Problem-solving is a crucial skill to have for success in business. It makes you more effective, helps when making a decision, and to execute ideas. No matter how big and complicated your problem is, breaking it down into steps will help you feel more in control. You won’t wander in a fog, full of self-doubt, wasting energy on what you can’t change.
This six-step problem-solving method provides focused instructions to get the solutions you need.
- Define the problem
- Determine the root cause(s) of the problem
- Develop potential solutions
- Select a solution
- Implement the solution
- Evaluate the outcome
Each step should be completed before moving on to the next one. However, steps can be repeated. For example, if you’re on the third step, you can still return to the previous step, and redefine the problem.
#1 Define the problem
In the first step, you recognize what the problem is. Ask yourself: What am I trying to solve? You need to make sure you have a good view of the problem because you don’t want to be fixing something that is already working. Understanding this might be hard, especially if it involves a group of people, but it’s crucial for future success.
In addition to recognizing the problem, you should also establish a goal for what you want to achieve. The flow here should be very clear:
* Something is wrong or something could be improved.
* A clear goal for fixing it.
Recognizing a problem and setting up a clear goal for fixing it saves you from complaining or stressing about it. You don’t want to be stuck because of these negative emotions. Having a clear explanation of what you want to change means you’re on the right path.
#2 Determine the root cause(s) of the problem
Skipping to the solution of the problem without recognizing its symptoms usually means the problem will come back in the future. Like in medicine, we need to understand the difference between treating the symptoms and curing the condition. Treating symptoms helps you in the short run, but it doesn't eliminate the real reason for the problem. Recognizing the deeper issue helps to adjust the treatment and eliminate the root of the problem. Root cause analysis (RCA) distinguishes three basic types of causes:
1. Physical causes - These are tangible, material items that failed (broken laptop, broken camera, a printer that stopped working).
2. Human causes - It means that people did something wrong or didn’t do something that created a physical cause (didn’t protect a laptop which fell down on the floor or didn’t refill the printer cartridge).
3. Organizational causes - It might be a process or policy in a company that is faulty (a customer didn’t get a refund because there was nobody assigned to that task).
Finding vulnerabilities in the system, like a policy that is wrong, is a good thing because you can quickly work on improving it. Discovering issues caused by people helps you find out that maybe employees have too much on their hands and that’s why they omitted something. Physical causes can lead to the conclusion that you should invest in office equipment because two days without a working computer costs your company more than just buying a new computer itself.
#3 Develop possible solutions
It’s time to get creative and come up with as many possible solutions as you can. This is a brainstorming session, so don’t rule out some ideas because they don't seem perfect. There’s an issue with a client and the only solution you can think of is flying out to space? That’s fine. Keep an open mind, and write down everything that comes to your mind. You’ll evaluate it later.
Writing down your ideas is an important step, especially if you’re dealing with a complicated issue. It allows you to see everything better and makes it easier to choose the right solution and take action.
#4 Select a solution
Now it’s time to go back to earth. Your job is to evaluate your list of ideas. Start by excluding those that are unrealistic to do or not helpful in any way. I guess flying to space can wait for now, but reaching out to a customer and asking them the right questions should definitely stay on the list. Which solution seems the most feasible? Think about the consequences for each of them. If you’re solving a problem for your team, think about it from their perspective. Which solution would be the best for those who will be implementing it? Here are some questions that will help you choose the right solution:
- Can this solution be implemented in the timeframe you need?
- Is it practical, helpful, and cost-effective?
- Can it adapt to conditions that evolve and change?
- Is it risky?
- Is it beneficial to you, the team, or the company?
In short, you judge the feasibility and select the best fit.
#5 Implement the solution
It’s time to put everything from the paper into action. However, keep in mind that execution follows only after planning. If a problem applies to other people as well, establish these key things:
- Who is responsible for implementation?
- Who else is involved in the process?
- What is the time frame for implementation?
- What are the objectives?
- What exact actions need to be taken before and during implementation?
While implementing the solution, it’s best to act in short iterations with testing the outcome and getting feedback from others. Keep in mind that there’s no need for it to be perfect the first time. That’s also the reason you shouldn’t get attached to only one solution. If you see that the solution you chose is failing to give you the outcome you desire, try using some of the different solutions you established before.
#6 Evaluate the outcome
Devote some time to review the results. What happened after you implemented the changes? What worked, what didn’t, and what did your solution improve? Analyze if your actions made the required impact and if you addressed the root causes of the issue. It’s also time to look for improvements in the solution and to plan ongoing monitoring. You can also analyze what you’ve learned and what still needs to be learned when it comes to problem-solving processes and skills.
Problem-solving skills you need
Remember that problem-solving is a process of constant improvement and that you’ll be repeating it. Don’t expect the perfect solution from the start or that the problem won’t appear in the future. In fact, don’t try to avoid problems at all because they’re part of your learning process.
If you adopt an attitude in which you focus on finding solutions every time new challenges emerge, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress.
Good luck with problem-solving! If you have some questions or you want to exchange ideas on how to best solve problems, reach out to me on @Twitter!