Considering that we all spend most of our days solving problems, it is both surprising and disappointing that problem solving isn’t a central part of any educational system. Instead, we are left to learn about it by ourself. I have been interested in problem solving for the past fifteen years; here are a few things that I have learned.
Problem solving is about bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be. In that sense, it integrates decision making, which is just one step in that process (identifying how to close that gap). There are many ways to cut the problem solving process into pieces. Here is one, divided in four steps:
- Define the problem
- Diagnose the problem
- Look for solutions
- Execute (convince & implement)
There are really only two types of problems you should consider: answering “why” questions and answering “how” questions. In a complete problem-solving process, you need to answer both types as you follow the four steps above. Let me explain:
First, define the problem: that is, make sure that you are focusing on the unique real problem. Not one of its symptoms or a real problem but a less-critical or urgent one. Think of it this way: in any problem-solving endeavor, you set yourself to answer only one key question. Your first job is to make sure that you identify that key question without any doubt. Easy enough? Maybe, but watch out: I have coached hundreds of professionals to solve business and organizational problems. We all start the effort knowing that we know what the real problem is. But it usually only takes a short discussion with a couple of trained outsiders to realize that we were wrong. So make sure that you absolutely know what you are focusing yourself on. A good way to help you identify your problem is to summarize it in a problem identification card: there you’ll capture both the introductory flow (more on that below) and the context of the problem, including the major stakeholders and decision makers as well as the out-of-scope elements.
Second, understand the root causes of your problem: that is, ask “why”. In some cases, the answer to a “why” question is obvious-as in, “why do you want to get rid of your cancer?”-but these cases are surprisingly rare. Just as with the problem identification step, most of the time we’re pretty sure that we know why we are facing a problem but probing further into it usually is eye opening.
If you jump straight into looking for solutions-that is, answering a “how” question-without first knowing the “why”, you might spend valuable efforts in identifying solutions that aren’t really relevant to what you are setting yourself to do. So make sure you ask how only if you know why. A good tool to organize your root cause analysis is an issue tree: a close relative of the better-known decision tree.
One of the ideas central to building issue trees and decision trees-and effective problem in general-is to make your thinking mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, or MECE. Essentially, thinking MECE means that you consider all parts of your problem exactly once: you don’t forget any part and you don’t consider any more than once.
Third, actively look for solutions: this is what we commonly think about as actual problem solving. Here again issue trees are instrumental in supporting your effort, both for identifying alternative ways to solve your problem and for organizing them in a MECE manner. Once you have identified potential solutions, you’ll have to decide which one(s) you want to implement. It can be a good idea to use a decision matrix to help you do so.
Finally, execute your solution: which can be as “simple” as convincing your stakeholders that you recommendation is the right way to proceed or as complex as doing the convincing and the implementation. This step requires you to communicate and persuade effectively, show effective leadership, -and use exemplary project management skills.