn’t really tell him – he said he just looked for the most pressing need and took care of it. Helen suggested that he get his team together and brainstorm a list of their most common problems. They could then identify the underlying issues, and create plans to solve them permanently rather than just managing crises as they came up. Enrique thought this sounded like a good idea. When we got his team together, Enrique realized that many of the crises in the team were caused by a lack of communication and a lack of clear goals. He and his team brainstormed ways to create clearer, more open communication and expectations around goals and roles in their work. Within a few weeks, Enrique noticed that he did not have to manage nearly as many crises.
Module Five: Review Questions
1. Which should be your first step in problem solving?
a) Define the problem
b) Generate the solution
c) Place the blame
d) None of these
2. Which of the following is true of defining the problem?
a) It makes it easier to place blame
b) It helps find the underlying issues rather than symptoms
c) It is unnecessary
d) None of these
3. What should you generate?
b) Alternative solutions
c) A single solution
4. Which is true of generating alternative solutions?
a) It helps to find the best solution
b) It makes all stakeholders feel included
c) It helps to generate back up plans if the first plan does not work
d) All of these
5. How often should be plans be re-evaluated?
c) Only when problems arise
6. What does evaluating plans do?
a) Helps spot those that are unworkable
b) Helps find the best solution
c) All of these
d) Helps spot potential problems
7. What should be considered when evaluating plans?
a) All of these
b) Resources needed
c) Potential problems
8. Why should plans be re-evaluated?
a) Sometimes the most workable plan on paper doesn’t solve the problem
b) Circumstances may change from when the plan was implemented
c) All of these
d) To gauge whether the problem has been solved
9. How did Enrique view himself?
b) A problem-solver
10. What did Enrique fail to do at first?
a) Consider others
b) Make a plan
c) Build relationships
d) Define the problem
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You may also be interested in our Problem Solving Online Course which goes deep into the topic.