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4 Problem Solving Techniques: How to Solve Problems at Work

problems solving techniques

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Problems are nothing but wake-up calls for creativity. —Gerhard Gschwandtner
All life is problem solving. —Karl Popper

W hen you think about it, most jobs are all about problem solving.

Customers or clients have a problem, and it’s up to the business and employees to solve it.

These problems can be relatively simple (“I am hungry and need something good to eat”) or very complicated (“ I don’t know what to do with my life , and I need someone to teach me”). 

No matter where you end up working in the future, knowing how to tackle and solve problems will serve you well. 

In fact, problem solving is one of the most important soft skills for a lot of employers—which means that if you hone your ability to solve complex problems efficiently and intelligently, it will be much easier to get ahead in your career. 

And if you ever plan to start your own business , you better believe your problem solving skills will come in handy.  

Here’s the catch: There is no single problem solving method that can be applied to every issue you’ll encounter at work. Different issues require different solutions. 

In this article, I’m going to show you some of the most common problem solving techniques and how you can start applying them to your work (or day-to-day life) right away.

1. Rubber duck problem solving

rubber ducks

In software engineering, rubber duck debugging or rubber ducking is a method of debugging code.

The name references to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer, where a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.

Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects. Still, the point is the same: Taking the time to explain your problem out loud—to a rubber duck, your dog, or just yourself—is a good way to see the problem from a new angle and eventually solve it. If talking out loud to yourself doesn’t work for you, you can also try writing out the problem in detail. 

The key is to slow down and think your way through the problem before you run to someone else for a solution. 

Your future bosses will love you for this. When you encounter a problem at your job, if you work through it and think of solutions before bringing it up to your boss, you’ll be practicing the fine art of managing up . (Another great way to advance your career.) 

The critical part of rubber duck problem solving is to commit to asking thorough, detailed questions of an imaginary person or inanimate object .

Try this process: 

1. Describe the problem in detail. Imagine how you’d explain the issue to a friend or colleague. Don’t think about solutions yet—just get the issue all laid out.

2. Explain what you’ve already discovered. Assuming you’ve already researched the issue, explain everything you already know that will factor into a solution.

3. List out the questions you still have. Now explain to the inanimate object where there’s missing information—what don’t you know or understand that prevents  you from getting to the root of the problem?

4. Explain why some solutions won’t work. What solutions to your problem can be ruled out because they won’t work? What have you tried already, and why didn’t it work out? 

Now take a break, and come back to read over your notes. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably be struck by a few ideas (and maybe even full solutions) that you didn’t think of previously. 

2. Lateral thinking

Traditional Logic v. Lateral Thinking

Here’s a common brainteaser, originated in Shane Snow’s book Smartcuts : 

“Pretend you are driving a car in the middle of a thunderstorm, and you happen upon three people on the side of the road.

One of them is a frail old woman who looks on the verge of collapse. Another is a friend who once saved your life. The other is the romantic interest of your dreams, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet them.

You have only one other seat in the car.

Who do you pick up?

There’s a good reason to choose any of the three.

The old woman needs help.

The friend deserves your payback.

And clearly, a happy future with the person of your dreams will have an enormous long-term impact on your life.

So, who should you pick?

[Dramatic pause]

The old woman, of course. Then, give the car keys to your friend, and stay behind with the romantic interest to wait for the bus! ”

This puzzle is one of the greatest examples of the problem solving method known as lateral thinking. That’s a fancy term for using creative, unexpected solutions to solve a problem, rather than more traditional and pragmatic methods. 

Lateral thinking can be tricky because it requires you to cast aside assumptions (and it’s not always easy to know when you have made an assumption). 

But if you’re able to do that, then new solutions to the problem you’re facing will emerge. In the example above, you may have assumed that you can only put one person in your car or that only you can drive your car. Remove these assumptions, and suddenly the problem is much easier to see. 

So how do you put this into practice? Let’s use a work-related example. 

Imagine your boss has put you in charge of a project that requires you to coordinate meetings between the marketing team and the tech support team.

But there’s a problem: The marketing team is in Dubai, and the tech support team is in Dallas. There are over 100 people on those two teams, and there’s no easy way to get them in the same room, let alone the same time zone. 

That problem might seem impossible until you pause and consider some of the assumptions already being made: 

Assumption 1: The meetings have to be held in person.

Assumption 2: The meetings have to happen live.

Assumption 3: All team members have to be present for all meetings. 

Assumption 4: These meetings are necessary to complete the project. 

Now, take each of these assumptions, and see what happens when you take them out of the equation. 

What would happen if the meetings were held virtually? Or using collaboration software? 

Could you pre-record some of the sessions to cut down on meetings? 

What if your company flew a few representatives from each team to a central location rather than making everyone travel?  

What if you skipped these meetings altogether, and instead… 

You get the idea. The more assumptions you can find in the problem, as you’ve approached it, the more solutions you can come up with until you find the right one. 

3. Trial and error

problems solving techniques

So far, the tactics on this list have required you to be patient and thoughtful, but the problem solving method commonly known as trial and error is far more action-oriented (even if it is more tedious and time-consuming). 

When you take the trial and error approach, you commit to simply going ahead and trying different options to solve any given problem. When one fails, you stop and start over with another option. 

The trial and error method is incredibly common, and you may sometimes make use of it without realizing it. For example, let’s imagine you’re starting a new job, and you’re trying to find the most efficient way to get there on time. 

The first day you walk through the park…

The next day you take your bike…

Then you try the bus route… 

Eventually, you’ve tried every option (that’s the trial) and discovered which ones take too long (that’s the error). 

A word of warning: Stay away from this method if your situation has too many options because it won’t be feasible to test every single solution. Depending on the task, trial and error can either be the fastest way to do something or the slowest. So, think carefully before you decide this is how you want to solve a problem.  

While the trial and error approach affords you numerous chances to find a solution, it’s not meant to help you learn why something works a certain way. That being said, the underlying cause can often reveal itself once you hit on the right solution. 

So who uses this technique?

4. The 5 Whys

problems solving techniques

If you have little siblings or have spent time babysitting, then you’ll be familiar with how infuriating the question, “Why?” can be. 

But there’s a reason little kids are constantly asking why . They’re relatively new here on planet Earth, and there are A LOT of problems to understand and solve! 

Asking “why” is one of the most effective ways to solve a tricky problem, and it’s even been developed into an official problem solving technique known as “The 5 Whys.” 

The concept was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, for the Toyota Industries Corporation, according to a report from Asian Development Bank . 

Unlike the trial and error problem solving method, “The 5 Whys” is all about getting to the very root cause of any given issue, so you can solve it once and for all. 

The concept is pretty simple. You take any given problem, and you ask yourself, “Why is this problem happening?” 

From there, you ask, “Why is that problem happening?” 

As you follow this line of questioning, you’ll eventually come to a point where you can no longer ask “why” and still get a meaningful answer. When that happens, you know you’ve found the root cause of the issue—and discovering that is half the battle in finding a solution.

Face problems head-on

Look at your problems as fun puzzles that always have a solution, no matter how hard it may be to find it.

By not bugging your co-workers or boss and solving problems yourself, you’ll become the most loved problem solver in the office.

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Superb Creative Problem Solving Techniques

For so many years, instead of creative problem solving techniques, I relied solely on defined structures and set systems to come up with solutions. However as I got older, I realized the pure power that my right brain had to offer. While logical, systematic answers are great, our brains are capable of so much more. Our intuition is non-structured, non-judgmental and free-flowing and has apparently a multitude of the power of our logical thinking abilities.  

So, get creative and try out these Creative Problem Solving Techniques. 

Quote By Albert Einstein

Getting To Your Creative Side

In each of these creative problem solving techniques, you have to relax. This is to stop the left hand side of your brain from dominating "the conversation" and blocking the creative problem solving process. 

- getting a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. 

- ensuring there is no disturbance

- breathing deeply and listen to your breathing. 

- being aware of your body relaxing

- de-stressing. if you are very tense, tighten up the muscles and then relax them. 

- make sure your hands and your feet are open wide as if to catch energy, relaxed and warm. Turn your hands with the palms facing upwards. 

- it can help to have soothing music in the background

- make sure you are warm

- Noting that should you fall asleep, this is okay too. Try to remember your dreams as you wake up. 

Motivation to Listen To Dreams

Creative Problem Solving Technique 1

The cinema house.


Imagine yourself outside a house. This house has the answer to your problem. Stand looking and admiring that house. Take your time. Now, name that house. 

You can now enter that house. 

When you enter the house there are 3 doors, one left, one in the middle and one on the right. 

You go to enter the left room. Someone important comes with you. They know all about this problem. You are invited to sit down and watch a film on a huge screen in the room. 

A film starts. It is all about your problem in the past. Watch the film. 

Remember the key parts; remember as many details as you can; remember who is in the film; remember how it makes you feel. 

Now the film is over. You get to stand up and move to the room in the middle. 

Again, someone goes with you. 

In this middle room, there is another film playing. This film shows the situation right now. 

Watch the film. Be aware of how you feel. Be aware of who is with you, where it is, what is happening. And slowly, this film comes to an end. 

Again, you get to move to a different room. This is the room on the right and represents the future. Again, a film is shown. This film has all your dreams come true. The Solution. 

Allow yourself to dream that anything is possible - no limits, no barriers, no restraints. 

After 5 minutes, the film has ended. You can now leave the house and return to daytime.

You may not immediately understand what you have seen - as our intuition often speaks in symbolic terms. But note down or tell a trusted person what you experienced and you will be able to make sense of what your right brain has just told you. 

Creative Problem Solving Technique 2

You may wish to take the following text and record it on your smartphone or whatever. If you do, be sure to speak slowly and with many pauses to give your mind a chance to bring the creative ideas to the surface.

Identify the issue that is causing a problem. Be sure you have a really clear definition of the problem in your head. 

Get relaxed (- as described above. )

Once you are relaxed, you recall the issue to mind. Just be aware of the issue or question. And gently go through the following fantasy: 

Imagine now that you are the shore of a large body of water. (Pause). 

There is a small rowing boat bobbing gently nearby. 

Ger into the boat and settle down comfortably. Let it drift. Listen to the lapping water. Feel the gentle air all around you and the quiet movement as you drift slowly, peacefully along. (Pause) 

You notice a light dimming ans see that you have drifted into some kind of large underground passage. There is plenty of room for you and your boat. It gets darker as you go into the passage, but the movement of the water continues. You drift along - quiet and peaceful. (Pause)

There is a light in the distance. Your boat is carried gently towards it. It seems brighter and brighter as you get closer until you emerge in brilliant sunshine, on a gently moving stream in a beautiful, quiet meadow. After a while, the boat comes to a stop. Step out onto the grass. Look around. Allow yourself to be quiet and still. (Pause)

Someone or something will bring you a gift that has a meaning for you - perhaps a message or an object or an image...wait for it to come may or may not make sense. Don't worry about that. Trust that it will help. Take whatever time it needs for this gift to come to you. (Pause)

When you have received it, take your leave and get back into the boat. You notice it has a motor, so you can turn it on and travel quickly. (Pause)

Soon, you find yourself back out at the shore where you started. Step out of the boat, onto the dry land again, taking your gift with you. 

Bring your awareness back to reality. Stretch and move about and then, before you forget it, write down as vivid and complete a picture of the events in the meadow as you can. 

Over the next days the real meaning of what was given to you as a solution will become clear to you. 

Source: Vaughan, (1979, Awakening Intuition)

Creative Problem Solving Techniques No 3

Using metaphors to explore.

Try using this creative Problem Solving Technique. It is not a method you need to do relaxation for.

It is a method that, when practiced, can come to you as second nature and be used anywhere, anytime. For me personally, I can say that I have come to many a great solution simply by using this easy technique.

problems solving techniques

Consider the problem issue - and describe it to someone else using the best metaphor you can think of. 

- Is it a case of not seeing the wood for the trees? 

- Is it a case of the Trojan horse - a pretty parcel with danger lurking within?

For more metaphors and parables, check out our collection of parables, stories and metaphors. 

The best way I can describe this technique is using an example I once experienced. I was leading a team that just were very difficult. While talking to someone who knew this technique, I described the team (I was really angry, I have to admit) as being like a bunch of donkeys I had to drag forward. 

He then asked why was I dragging? I said because I couldn't push, I didn't have the strength. 

He asked me then why don't I lead them with a bunch of carrots. 

The team needed me to show them the way and motivate them. If they didn't like carrots I was to find some other way of motivating them. But I was to recognize my own shortcomings in the situation and recognize the point when I didn't have the strength to lead the team. 

A 30 second conversation using a metaphor lead to 3 great key points and an overview.

Creative Problem Solving Techniques No 4

Keeping a dream diary.

Your dreams are your right brain talking to you. They never talk in clear language but more in a symbolic nature. That is why you will see so many books written on the subject. 

The point I am trying to make here is that keeping note of what your right and more creative brain half is telling you is important. One way of doing this is to keep a diary of your dreams. Here are the steps how to keep that diary. 

1. Before you fall asleep, repeat the mantra "Tonight I will dream, when I wake up in the morning I will remember all my dreams"

2. When you awake in the morning, lie still, dont open your eyes and try to remain in the dream. Let the first thing come into your mind about your dreams and try to remember the details. With time and practice you will be able to remember more. Try not to allow the daily obligations come into your mind at these times. 

3. Keep a pen and paper or even notepad beside your bed so that the first thing you will do is to note down all that you dreamed of - especially how you were feeling in the different instances. Should you be woken at night by some vivid dream, you can use your smart phone to make a recording of you describing your dream. 

4. The important thing is to keep doing this every day. With practice you will get better and the collection will tell you more and more, at the very least you will become very advanced in interpreting your own dreams. 

Enjoy this insightful video on interpreting dreams

A 30 Minute Video with Greg White where he discusses the idea of dreams and their interpretations. Interesting use of metaphors too. A great back-up to our creative problem solving techniques. 

If you have any Creative Problem Solving Techniques you would like to see added to this page, would you please let us know. We would be delighted to hear from you! 

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Problem Solving Techniques

As with creative thinking, flexibility is a crucially important feature in problem solving. Many of these techniques you will begin to use regularly for each major problem you address. Others you will use selectively.

Assumption Articulation

A first and frequently overlooked step in problem solving is to identify the assumptions you are making about the situation. Many of the assumptions will be hidden and unrecognized until a deliberate effort is made to identify them. Often it is the unrecognized assumption that prevents a good solution. However, before we get too critical of assumptions, we should note their value and necessity. So we begin there.

Assumptions are Necessary

Assumptions and constraints are necessary for three reasons:

1. They set limits to the problem  and thus provide a framework within which to work. These limits might include constraints of possibility, economics, or some other desired narrowing.

2. Assumptions reflect desired values , values that should be maintained throughout the solution. For example, in punishing criminals, we assume that we are still concerned about their humanity, so that, say, torture with electric prods will not be considered as a possibility for punishment.

3. Assumptions simplify the problem  and make it more manageable by providing fewer things to consider and solve. A problem with no assumptions is usually too general to handle.

Assumptions are Often Self-imposed

In spite of the necessity of having assumptions, many assumptions produce self-imposed limits. That is, the impossibilities or fixed constraints in a problem are often not imposed by nature or the laws of physics, but by ourselves through our understanding of the situation or through the desire to focus the problem.

In assumption articulation, then, our goal is to identify the assumptions being made and to determine the following:

1. Is the assumption necessary?  If not, can or should it be dispensed with?

2. If the assumption is not necessary, is it appropriate?  That is, many rather arbitrary assumptions and constraints are nevertheless desirable.

For example, when we say, “We have only two weeks to solve this problem,” those two weeks may be entirely appropriate as an outside time limit for generating and implementing the solution, simply because the problem’s importance in relation to the rest of life warrants no more than those two weeks.

Examine the Assumptions Behind your Problem

1. Make a list of assumptions.  As you think about your problem, force to the surface every given, taken for granted, assumed fact about the situation you can think of. Many, if not most, assumptions do not really fit into categories like those in the checklist below. Instead, most assumptions are statements about reality that we believe to be true. Many of them are “obvious” and we normally would not think to question them. Yet that is exactly why we so often get blocked when we try to solve a difficult problem.

For example, the design of women’s swim suits was long constrained by limited technology. How can we make a new design that will stand up to the rigors of swimming in salty or highly chlorinated water? Only a few fabrics are strong enough and printing or decorations don’t hold up well. The completely obvious and absolutely unquestionable assumption being made here is that most women do a lot of swimming in their swim suits. Of course, dummy, why else would they buy them? Some brave soul, who was probably called a fool, decided to question this assumption and do some research. It was discovered that 90% of women’s swim suits never get wet (except perhaps in the laundry). This was quite a revelation for suit designers, because it opened up a whole new world of materials and designs that would stand up to sunning but wouldn’t take swimming. Who would have thought that anyone would buy a swim suit marked “dry clean only”?

When you have thought of all the miscellaneous assumptions you can, you might find it helpful to use a checklist of assumption areas like this:

A. Time.  How quickly or slowly am I assuming it will take? Can the solution be sped up or can more time be found somewhere?

B. Money.  Are the limits of money I’m assuming necessary? Can I find more money? Or, more creatively, can I do it for less money or no money? Can I get someone else to pay? Money is a common block to the solution of many problems. We say, If only I had the money, I could do it. Often, however, we can find ways of accomplishing the same thing with less money or with none or with other people’s money. Don’t let the money psychology block you. Example: We need computers and hard disks but we don’t have the money. Possibilities: donated funds, find lower price, get manufacturers or dealers to donate the parts.

C. Cooperation.  Am I assuming that certain people will be in favor of the solution, support it, help implement it, when in fact they might not? Or am I assuming that certain people will be against it when they might not be?

D. Physics.  Are the laws of physics interfering? The problem is “impossible” of solution? What at first seems physically impossible may on reflection not be so after all. Remember the pear in the bottle, “moving” the Statue of Liberty, or even launching rockets out of the atmosphere.

E. Law.  Is the solution blocked by law? Can the law be changed, circumvented (for moral purposes only), or even broken (for the right cause)? Maybe it can be reinterpreted to permit the solution. Example: Bible clubs in high schools. According to one high school’s interpretation, the Freedom of Association law permits students to get together to pray but not to advertise their prayer group. Can this regulation be skirted by word of mouth advertising or by holding a prayer meeting right after another non-prayer meeting?

F. Energy.  We can devote only so much energy to any given solution. Is the amount assumed to be appropriate or maximum really so? It’s better to expend a little more energy to solve a problem well the first time than to have to redo the entire thing after a half-energetic solution.

G. Cost/Benefit.  How much is it worth to solve the problem? Costs can include an investment of time, energy, money, emotion, or other resource–mental effort, eyesight, whatever.

H. Information.  Is the information available correct? This assumption often proves wrong. Double check the so-called facts surrounding the problem. Note that in most cases, more information can always be obtained. Are we assuming that all available information or all pertinent information is at hand? New information often changes the entire appearance of the problem?

I. Culture Binding.  Is the solution being limited because of attitudes in the culture or practices of recent history? How did or do other peoples solve the problem? These ideas that are socialized into us often go unexamined. Why do we balk at eating squid or dogs? Up until about seventy-five years ago, it was common for men to marry women fifteen or twenty years younger than themselves. Now we consider that unusual and some people even consider it wrong, just as we consider older women marrying younger men unusual.

2. Focus your assumption identification on the crux or sticking point of the problem.  You may be making an unnecessarily limiting assumption about something right at the point of blockage.

For example, let’s say your problem is to clean the mineralization off the water faucets in the bathrooms of your house. You have gone to a hardware store or home center and tried every cleaner in the housewares department but nothing has been satisfactory. You think, “I’ve used every household cleaner I can find.” Examine your assumptions: I’m assuming that household cleaners are found in the housewares department. Is that true or necessary? What about other kinds of cleaner that might be found in the automotive, plumbing, hardware, or garden department? Also, what about products not even described as cleaners but that might clean off the mineralization? The solution you finally come up with is to use an automotive chrome bumper cleaner or perhaps some household vinegar to clean off the mineralization and then to apply some car wax to the chrome to protect it from future build up. Your assumptions about store locations, product names and types and uses have all been challenged and found not necessary.

3. Look over your written statements of the problem and your lists of constraints and write out a list of the assumptions behind each item.  In these three steps, you’ll have a three-part list:

A. General assumptions.  These are the assumptions you make without thinking or realizing that you have made them. Some of them are necessary, but some may not be. Write out even the most obvious ones.

B. Assumptions at the crux.  These assumptions are usually made consciously, but are not often examined critically to determine whether they are necessary or not. Again, write them out so that each one may be examined and tested individually.

C. Assumptions determining the constraints.  These are the assumptions about cost, time, effort, size, results and so forth that you make in order to establish the boundaries of the solution. Most of them are desirable. Sometimes one or more of them will be made too hastily, though, so that they deserve reexamination as well as the other kinds.

Let’s say you are the manager of a factory that makes portable electric generators. Your product is largely bolted together at final assembly by workers using air wrenches. The wrenches, like those you hear screaming in auto repair shops, make a lot of noise, hurting the workers’ hearing and job satisfaction. Your problem is, “How can we reduce the noise made by these air wrenches?”

Note that as with most problem statements, the problem as stated implies certain solutions. If you simply accepted the problem as stated, you would probably think of some possible alternatives like these:

But instead of this, you decide to do some assumption articulation. Here are some of the assumptions being made:

1. Air wrenches are noisy. 2. We must use air wrenches to put the parts together. 3. People must use the air wrenches. 4. We must use wrenches. 5. The fastening must take place in this area or in this factory. 6. Bolts must be used to hold the pieces together. 7. The employees don’t like the noise.

As you think about these assumptions, some new ideas come to you:

1.  Air wrenches are noisy.  Are all air wrenches equally noisy? Can we buy a quieter brand? Is there a “silent air wrench” being sold? 2.  We must use air wrenches to put the parts together.  Why not use manual wrenches, or electric wrenches, or hydraulic wrenches? 3.  People must use the air wrenches.  Why not use robots? Can we use the wrenches less? Rotate employees so that each one uses the wrenches just a little each day. 4.  We must use wrenches.  Why not use other tools? Nut drivers? 5.  The fastening must take place in this area of the factory.  Why not move it outside? Subcontract it? Put it in a special soundproof room? 6.  Bolts must be used to hold the pieces together.  Why not rivets? Spot welding? Adhesive? Screws? Clamps? Mold some of the pieces together so they need not be bolted or fastened at all? 7.  The employees don’t like the noise.  Get employees who like noise? Who don’t hear it (like deaf people)? Give them ear muffs? Play loud music to mask the noise?

Note that ideas like robots, deaf employees, adhesive bonding and so on would not be suggested by the original form of the problem statement, which is based on several perhaps unnecessary assumptions. A little assumption articulation breaks our thinking out of these restraints and allows us to see some new possibilities.

Techniques for Approaching a Problem

Here are several ways to attack a problem, each way designed to clarify the problem, suggest alternatives, or break a fixation. You will want to experiment with the applicability of these for various situations.

Entry Points

An entry point is, as Edward de Bono has said, “the part of a problem or situation that is first attended to.” In our linear, traditional problem solving mindset, this usually means a particular point–usually the most obvious–on the front end of the problem. However, there is no reason that some other point cannot be chosen as an entry point, nor is there any reason that the problem cannot be approached from the middle or even the end. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Front end entry points.  Most problems are attacked on the front end first, which is to say, by stating the problem. However, there is really more than one front end because a give problem can be attacked from any one of several angles. Too often we assume that the first front-end angle that comes to mind is  the  method of approach, the only way to attack the problem. But that is not so.

Example problem: How to keep rain off of you while you walk on the street. Possible entry points: 1. Inadequacies of current umbrellas. (Suggests “improve the umbrella” as a problem direction.) 2. Irritation of having to carry an umbrella. (Suggests “develop easily portable umbrella.) 3. Let the government do it. (Suggests public works items like awnings, free taxis, underground corridors.) 4. Let the individual do it. (Why not just get wet? Why does getting wet matter? What are the problems? Do they really need to be solved?) 5. Walking. (Why walk? Why not ride? Conveyances?) 6. Street. (Why go out on the street in the first place? Why not stay at home? Keep out of the rain? Solve the problem that made you go onto the street in the first place. E. g. to get a video, why not TV or cable movie or read a book or make popcorn and talk about rainy days?)

Notice here that what seems to be just one problem actually has several possible entry points, and depending on the point chosen, entirely different solutions will result. Edward de Bono comments about the importance of choosing an entry point:

Usually the obvious entry point is chosen. . . . There is no way of telling which entry point is going to be best so one is usually content with the most obvious one. It is assumed that the choice of entry point does not matter since one will always arrive at the same conclusions. This is not so since the whole train of thought may be determined by the choice of entry point. Example problem: ATC’s cause many injuries and deaths each year. Possible entry points: 1. They tip over easily. (redesign them?) 2. They are not toys. (license users? require age minimums?) 3. Riders don’t know how to use them safely. (educate riders?) 4. Many head and spinal injuries result. (roll bars? seat belts?)

Problem: How to have secret conversations in the bugged embassy in Moscow. Possible entry points: 1. conversations can be heard (notes, sign language, special room) 2. diplomats must share information (disinformation?) 3. the whole building is bugged (leave building? erect internal room?)

2. Beginning at the end.  When a particular solution state is clearly defined, a problem can often be more easily solved by starting with the solution and working backwards toward the problem, filling in the necessary steps along the way.

The classic example is the problem: Divide a triangle into three parts so that the parts can be put together to form a square. That’s very hard. But if you start from the solution end, with a square, it’s easy to divide it into three parts all of which form a triangle.

Example: How do you count the number of people in a stadium that’s over ninety percent full? Count the number of empty seats and subtract from the number of seats in the stadium. Easier than counting people.

Example: How do you improve your relationship with your parents when you’re not quite sure what’s wrong with it–what the problem is? Start at the end, with the solution. Envision how you want the relationship to be and work backwards toward a discovery of the problem.

Whenever the solution or goal state is clearer than the problem, then changing the entry point to the end may be the best approach. Start with the goal or solution and look for ways to work back to the problem.

3. Somewhere between the beginning and the end.  After all, there’s no law that says you have to start at one end or the other. So why not start in the middle?

Ancient Greek epics typically start  in medias res , in the middle of things, and later go on to fill out preceding and succeeding action. You can do this in problem solving. It’s, again, sort of the “ready, fire, aim” approach.

For example, say you want to put up a new building. Why not assume that the funding and planning have already been done and begin with the construction phase, which contractors to hire, etc. Then work in both directions–backward toward planning where to put the building and how to get the money, and forward toward arranging for tenants.

Note that you can really begin at any point on this alleged continuum, with location, tenants, architect, and work in both directions: building type—architect—location—contractors—tenants

Movies are put together this way all the time. The “obvious” order is idea—script—producer—actors—studio—filming

but many movies get actors first, then a producer, then a script, etc.

Beginning in the middle has some risks, but it’s especially good for getting things done quickly and for beginning to do  something  even when you’re not quite sure of either the problem or the solution. It’s the kind of thing that will sometimes get you labeled as rash and hasty and sometimes as brilliant and visionary.

Rival Hypotheses

A  hypothesis  is a proposed explanation for a collection of data. A rival hypothesis is an alternative explanation for the same sets of data, another way of explaining the same results or events. Often the hypothesis is a statement about causation: the data indicate that X caused Y or that B occurs when A is present. It is critically important to remember, however, that in the realm of hypothesis and explanation, the data do not speak for themselves; they must be interpreted. The act of interpretation involves many difficulties, including those of experimenter bias, the confusion between correlation and cause, and non-random sampling.

Dangers of Having only One Hypothesis

The danger of limiting ourselves to one hypothesis to explain a collection of phenomena is twofold.

1. Some evidence will be ignored.  If we are focused on a single hypothesis, we will overlook as not relevant any information that does not bear on the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. However, such information might bear on the truth or falsity of some other hypothesis.

For example, if our hypothesis is that suspect X burglarized the Turner’s house, we will focus on evidence that helps to establish or disprove our theory. As a result, we will probably overlook the fact that the story told by the Turner’s son does not add up. That’s just an ignorable anomaly. If, on the other hand, one of our hypotheses is that the Turner’s son might have faked a burglary and stolen the missing items himself, then the difficulties in his story will not be overlooked.

2. We may become emotionally committed to our hypothesis.  The idea of falling in love with a pet theory is not limited to problem solving, of course. Wherever it happens, the lover begins to search for and select out only the evidence that supports the hypothesis, ignoring or subconsciously filtering out information that argues against the pet.

For our example, here’s a story: An experimenter carefully conditioned a flea to jump out of a box when a bell was rung. Then he pulled off the first pair of the flea’s legs. The flea still jumped out of the box. So he pulled off the second pair of legs. The flea could still jump out. Finally, he pulled off the last pair of legs. This time, when the bell was rung, the flea didn’t jump our of the box. The experimenter concluded that his theory was correct: “When all the legs of a flea have been removed, it will no longer be able to hear.”

To avoid these two problems, then, we should attempt to generate as many rival hypotheses as possible for each set of data, and then test each of them against the known facts.

Rules for Generating and Testing Hypotheses

1. The hypothesis should account for all possibly relevant data.  An explanation that covers only part of the data or that is in conflict with a major fact, is not a good explanation. Remember, though, that especially early on, all explanations will have problems and will fact some seemingly conflicting data. Facts are refined and clarified as better information becomes available. So don’t throw out all but “perfect” explanations; you won’t have any.

2. Simpler explanations are usually to be preferred over more complex explanations.  This is the principle of Occam’s razor, discussed in Human-Factor Phenomena in Problem Solving .

3. More probable explanations are usually to be preferred over less probable ones.  Many things are possible; fewer things are probable. It is possible that ancient astronauts built the pyramids, but it is more probable that the Egyptians did.

4. The consequences following from the truth of the hypothesis must match the facts.  If, for example, you hypothesize that a bomb destroyed an airplane and caused it to crash, you will expect to find bomb residue as a consequence of this hypothesis.

When you first read how facts match a theory, you might be tempted to think, “Why, yes, that must be it.” However, when you make the effort to research (or even take a few moments to generate on your own) a few rival hypotheses–alternative explanations–the original hypothesis becomes suddenly less persuasive. As with many other things in life,  When you have a choice of only one, it seems to be the right choice; but when you have a choice of many, your taste improves.  There is even a Biblical passage relevant to this issue: “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

When you begin to examine a proposed explanation for some data, ask yourself, “What other variables are involved that might also account for the result?


Try It Yourself

Rival Hypotheses.  What rival hypotheses can you think of for each of these explanations?

1. Speed Kills?  In 1973, when the national speed limit was 65 miles per hour, there were 55,000 automobile-related deaths. In 1974, when the speed limit was reduced to 55 mph, deaths declined 20 percent. In 1975, they declined 2 percent more. However, in 1976, as motorists began to ignore the speed limit and drive at 65 once again, deaths increased. The conclusion is clear: lower speed limits save lives.

2. Wedded Bliss?  Many studies over long periods have established that married people are generally healthier than single (never married, widowed, divorced) people. Lung cancer, stroke, and coronary heart disease are all lower in married people. Married men live longer than men who do not marry. One researcher attributes these facts to the harmful consequences of loneliness. Are there any other possible explanations for these differences?

3. Coffee Coffin?  A recent study has found that men who drink more than six cups of coffee per day have a much higher heart attack rate than those who drink fewer than six cups a day. Clearly, drinking coffee causes heart attacks. Or is there a rival hypothesis?

Role Playing

Role playing consists of several techniques, having in common the use of the mind to imagine a different reality, to change what you have to what you want.

1. Mental Practice.  Before attempting a solution or doing something–taking a test, driving to a new area, writing a paper, asking for a raise–practice the situation mentally.

For example, Abraham Lincoln imagined what he would do and say as president before he was ever elected. Dr. Charles Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame always mentally practiced his surgical operations before doing them–he would find a quiet spot and then go through the whole procedure in his mind: cutting, asking for instruments, examining, suturing. Many athletes rehearse their upcoming performances mentally to gain confidence and familiarity with the moment of performance.

Visualize the problem and your solution to it and you’ll be able to solve it or do it better. One woman imagined driving on the left side of the road, turning, passing, merging, etc. before taking a trip to England. When she finally got to England, she found that she could drive easily–it was already a familiar experience.

2. Becoming another person.  The second form of role playing is to imagine that you are someone else–involved in either the solution or the problem.

A. Problem Person.  Imagine that you are the litterbug, the reckless, drinking driver, or the short tempered, hard to live with friend. What makes you this way? What might improve you? What are the nuances of your personality?

B. The Solver.  Imagine that you are an expert who can solve the problem with your special knowledge. What do you know and what do you do? Solutions take direction from past experience. They derive from what is already done or known. We go with the familiar and use what we have learned–or what we imagine we have learned or experienced.

For example, suppose you must build a canal. Imagine first that you are not a canal builder but a pipeline maker. How would he build the canal? (Perhaps by using reinforced half pipeline sections?) Now imagine that you are a tunnel maker. Now how would you solve the problem? (Perhaps by using an inverted tunnel?) Now imagine that you are a swimming pool builder. How would you solve it? (Perhaps by using steel rebar and spray-on gunite?)

3. Mental metamorphosis.  In this kind of role playing, you change yourself into the problem thing–become a bearing, a helicopter, an electric current, a germ. Michael Faraday imagined that he was an atom under pressure and thereby developed his electromagnetic theory.

For example, suppose you want to find a solution for rusty and leaking gasoline tanks. Imagine all the attributes of the situation: the metal tank, its color, temperature, touch, the leak in it, the sound of the dribble of gasoline as is plops to the sandy soil under the tank. What does it feel like to be a tank in the sun, to feel your side leaking, to smell the wet sand/gasoline combination under you? What do you taste like? When the service man puts the wrench on your valve, how does it feel? Do your insides itch as they rust? What would help that? A coating? Does the gasoline running down your side bother you? What would soak that up or seal it off?

A model is a representation or pattern of an idea or problem. That is, a model is a way to describe or present a problem in a way that aids in understanding or solving the problem. Models serve several purposes:

The Purpose of Modeling

1. To make an idea concrete.  This is done by representing it pictorially or symbolically. We are very visually oriented creatures, and it is easy to bring about understanding or conceptualization through an image–much the way analogy works, only now you use a picture, drawing, map, boxes, circles. A drawing can show a relationship, connection, arrangement, hierarchy, and so forth much more quickly than words alone can.

Another use of representative modeling is to enhance creativity by converting an idea into something that can be experienced by the senses. “Okay, this salt shaker is our blocked plan, and these French fries are the people opposing the plan by holding up the rules–this napkin–in front of it. Well, what can we do? Lift the salt shaker, move it around, over, through, empty it.”

Many a problem solver has drawn on a napkin, arranged the food on his plate, scratched a stick in the sand, sketched a form of some sort, or even played with some children’s blocks.

2. To reveal possible relationships between ideas.  Relationships of hierarchy, support, dependence, cause, effect, etc. can be revealed by constructing a visual model.

For example, what is the relationship between faith and reason? This can be shown by one block on top of another (a hierarchy), one circle inside another (one concept as part of the other), two blocks side by side, one each on a balance, and so on. Each model suggests a different relationship, each easy to remember.

A fact that needs special emphasis is that the model one uses for understanding will have a profound effect on perception and conceptualization. In fact, to a large extent, a model will determine your perception of an idea or problem and control your thinking about possibilities, relationships between parts, and so on. That’s why multiple models are often highly desirable: they allow a person to think of the same concept in several different ways without the unconscious controlling influence that a single model might have.

Another example: The saying, “Ready, fire, aim” seems funny and illogical to most people because they automatically assume a rifle or pistol or arrow model, and with such a model, the saying doesn’t make sense. These people are trapped by their own thought processes and automatic modeling. However, if we construct a different model–that of a machine gun, fire hose, laser beam, flame thrower, heat gun, fire extinguisher, blowtorch, hammer drill or whatever, then the saying makes great sense after all.

We have to be careful, then, how much we let our models control our thinking.

3. To simplify the complex to make it manageable or understandable.  Almost all models are simplifications because reality is so complex. The whole economy, weather system, human personality, geological structure of the earth, air flow over airplane wings–all are too complex to be treated as is, so models are constructed that present simplifications that can be treated. Simplification is both benefit and danger, and when dealing with a model, one must always be sure not to forget that the model and reality might not match perfectly–and sometimes not well at all.

4. The main purpose of modeling, which often includes all of the above three purposes, is to present a problem in a way that allows us to understand it and solve it.  That is, by seeing the problem in a different form or from a different angle, we can gain the insight necessary to find a solution. We take a problem and simplify it, make it visual, and provide a familiar pattern.

Types of Models

1. Categories.  Models can be put into one of two categories, conceptual and structural. Of the types listed below, many of them can fall into either category depending on the use made of them.

A. Conceptual.  Models used for concretizing or reifying an idea, used to aid conception or understanding. These can be ultimately symbolic or arbitrary, whatever is necessary or useful. Also models to aid memory or teaching and relationship models.

B. Structural.  Physical models of physical structures–oil refineries, DNA helixes, buildings, architectural model, a new kind of record player or bicycle. A model is almost always constructed before a prototype is made for a product and models are usually made for all large construction projects.

2. Types.  These are not fixed and exclusive boxes–they often overlap, as in visual symbolic.

A. Visual.  Draw a picture of it. If the problem is or contains something physical, draw a picture of the real thing–the door, road, machine, bathroom, etc. If the problem is not physical, draw a symbolic picture of it, either with lines and boxes or by representing aspects of the problem as different items–like cars and roads representing information transfer in a company.

Visual models are among the most effective because we are highly visually oriented beings. Remember Confucius’ saying that is now a cliche but a true statement nonetheless: A picture is worth a thousand words.

B. Physical.  The physical model takes the advantages of a visual model one step further by producing a three dimensional visual model. Again, you can use a real model or a symbolic one.

C. Mathematical.  Many problems are best solved mathematically, by using calculations for speed, area, projected income, national unemployment. Thinking beyond three dimensions visually or four dimensions physically is very difficult. But with math, ten or fifteen dimensions are no problem. Ideas of speed, acceleration, and accelerating acceleration are often more understandable mathematically.

Example problem: Whom to hire. A mathematical model, such as a decision matrix, enables the thinker to quantify subjectivity and to be sure that all considerations (or criteria) are taken into account to the degree desired. The expected value calculation is another mathematical method of making a choice based on probable effects and preferred outcomes.

D. Metaphorical or Symbolic or Analogical.  Remember what we said about metaphor and analogy, that the unfamiliar becomes understandable by comparing it to the familiar. That’s how this kind of modeling works. Both understanding and structure can be established for a problem by using a metaphor or symbol. Here are some examples useful kinds:

General Paradigms

1. System model.  A system is a collection of interrelated elements working together to accomplish a common goal. The parts are input, processing, [storage], output, feedback, and control. Example systems are house heating system with thermostat, circulatory system.

Example problem: Interpersonal relationship improvement. input: words, actions processing: reactions output: happiness, mutual support or discontent feedback: communication (words actions) control: change of processing (reactions and actions and output)

2. Design model.  Design is planning with a concern for pattern and overall harmony. Component parts are identified and worked together into a whole. The key to design consideration is to plan so that the result to be an effective presentation. (For more details on design, see Chapter 7.)

Example problem: Vacation. Design a vacation Sketch out parts–what should be included in a vacation? How will one part affect other parts? How does travel method affect sightseeing? Boat, rail, plane, care, walk, bike ride, etc.

3. Construction model.  This model emphasizes sequential building. Part by part.

Example problem: Term paper. How can I build this paper? Foundation? Walls? Roof? or Beginning, ending, drawings, outline, other parts? Order of information?

4. Recipe model.  This model emphasizes ingredients and proportions, with perhaps some consideration given to minor items that add “spice” or “flavor” to a project. The Japanese seem to use the recipe model in making many of their consumer products, from stereos to cars. Many cars include a toolkit, first aid kit, sometimes a trouble light–things that American manufacturers sometimes think of negatively as gimmicks or gadgets. The recipe model could be a list or formula for success. Great in advertising, products with features, certain kinds of fiction, etc.

Specific Metaphors:

1. Garden model.  How is problem or solution like a garden? Vegetative, growing, expansive, fruitful, weedy, nurturant, bug infested, etc.

2. Machine model.  How is problem like a machine? Parts working together, parts worn or broken, energy input or driving force, work output?

3. Symphony model.  How like a symphony? Conductor? Harmony? Soloists? Percussion? What is the music they are playing? What orchestrates the interaction of the parts?

4. Human body model.  How like a body? What makes it move? What is life energy? What are hands, feet, mouth, eyes, ears?

5. Vehicle model.  Ship, plane, boat, car, train, blimp, bike, skateboard. What powers it? Who are passengers? Where going? What are its wheels?

Other metaphors useful for modeling are sculpting, movie making, an island, the ocean, a computer.

Using Criticism and Suggestion

Making use of the observations of critics to improve a plan or idea is a fairly obvious technique, but one that is not often used simply because most people don’t like criticism. Our ideas are our precious children and to be told that they are ugly or defective is painful and offensive.

However, it is possible to work around the ego sensitivity we have by renaming our criticism seeking into “suggestion seeking” and by viewing the procedure as a formal technique for exploiting the minds, experiences, and ideas of other people. What better way to get other viewpoints than to ask real, other people?

Basic Guidelines

Remember that in problem exploration it was suggested to talk over a problem with others to get insight into it. Well, now we come to the preliminary solution idea and do the same thing. Here are some suggestions:

1. Choose in advance a fixed number of people  you will talk to, to reduce fear and make the process more formulaic (which will make it less ego damaging). Four to six is usually a good number.

2. Frame your request for criticism in a positive way , so that the criticizer will have to suggest improvements rather than just point out defects.

For example: A. I have an idea to sell concentrated or dehydrated apple juice. Can you think of some ways to improve it? B. I’m asking several of my most thoughtful friends how I can improve this idea for making concentrated fruit drinks. Can you think of anything? C. I’m working on the problem of reducing shipping costs for drinks by concentrating or dehydrating them. I wonder if you could help me find a solution? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. (This puts the other person in a solution mindset rather than a criticism mindset.)

3. Ask all kinds of people , not just people knowledgeable in the area. Ask children, even. Remember the value of mind stimulation, where an idea may not be directly useful but may suggest something else.

4. When you get more confidence, you can ask for an analysis of defects or inadequacies.

For Example: A. What am I missing? What am I not thinking of? What am I not taking into account? B. What don’t you like about this? What’s wrong with it? How would you have done it differently?

5. Use the dual method of asking for suggestions.  There are two ways to operate the idea and suggestion technique.

A. Ask each person to improve the original plan or suggestion.  Go to several people and propose the same plan and ask for input about it. This way you will get several different responses to the original.

B. After each suggestion, alter the idea to incorporate the suggestions and criticisms, and then present the new idea to the next person for suggestion and criticism.  That way, the idea builds and improves with each criticism. The drawback is that certain other fundamental suggestions may be eliminated because the subsequent suggesters don’t see the original idea.

It is important for you as a creative thinker to see yourself as independent and separate from your ideas. Don’t get your ego so involved in an idea that you will be unwilling to alter it if you discover or are told about needed changes. And don’ be unwilling to abandon it if you discover a better idea. Keep a whole sackful of possibilities that can be rotated or combined to form the best solution, and put your pride in solving the problem, the result, not in the particular solution path you are currently thinking of.

Searching Techniques

Heuristic methods.

A heuristic is a guide, a rule of thumb, a learn as you go strategy, typified by trial and error. It involves choice, hunch, knowledge, and a lot of creativity. It’s the way most education works. However, no heuristic can guarantee a solution. A heuristic simply increases the probability of finding a solution. An example heuristic method follows.

1. Trial and error.  The trial and error search involves the non use of directional information. That is, the search proceeds without any sense of choice or likelihood of one path over another. Trial and error can be made much more efficient if it is systematic rather than blind, that is, when a record of attempts and failures is kept so that the same path or solution is not tried more than once. So take good notes.

Algorithmic Methods

There is another kind of technique called an algorithm that can guarantee a solution. An algorithm is a list of set procedures, a recipe, a formula, or set of exact directions–computer programs and math formulas for finding volumes and areas are algorithms. There are a couple of common search algorithms:

1. The maze algorithm.  This algorithm guarantees that you will be able to solve or walk through a maze. All you have to do is follow the same wall all the way through. In practical terms this means put your hand on the wall and keep it there as you walk through. Either hand and either wall.

2. The split-half method.  This powerful technique is used for finding a problem or phenomenon along any linear system. It is used by electricians, plumbers, mechanics, electronics technicians and others to find trouble in equipment. (e.g. faulty doorbell, leak in pipe). The method involves going immediately to the halfway point in the linear system and checking to see if the problem or a symptom of the problem appears there. If it does, the problem is in the first half of the system. If it doesn’t, the problem appears in the second half. Next, the investigator goes to the half of the system where the problem is now know to occur and checks at its halfway point to see if the problem or symptom appears there. The answer eliminates another quarter of the system. Note that in just two steps, two checks, three quarters of the system has been eliminated from possibility. The halving continues until the problem is located. This is much faster than random checking or than by starting at one end of the linear system and proceeding toward the other end.

Example uses:

Note that many systems are or can be perceived as linear, whether the thing moving through them is water, paint, food, information, television sets, smog, whatever.

Other Techniques

Here are some general techniques for help in solving problems.

1. Public Solution.  Post the problem on a bulletin board or circulate it in a newsletter, memo, or whatever  written  medium is in use in your organization or group. Make a note that suggestions and solutions are solicited and that ideas should be sent to you.

This technique causes public discussion of the problem at an intellectual rather than personal level. If your problem is employee absenteeism, poor quality parts, financial difficulty, or something similar, the public discussion will tend to focus on solutions rather than on blame attribution. If the problem does not derive from people difficulty, as in how to pack light bulbs more safely or how to hold books upright on partially filled library shelves, posting the problem can hook solutions that may have been applied to a similar problem elsewhere. And of course, the basic strategy behind posting a problem is that it gets several minds working on the problem, both independently and in discussion with others. People in the organization will talk about the problem in their idle moments.

During group problem solving discussions, posting a problem on the board is useful because it (1) stimulates interest and discussion in the problem, (2) makes people willing to take responsibility for the problems of others, and (3) develops problem solving attitudes in all members of the group.

Problem Solving Hints and Wisdom

1. Take time to examine and explore the problem thoroughly before setting out in search of a solution. Often, to understand the problem is to solve it. 2. Breaking the problem into smaller parts will often make solving it much easier. Solve each part separately. 3. The resources for problem solving are immense and ubiquitous. 4. You can always do something. 5. A problem is not a punishment; it is an opportunity to increase the happiness of the world, an opportunity to show how powerful you really are. 6. The formulation of a problem determines the range of choices: the questions you ask determine the answers you receive. 7. Be careful not to look for a solution until you understand the problem, and be careful not to select a solution until you have a whole range of choices. 8. The initial statement of a problem often reflects a preconceived solution. 9. A wide range of choices (ideas, possible solutions) allows you to choose the best from among many. A choice of one is not a choice. 10. People work to implement their own ideas and solutions much more energetically than they work to implement others’ ideas and solutions. 11. Remember the critical importance of acceptance in solving problems. A solution that is technologically brilliant but sociologically stupid is not a good solution. 12. When the goal state is clear but the present state is ambiguous, try working backwards. 13. Procrastinators finish last. 14. Denying a problem perpetuates it. 15. Solve the problem that really exists,  not  just the symptoms of a problem,  not  the problem you already have a solution for,  not  the problem you wish existed, and  not  the problem someone else thinks exists. 16. A maker follows a plan; a creator produces a plan. 17. Creativity is the construction of somethings new out of somethings old, through effort and imagination.

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Problem Solving Techniques to Help You Manage Your Business

Use problem solving models.

Developing successful problem solving techniques will help your business. Learn how to use decision making tips and develop a specific creative problem solving technique for your business challenges.

All business owners and managers face problems and challenges in operating the business; it's important to find useful tactics and strategies, such as effective problem solving models, to ensure that you make the right decisions in facing your challenges.

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A significant aspect of managing your business includes developing and using problem solving models .

Why? Because problem solving is a day-to-day activity in every business and as a business owner, you need to become very good at solving problems quickly and efficiently.

By systemizing the solutions process, you can get to the root cause of the problem more quickly and work on ensuring that it does not recur.

Note: I prefer the term solutions provider (which I've borrowed from the software industry), rather than problem solver. Maybe the new title for a Business Manager needs to be Solutions Provider?

Solutions provider sounds so much more positive ... moving the focus from the problems to the solutions. However I will use problem solving in this discussion to keep us focused on well-tested problem solving techniques.

Business owners need to become more proactive at developing solution models to ensure that when problems arise, there is an effective system in place to resolve them.

Managers are often constrained in their ability to solve problems, and in their ability to use successful problem solving techniques, decision making tips, and a strong decision making model.

Problem Solving Constraints

A list of Problem Solving models and Strategies:

Cause and effect: For example, Pareto analysis which looks at what 20% of the activities cause 80% of the problems and uses the analysis to focus on the highest benefit/impact problems and solutions. Often used when you have many problems all competing for attention.

Sensitivity analysis is used to identify the degree of uncertainty or error in assessing the recommendations and/or conclusions.

Risk analysis is used to identify and assess the factors that may jeopardize the success of a proposed solution or project.

Brainstorming - known today as using a creative problem solving technique; engaging brainstorming with formalizing and structure (such as checklists, forced relationship analysis including structuring relationship sets).

DMAIC Process and Steps

For example:

For example, if one customer is unhappy about poor service and late shipments, other customers will likely be unhappy. Set up your systems to report on late shipments (as compared to promise dates on orders). You may want to do a customer survey (don't be afraid, you really do want to hear what they have to say) to discover the primary causes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

Build a process map to help you define the root causes of the problem and the potential solutions. Use this process as your decision making model. For example, now you have drilled down to the root cause of the above problem example: no back up for the maintenance technician.

To continue on with the above example, you have some options to solve the problem: hire an outside contractor for vacation or overload times or train someone on the plant floor to provide back up relief as necessary.

A focus for your problem solving techniques must be to ensure you don't revert back and cycle the problem. Develop documentation and monitor your plan and/or solution.

All Businesses Face Problems to Solve

It's how you handle those problems that makes the difference between failure and success.

You will likely find yourself facing a number of problems (or opportunities or challenges) during the day or week or month; problem solving at work isn't a scheduled activity - you need to face the problems or issues as they occur.

Effective leaders learn to prioritize these problems and develop strong problem solving skills. Sometimes you can 'bundle' your problems or issues together as they are 'like' in nature. Sometimes you will want to deal with small, quick-decision problems just to get them out of the way.

Make sure that you measure business performance with specific criteria and parameters in place: accessing those measurements will help you solve problems later.

But do not delay in dealing with urgent or priority issues. They may not be pleasant to deal with but those problems need to be solved as soon as possible.

Make sure that you include others in using your problem solving techniques; particularly for significant issues. If you are a business of one, this is the time to talk to one of your business mentors or to access your business network . Sometimes a different perspective can give you a whole different look at the problem; and the solution.

No matter the cause of the problem, it is important that you do not lay blame for it. This will only cause defensive behavior on the part of your employees or suppliers; soon they will try to mask those problems from you. The goal in problem solving is to define the problem, solve it, and put in place procedures so that problem does not recur.

Some of the more complex problems need to have solutions you won't necessarily think of right away. Do some brainstorming or use a creative problem solving technique to consider all ideas (do not critique them, just list them) and then sort those ideas into do-able, not, or maybe. Use problem solving models that you're familiar with if you need to solve issues quickly.

Focus your problem solving techniques on the do-able solutions and the cost (tangible and intangible) of each solution.

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Business Survival

One in three small businesses will fail within the first five years of operations.

How can your business beat those odds?

First, make sure that you have the right stuff to be a business owner: you need staying power, the ability to tolerate uncertainty and risk (or understand that no business is a 'sure thing'), and you need the ability to handle stress (such as how will you make payroll next week, how will you build your sales, etc.).

Most successful business owners also have some sort of support system behind them: their friends, families, partners, even their bankers or lenders.

Second, you need to do the right research. I've worked with clients before in putting together business plans for financing and the plan numbers are simply ridiculously overstated! No banker will believe widely inflated sales projections.

Make sure you do thorough market research and planning: invest the time and resources in doing this part of your business building right. It will pay off in the long run.

Develop your marketing program: what's your unique value proposition; what's your strategic competitive advantage; how are you positioning your business and your products and services; what new innovation or creativity can you bring to solve your potential clients problems?

Third, if you don't understand finance and accounting (especially cash flow management, working capital management, and cost management processes) make sure you outsource that effort to a competent accountant or bookkeeper.

And then have that accountant or bookkeeper keep you fully informed on a regular basis; you don't want to hear you've run out of money when it's actually all gone!

Critical Success Factors:

The Products or Services; The Market; The Competition; Your Planning and Preparation!

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