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How to Solve Problems
- Laura Amico
To bring the best ideas forward, teams must build psychological safety.
Teams today aren’t just asked to execute tasks: They’re called upon to solve problems. You’d think that many brains working together would mean better solutions, but the reality is that too often problem-solving teams fall victim to inefficiency, conflict, and cautious conclusions. The two charts below will help your team think about how to collaborate better and come up with the best solutions for the thorniest challenges.
First, think of the last time you had to solve a problem. Maybe it was a big one: A major trade route is blocked and your product is time sensitive and must make it to market on time. Maybe it was a small one: A traffic jam on your way to work means you’re going to be late for your first meeting of the day. Whatever the size of the impact, in solving your problem you moved through five stages, according to “ Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together ,” by Al Pittampalli.
Pittampalli finds that most of us, when working individually, move through these stages intuitively. It’s different when you’re working in a team, however. You need to stop and identify these different stages to make sure the group is aligned. For example, while one colleague might join a problem-solving discussion ready to evaluate assumptions (Stage 3), another might still be defining the problem (Stage 1). By defining each stage of your problem-solving explicitly, you increase the odds of your team coming to better solutions more smoothly.
This problem-solving technique gains extra power when applied to Alison Reynold’s and David Lewis’ research on problem-solving teams. In their article, “ The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams ,” they find that highly effective teams typically have a pair of common features: They are cognitively diverse and they are psychologically safe. They also exhibit an array of characteristics associated with learning and confidence; these teammates tend to be curious, experimental, and nurturing, for example.
As you and your colleagues consider these ideas, think about the last problem you had to solve as a team. First, map out what you remember from each step of your problem-solving. Were all of you on the same page at each stage? What aspects of the problem did you consider — or might you have missed — as a result? What can you do differently the next time you have a problem to solve? Second, ask where your team sees themselves on the chart. What kinds of behaviors could your team adopt to help you move into that top-right quadrant?
- Laura Amico is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review.
- About Problem Solving
- Related Topics
Problem Solving Resources
Case studies, problem solving related topics.
- Continuous Improvement
- Eight Disciplines (8D)
- Fishbone Diagram
- Nine Windows
- Shainin System™
- Total Quality Management (TQM)
- Quality Resources /
- Problem Solving
What is Problem Solving?.
Quality Glossary Definition: Problem solving
Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution.
- The problem-solving process
- Problem solving resources
Problem Solving Chart
The Problem-Solving Process
In order to effectively manage and run a successful organization, leadership must guide their employees and develop problem-solving techniques. Finding a suitable solution for issues can be accomplished by following the basic four-step problem-solving process and methodology outlined below.
1. Define the problem
Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful problem-solving techniques include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyze root causes .
The sections below help explain key problem-solving steps. These steps support the involvement of interested parties, the use of factual information, comparison of expectations to reality, and a focus on root causes of a problem. You should begin by:
- Reviewing and documenting how processes currently work (i.e., who does what, with what information, using what tools, communicating with what organizations and individuals, in what time frame, using what format).
- Evaluating the possible impact of new tools and revised policies in the development of your "what should be" model.
2. Generate alternative solutions
Postpone the selection of one solution until several problem-solving alternatives have been proposed. Considering multiple alternatives can significantly enhance the value of your ideal solution. Once you have decided on the "what should be" model, this target standard becomes the basis for developing a road map for investigating alternatives. Brainstorming and team problem-solving techniques are both useful tools in this stage of problem solving.
Many alternative solutions to the problem should be generated before final evaluation. A common mistake in problem solving is that alternatives are evaluated as they are proposed, so the first acceptable solution is chosen, even if it’s not the best fit. If we focus on trying to get the results we want, we miss the potential for learning something new that will allow for real improvement in the problem-solving process.
3. Evaluate and select an alternative
Skilled problem solvers use a series of considerations when selecting the best alternative. They consider the extent to which:
- A particular alternative will solve the problem without causing other unanticipated problems.
- All the individuals involved will accept the alternative.
- Implementation of the alternative is likely.
- The alternative fits within the organizational constraints.
4. Implement and follow up on the solution
Leaders may be called upon to direct others to implement the solution, "sell" the solution, or facilitate the implementation with the help of others. Involving others in the implementation is an effective way to gain buy-in and support and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.
Regardless of how the solution is rolled out, feedback channels should be built into the implementation. This allows for continuous monitoring and testing of actual events against expectations. Problem solving, and the techniques used to gain clarity, are most effective if the solution remains in place and is updated to respond to future changes.
You can also search articles , case studies , and publications for problem solving resources.
Innovative Business Management Using TRIZ
Introduction To 8D Problem Solving: Including Practical Applications and Examples
The Quality Toolbox
Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action
One Good Idea: Some Sage Advice ( Quality Progress ) The person with the problem just wants it to go away quickly, and the problem-solvers also want to resolve it in as little time as possible because they have other responsibilities. Whatever the urgency, effective problem-solvers have the self-discipline to develop a complete description of the problem.
Diagnostic Quality Problem Solving: A Conceptual Framework And Six Strategies ( Quality Management Journal ) This paper contributes a conceptual framework for the generic process of diagnosis in quality problem solving by identifying its activities and how they are related.
Weathering The Storm ( Quality Progress ) Even in the most contentious circumstances, this approach describes how to sustain customer-supplier relationships during high-stakes problem solving situations to actually enhance customer-supplier relationships.
The Right Questions ( Quality Progress ) All problem solving begins with a problem description. Make the most of problem solving by asking effective questions.
Solving the Problem ( Quality Progress ) Brush up on your problem-solving skills and address the primary issues with these seven methods.
Refreshing Louisville Metro’s Problem-Solving System ( Journal for Quality and Participation ) Organization-wide transformation can be tricky, especially when it comes to sustaining any progress made over time. In Louisville Metro, a government organization based in Kentucky, many strategies were used to enact and sustain meaningful transformation.
Quality Improvement Associate Certification--CQIA
Certified Quality Improvement Associate Question Bank
Lean Problem-Solving Tools
Problem Solving Using A3
NEW Root Cause Analysis E-Learning
Making the Connection In this exclusive QP webcast, Jack ReVelle, ASQ Fellow and author, shares how quality tools can be combined to create a powerful problem-solving force.
Adapted from The Executive Guide to Improvement and Change , ASQ Quality Press.
An effective problem solving process for IT professionals
1. what is the actual problem.
This should be the first question an IT professional should ask when it comes to troubleshooting various IT related issues – even if only to verify the information that has already been provided. Typically this will mean having a conversation with the individual or group of individuals that reported the problem in the first place. It’s certainly not unheard of for the reported problem to get muddied or distorted when going through multiple people or channels before you first hear of it.
People often rephrase things when dictating what someone else previously said, so it’s quite possible for the original complaint to turn into something completely different as it passes through different people:
“The Amazon website tends to lock up my web browser whenever I add items into my Cart.” Mary, Sales Department.
“Helpdesk? Mary’s internet isn’t working when she’s online shopping.” Mary’s Boss
“Please help Mary so she can browse shopping sites. I think the internet filter is probably blocking that category.” John, creating Helpdesk ticket
We’ve all encountered these types of scenarios in the past and they can be really frustrating, even more so when the issues are much more important than whether a single employee is capable of adding items to their Amazon shopping cart.
The point here being, don’t take what’s being told to you for granted . Spend the time necessary to verify that what is being reported to you is actually what’s occurring and the original reason the issue was raised in the first place. Furthermore, taking the time to speak with the source, in this case, Mary, allows you to ask important follow-up questions that can further aid in diagnosing the problem as its being reported.
2. Who is experiencing the problem?
Without knowledge of who is experiencing the problem, your ability to focus your troubleshooting efforts into a precise area will be diminished and you might wind up going off in a direction that’s not even necessary or even remotely related to the source of the problem. One of the questions that should be asked is, who exactly is experiencing the problem?
Is it (for example):
- A single user
- A group/department of users
- The entire remote branch office location
- The entire main office location –and- remote branch offices
Every organization is different as it relates to the “Who”, but there are stark differences in the following scenario and what could be the underlying issue relating to the company’s IP Phones when the IT professional called in to solve the problem has a clearer understanding of “Who” is actually affected:
- Jerry’s IP phone isn’t working
- This is likely an issue with Jerry’s phone specifically
A group/dept. of users
- The entire 2nd floor is having problems with IP phones
- This might be an issue specific to a network switch/VLAN on the 2nd floor
- All users in the remote/branch office are having problems with IP phones
- This might be an issue specific to the VPN connection between offices
Main and remote offices
- All users in the main and remote offices are having problems with IP phones
- This might be an issue specific to the core switch or IP Phone System itself
The point here is, when the IT professional starts to understand “Who” is really affected , they can eliminate having to navigate down unnecessary paths while troubleshooting and can instead work towards narrowing down their troubleshooting efforts to a more specific and concise area. In the case of the single user above, why waste time troubleshooting the VPN tunnel when only Jerry is affected by the issue? This is why knowing the “Who” is extremely important.
Here’s another example of something an IT Professional or Wireless Engineer hears from time to time. “Help! Wireless is completely down in the entire building. Everyone is reporting problems” . In these situations, do yourself a favor and pay special attention to words or phrases such as “entire”, “everyone”, and “completely down” when problems are reported. These “all-inclusive” phraseologies tend to exaggerate what’s really happening and have the potential to lead you astray.
It’s not uncommon that while investigating the problem, the IT Professional or Wireless Engineers quickly learns that the “entire” building, or “everyone”, or that the wireless network being “completely down” (which, for example, in a school, might affect 3,000+ users) turns out to be a single wireless Access Point being down in one small office that is affecting 5 actual users (not, 3,000+ users as “everyone” seems to imply).
Bear in mind, problems can sometimes be overblown and overstated , especially when a user, or group of users, is regularly frustrated with or intimated by technology (any IT professional has likely experienced those high-maintenance users that cry wolf over just about anything!).
3. When did the problem start?
Knowing when the problem actually started (with attention to finite details such as the exact day and exact time) can often provide a better understanding of the problem and help trigger more definitive ideas and potential solutions relating to the underlying root cause that a given IT professional is expected to solve. Imagine being brought into a new customer to resolve critical problems with their Internet Services and being told,
“The internet pipe is a problem. People are randomly seeing spotty performance and oddball issues whenever web surfing and we don’t know why.”
Now, a less-experienced IT professional might just start diving headfirst into firewall logs, bandwidth monitoring, opening up a trouble-ticket directly with the ISP and trying to figure out what is going on, but someone with more experience will first pause to ask additional questions , wanting more specifics as to “When” the problem started happening.
- Has this ALWAYS been a problem?
- WHEN were these random internet browsing issues first reported?
Certainly looking back into firewall logs and bandwidth utilization metrics over the last 2 week period makes sense knowing the issue presented itself within the last 10 days, but it hardly warrants spending much time at all looking back at logs and bandwidth utilization metrics from 3+ months ago. That being said, once again, try to VERIFY the information being told to you . Perhaps the person giving you the answer vaguely remembers that it was 10 days ago, but in truth, it’s only been 3 days!
In this particular situation where the internet is being reported as sporadic, it’s altogether possible that roughly 11 days ago, another on-site computer technician decided to enable the UTM (Unified Threat Management) functionality within their firewall to allow for additional Antivirus inspection, IDS (Intrusion Detection Services), Geo-IP Filtering, and a plethora of other goodies typically included in UTM feature-sets.
Unfortunately, as a direct result, the firewall’s processors/CPUs have become overloaded and cannot move traffic through it quickly enough to keep up with the additional processing demands required when the firewall’s UTM feature-set was enabled.
4. Is the problem intermittent or constant?
Another key element to an effective problem solving process is finding out if the reported issue is occurring constantly or whether it’s only occurring intermittently? Problems that are constant, or fixed , are generally (though not always) easier to troubleshoot . Whereas problems that are intermittent and seemingly random, are generally more difficult to troubleshoot.
How many times have we as IT professionals been called in to troubleshoot a problem, only to find that upon our arrival, the issue suddenly doesn’t seem to exist anymore yet no one did anything specific to actually resolve the problem!? Those situations can be really frustrating, not only for the IT professional but for the end-user as well because the likelihood of the issue reappearing is rather high (and most likely reappears just a few short moments after the IT professional has left!)
The best thing to do in these scenarios is document WHEN the issue occurred and how LONG it lasted before it miraculously “fixed itself”, so the next time that same problem is reported, you might be able to piece together some crude and basic assumptions or theories based on WHEN it happened previously and how LONG it lasted each time.
Wireless chaos only at lunchtime?!
5. What changed recently?
This is one question that is unfortunately not asked often enough, is just plain overlooked, or in other cases is just completely disregarded (shame on you if you fall into that category!). Technology is a very touchy and hypersensitive beast , and more often than not, it doesn’t take too kindly to introducing changes. Even the changes that are supposed to solve and prevent other known problems, often result in the introduction of new and unexpected problems.
It’s not unheard of that sometimes even routine maintenance on equipment can cause problems .
Take for example, updating firmware on a network switch . This should be a relatively trouble-free routine operation, but suddenly users are reporting that they’re occasionally having problems logging into their desktops. It’s happening to more than one user, in fact, it’s being reported sporadically throughout the building early in the morning hours when most employees arrive for the start of their shift.
“What Changed” recently? Over the weekend you decided to update the firmware on your edge switches and now the port security that was set up on the switches using AAA authentication with Radius, isn’t behaving as expected. Unfortunately, it looks like the new firmware update might have introduced a random bug! What’s the solution? Back rev your switches , or look for ever newer firmware code that might resolve the problem.
You haven’t changed anything with the VMWare software itself, still running on the same trusted vSphere 6.0 Update 1 release that has been rock solid and problem-free in your environment. So “What Changed” recently? Wait a minute, come to think of it, the host server that is regularly crashing recently had an additional 64GB of memory added to it one week ago! Might be worth removing that extra 64GB of memory and seeing if the problem goes away. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time new or additional hardware was the result of the underlying issue .
6. Can the problem be recreated?
Another helpful step for effective problem solving is trying to recreate the actual problem. As discussed before, reported problems can either be of a constant or intermittent nature. Taking the time to re-create the problem can be beneficial and especially helpful in cases where you might need to break out tools such as Wireshark to capture packets and network traffic for future analysis and evaluation. IT professionals have to make use of such tools in more complex technical support issues especially when the flow of network traffic is in question or when there’s a need to examine whether the traffic is making it from the source to destination devices.
If possible, take advantage of any sandbox or test environments that are available. Having these environments gives you the flexibility to recreate the issue and effectively “break” things on purpose, without putting your production network or systems at risk and without interrupting services that end-users are relying on during standard business hours.
Recreating the problem is also advantageous in situations where the IT professional may need to involve 3rd party technical support from a vendor as well. Often, these vendors will have the means to establish remote sessions to take control of your desktop (or the machine in which you’ve successfully recreated the problem on), which gives the vendor the ability to actually see the issue while it’s occurring to further help diagnose what is happening.
7. Are benchmarks and logs available?
Having some kind of benchmarking tool available to track and record network and server performance is beyond measure in terms of its overall value when helping an IT professional track down challenging technical issues. One of the key areas worth checking when problems are being reported is looking at the actual METRICS over a historical period of time. Metrics can prove to be invaluable when trying to figure out: Whether the problem reported actually exists or is a false positive
Maybe you’ve been in a situation where someone reports, “The file server is really slow today!” Without historical benchmarks available, taking a look at the current server performance may not yield any fruitful results because the CPU, disk, network, and memory counters all SEEM to be operating at a reasonable level, but based on and compared to what exactly?
With historical benchmarks available, there is a foundation to actually compare today’s performance on the server as it relates to the CPU, Disk, Network, and Memory (and any other metric/counter you want) VERSUS what the server has been utilizing for the past days, weeks, or months prior.
What historical benchmarks might help you discover is, that according to the historical data, perhaps there is absolutely NO difference in the server performance today versus previous days, weeks, or months? The complaint of “The file server is really slow today” turns out to be a false positive in that case, proven by the metrics an historical benchmarks. Finding the real cause and resolution to the user’s complaint is going to require you to start looking into other areas aside from the server itself. Perhaps it’s a client-side issue or networking issue.
Having benchmarks available is crucial in taking out illogical guess-work and assumptions, and replacing them with hard evidence and facts to back up your problem solving process. There are countless software options available that will give you the data you need for metrics, though we often recommend using PRTG from Paessler, which is a wonderful utility for acquiring benchmarks on your network and servers.
Logs are another important thing to consider during the troubleshooting process. Going back into log history can give a stumped IT Professional some additional clues as to what is going on, especially in cases where the question of “ When did the problem start?” remains unanswered.
Having network devices (switches, routers, firewalls, wireless, etc.) sending their log information to a dedicated syslog server (for example, Kiwi Syslog Server from SolarWinds) gives someone the opportunity to search for entries related to particular devices (by IP address) for specific warning messages or error messages.
Syslog messages and the historical information gathered here can sometimes help point the IT Professional in the right direction, not to mention, the logs themselves can be extremely valuable to the vendor of the product as well when they are involved in troubleshooting what is happening.
8. I’m officially stuck – now what?
Alright, so you find yourself in one of those rather unpleasant circumstances where you’ve asked all the right questions, dug into your resourceful bag of tricks, and find that you’ve exhausted all your technical knowledge and ability to track down the source of the problem. What do you do now? The first step is DON’T PANIC . Effective problem solving is, more often than not, substantially reduced when the IT professional is stressed out and under pressure (although in some rare cases, people tend to flourish under these “trial by fire” scenarios). Keeping panic at bay will help a person to remain calm, focused, and continue to allow them to logically walk through the problem solving process.
This is however, easier said than done, when there are countless emails and phone calls coming in demanding an update as to when the source of the problem will be fixed (and let’s not forget, potentially angry bosses that might be clueless as to why the problem is taking more than 10 minutes to resolve!).
The second step is just that, call in the cavalry! Let’s face it, there will always be instances where even the most seasoned IT professional needs assistance from peers, vendors or other resources . None of us are capable of knowing absolutely everything. When you find yourself struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out for help! What does that mean?
- Open a case with, for example, Cisco TAC support
- Open a case with, for example, Microsoft PSS support
- Involve a co-worker, professional colleague, or peer
- Partner with a local and trusted IT vendor
- Google can be your friend (be careful of “quick-fix” solutions you find)
- Look into vendor specific forums (most large-vendors have them)
The problem solving process in summary
Be sure to give yourself the absolute best chance to combat those dreaded technical support issues. The next time someone contacts you and yells in a panic, “Email is broken!” understand that you can more quickly deduct what is actually going on and help minimize the amount of time necessary to resolve the problem by simply asking the right questions :
- What is the Actual Problem?
- Who is Experiencing the Problem?
- When did the Problem Start?
- Is the Problem Intermittent or Constant?
- What Recently Changed?
- Can the Problem be Recreated?
- Are Benchmarks and Logs Available?
- I’m Officially Stuck – Now What?
Keep in mind, however, that not only do you need answers to those questions, but you need answers that are accurate .
As stated earlier, this means the IT professional may need to take the necessary time to validate the answers being provided to them. Inaccurate answers and misinformed facts will send you down the wrong troubleshooting path and unnecessarily prolong the amount of time necessary to resolve complex technical support issues. So get your facts straight!
Having the answers to these questions will allow you to immediately narrow down the scope of the problem and the potential areas at fault, conduct tests, formulate conclusions, and resolve problems even faster than you may have anticipated.
You should also read:
5 practical steps to avoid a cyber attack
Understanding the e-rate process [download primer].
Jesse is the owner of Source One Technology and has been providing IT consulting services to schools , nonprofits and SMBs in Waukesha , Milwaukee , Dane , Washington , Jefferson , Ozaukee , Kenosha , Racine counties and across Wisconsin for over 18 years.
Is application virtualization now a necessity?
Microsoft deployment toolkit and windows deployment services, 2 thoughts on “an effective problem solving process for it professionals”.
Found your article very interesting. I can definitely identify with all of the points you made, especially troubleshooting. Either you can or cant troubleshoot and think logically through an issue or problem. You are right in mentioning that its something you really cannot teach. One other thing that helps with a logically stepping through the process is documentation. There should always be a repository where network diagrams, server builds, OS versions etc., are kept. I understand that a lot of times these documents cannot be relied upon due to being out of date and it seems most people scoff at the idea of keeping good documentation. But I believe it to be important to help with any troubleshooting. You also mentioned the question, Did anything change? or What changed? A big issue when attempting to troubleshoot. Every place I have worked at, always used a change management process that documented every single change, no matter how small. Of course these places had to by law (SOX audits) because they were publicly traded companies. Just wanted to say, good article!
That is a great article with some excellent questions. Working with students and teachers, I’d throw in a few extra suggestions.
1. What is a reasonable timeline for solving the problem? Often times a lack of communication to this question leads to frustration and long term mistrust regarding the reliability of technology. Asking what needs to be done from the end user’s perspective, and knowing their timeline for completion is helpful. Giving them a reasonable amount of time in which they can expect the issue to be resolved sets everybody up for success around reasonable expectations.
2. Suggest potential work-arounds when necessary — Standing in front of a group of adults and attempting to present when the technology is not working is overwhelming and frustrating. The same tech failure when you are working with a group of students and you start to lose their attention — it’s a nightmare! Knowing what tools your district provides for staff and their general purpose may allow you to offer some potential work-around ideas until the problem is resolved. There is not a fix for everything, but when you can suggest a reasonable alternative in the moment, you offer more than just tech support — you offer customer service.
Comments are closed.
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333 Bishops Way, Ste 120 Brookfield, WI 53005
P: (262) 432-9000
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Sometimes, it is not enough to just cope with the problems – they need to be solved.
Most people engage in problem solving every day. It occurs automatically for many of the small decisions that need to be made on a daily basis.
For example, when making a decision about whether to get up now or sleep in for an extra 10 minutes, the possible choices and the relative risks and benefits of obeying the alarm clock or sleeping later come automatically to mind.
Larger problems are addressed in a similar way. For example: “I have tasks that need to be done by the end of the week. How am I going to get them all done on time?”
After considering the possible strategies, 1 is chosen and implemented. If it proves to be ineffective, a different strategy is tried.
People who can define problems, consider options, make choices, and implement a plan have all the basic skills required for effective problem solving.
Sometimes following a step-by-step procedure for defining problems, generating solutions, and implementing solutions can make the process of problem solving seem less overwhelming.
Six step guide to help you solve problems
Step 1: identify and define the problem.
- State the problem as clearly as possible. For example: “I don’t have enough money to pay the bills.”
- Be specific about the behaviour, situation, timing, and circumstances that make it a problem. For example: “I need to pay the phone and gas bills, and I don’t have enough money to cover both this month.”
Step 2: Generate possible solutions
- List all the possible solutions; don’t worry about the quality of the solutions at this stage.
- Try to list at least 15 solutions, be creative and forget about the quality of the solution.
- If you allow yourself to be creative you may come up with some solutions that you would not otherwise have thought about.
Step 3: Evaluate alternatives
- The next step is to go through and eliminate less desirable or unreasonable solutions.
- Order the remaining solutions in order of preference.
- Evaluate the remaining solutions in terms of their advantages and disadvantages.
Step 4: Decide on a solution
- Specify who will take action.
- Specify how the solution will be implemented.
- Specify when the solution will be implemented. For example: tomorrow morning, phone the gas company and negotiate to pay the gas bill next month.
Step 5: Implement the solution
- Implement the solution as planned.
Step 6: Evaluate the outcome
- Evaluate how effective the solution was.
- Decide whether the existing plan needs to be revised, or whether a new plan is needed to better address the problem.
- If you are not pleased with the outcome, return to step 2 to select a new solution or revise the existing solution, and repeat the remaining steps.
Problem solving is something we do every day.
Some problems are small or easily solved - others are more complicated and can seem overwhelming.
One way of tackling problems is to use a specific and systematic problem solving procedure. If you’ve tried to solve certain problems without much success, try these steps out and see if they help.
Learning to solve problems effectively will help you to minimise the level of stress in your life and improve your overall sense of well-being.
Try it out and see.
Where to get help
Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI)
- 9.00am – 5.00pm, Monday to Friday
- Phone: (08) 9227 4399
- Email: [email protected]
- Read more about the Centre for Clinical Interventions
See your doctor
Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222, mental health emergency response line (mherl).
- Metro callers: 1300 55 788
- Peel: 1800 676 822
- Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002
- Most people engage in problem solving daily.
- Sometimes following a step-by-step process to define problems, consider options and make choices can make problem solving less overwhelming.
- You can always talk to your doctor or mental health practitioner and ask for help.
This information provided by
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.
- Centre for Clinical Interventions
- Unhelpful thinking styles
- Depression – reversing the vicious cycle
- Anxiety – reversing the vicious cycle
- Centre for Clinical Interventions (external site)
- Head to Health (external site)
- Patients' rights
University Human Resources
8-step problem solving process, organizational effectiveness.
121 University Services Building, Suite 50 Iowa City , IA 52242-1911 United States
Step 1: Define the Problem
- What is the problem?
- How did you discover the problem?
- When did the problem start and how long has this problem been going on?
- Is there enough data available to contain the problem and prevent it from getting passed to the next process step? If yes, contain the problem.
Step 2: Clarify the Problem
- What data is available or needed to help clarify, or fully understand the problem?
- Is it a top priority to resolve the problem at this point in time?
- Are additional resources required to clarify the problem? If yes, elevate the problem to your leader to help locate the right resources and form a team.
- Consider a Lean Event (Do-it, Burst, RPI, Project).
- ∙Ensure the problem is contained and does not get passed to the next process step.
Step 3: Define the Goals
- What is your end goal or desired future state?
- What will you accomplish if you fix this problem?
- What is the desired timeline for solving this problem?
Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem
- Identify possible causes of the problem.
- Prioritize possible root causes of the problem.
- What information or data is there to validate the root cause?
Step 5: Develop Action Plan
- Generate a list of actions required to address the root cause and prevent problem from getting to others.
- Assign an owner and timeline to each action.
- Status actions to ensure completion.
Step 6: Execute Action Plan
- Implement action plan to address the root cause.
- Verify actions are completed.
Step 7: Evaluate the Results
- Monitor and Collect Data.
- Did you meet your goals defined in step 3? If not, repeate th 8-Step Process.
- Were there any unforeseen consequences?
- If problem is resolved, remove activities that were added previously to contain the problem.
Step 8: Continuously Improve
- Look for additional opportunities to implement solution.
- Ensure problem will not come back and communicate lessons learned.
- If needed, repeat the 8-Step Problem Solving Process to drive further improvements.
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- Problem solving
A step-by-step guide to problem solving
Let’s face it, having to deal with problems can really suck, making you feel paralysed and out of control. Whatever the scale of your issues, there are steps you can take to feel more in control. And while you might not always make the right choice, you can learn how to feel comfortable with the decisions you make.
This can help if:
- you’re facing a difficult problem or decision
- you’re feeling overwhelmed by your options
- you want to learn how to make better decisions.
Why problem solving is useful
Whether you’re at a crossroads with a decision, or you’ve got a problem that’s wearing you down, if you approach the issue proactively, you can avoid those crappy feelings of self-doubt and hopelessness. Focus on what you can do, instead of the things that are out of your control, and feel satisfied that you’ve done the best you can.
8 steps to problem solving
Step 1 . Define the problem. What exactly is going on? Sometimes a problem just seems too big to tackle. However, if you make a list and break it down into smaller parts that you can make a start on solving, it’ll feel more manageable.
Step 2 . Set some goals. Focus on the steps you can take to resolve things, rather than just thinking about what you’d like to happen. Maybe you wish you had more money. Make a list of all the ways you can save or earn more. It could mean walking to school rather than taking the bus, or applying for a part-time job.
Step 3. Brainstorm possible solutions. Be creative and come up with as many solutions as you can think of. Some ideas may be way out there, but don’t worry about evaluating them yet. If you want to solve a conflict you’re having with your parents by escaping on a rainbow unicorn, write it down! Keep an open mind and list anything that comes to mind, plausible or not.
Step 4. Rule out any obvious poor options. Okay, reality check. Evaluate your list of ideas and rule out the ones that are unrealistic or unhelpful. Bye-bye, rainbow unicorn. But how about trying to see things from your parents’ point of view? That option should probably stay on your list.
Step 5. Examine the consequences. Go through the options you’ve got left and for each one write a list of their pros and cons.
Step 6. Identify the best solutions . Now it’s time to make a decision. Look at your list of options, and pick out the ones that are most practical and helpful. There may be one obvious solution, or some might work in combination.
Step 7. Put your solutions into practice. Have faith in yourself and make the commitment to try out one of your solutions.
Step 8. How did it go? So, you tried it out. What happened? If you had more than one solution and the first didn’t work, move on to another one.
What to do when you can’t fix the issue
Despite your best efforts, you may still not be able to fix something. If you’ve tried a few strategies but haven’t had any success, you might try to focus on your coping skills instead, to help you deal with things as they are.
If you’re experiencing a lot of negative feelings because of your issue, it’s important to look after yourself. Take time out to do something you enjoy. You might also find it helpful to talk to someone you trust who can give you moral support. If your situation is interfering with your day-to-day life, it’s a good idea to get some professional help .
What can I do now?
- Grab a notebook and start brainstorming ideas for solving the problem.
- If a solution is proving to be elusive, focus on your coping skills .
- Talk to someone you trust about your problem and see if they have any insights to offer.
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It's not always easy to find the right place to start. Our 'What's on your mind?' tool can help you explore what's right for you.
Problem-Solving Techniques and Tips (That Actually Work)
Solving complex problems may be difficult but it doesn't have to be excruciating. You just need the right frame of mind and a process for untangling the problem at hand.
Luckily for you, there are plenty of techniques available to solve whatever problems come at you in the workplace.
When faced with a doozy of a problem, where do you start? And what problem-solving techniques can you use right now that can help you make good decisions?
Today's post will give you tips and techniques for solving complex problems so you can untangle any complication like an expert.
How many steps are there in problem-solving?
At its core, problem-solving is a methodical four-step process. You may even recall these steps from when you were first introduced to the Scientific Method.
- First, you must define the problem . What is its cause? What are the signs there's a problem at all?
- Next, you identify various options for solutions. What are some good ideas to solve this?
- Then, evaluate your options and choose from among them. What is the best option to solve the problem? What's the easiest option? How should you prioritize?
- Finally, implement the chosen solution . Does it solve the problem? Is there another option you need to try?
When applying problem-solving techniques, you will be using a variation of these steps as your foundation.
Takeaway: Before you can solve a problem, seek to understand it fully.
Creative problem-solving techniques
Time to get creative! You might think this will just be a list of out-of-the-box ways to brainstorm ideas. Not exactly.
Creative problem solving (CPS) is actually a formal process formulated by Sidney Parnes and Alex Faickney Osborn , who is thought of as the father of traditional brainstorming (and the "O" in famous advertising agency BBDO).
Their creative problem solving process emphasizes several things, namely:
- Separate ideation from evaluation . When you brainstorm creative ideas, have a separate time for writing it all down. Focus on generating lots of ideas. Don't prioritize or evaluate them until everything is captured.
- Judging will shut it down . Nothing stops the flow of creative ideas faster than judging them on the spot. Wait until the brainstorming is over before you evaluate.
- Restate problems as questions . It's easier to entice a group into thinking of creative ideas when challenges are stated as open-ended questions.
- Use "Yes and" to expand ideas . Here's one of the basic tenets of improv comedy. It's way too easy to shut down and negate ideas by using the word "but" (i.e. "But I think this is better..."). Avoid this at all costs. Instead, expand on what was previously introduced by saying "Yes, and..." to keep ideas flowing and evolving.
Takeaway: When brainstorming solutions, generate ideas first by using questions and building off of existing ideas. Do all evaluating and judging later.
Problem-solving tips from psychology
If you take a look at the history of problem-solving techniques in psychology, you'll come across a wide spectrum of interesting ideas that could be helpful.
Take it from experience
In 1911, the American psychologist Edward Thorndike observed cats figuring out how to escape from the cage he placed them in. From this, Thorndike developed his law of effect , which states: If you succeed via trial-and-error, you're more likely to use those same actions and ideas that led to your previous success when you face the problem again.
Takeaway: Your past experience can inform and shed light on the problem you face now. Recall. Explore.
Barriers to reproductive thinking
The Gestalt psychologists built on Thorndike's ideas when they proposed that problem-solving can happen via reproductive thinking — which is not about sex, but rather solving a problem by using past experience and reproducing that experience to solve the current problem.
What's interesting about Gestalt psychology is how they view barriers to problem-solving. Here are two such barriers:
- Are you entrenched? Look up mental set or entrenchment . This is when you're fixated on a solution that used to work well in the past but has no bearing to your current problem. Are you so entrenched with a method or idea that you use it even when it doesn't work? As Queen Elsa sang, "Let it go!"
- Are you thinking of alternative uses? There is a cognitive bias called functional fixedness which could thwart any of your critical thinking techniques by having you only see an object's conventional function. For example, say you need to cut a piece of paper in half but only have a ruler. Functional fixedness would lead you to think the ruler is only good for measuring things. (You could also use the ruler to crease the paper, making it easier to tear it in half.)
Takeaway: Think outside of the box! And by box, we mean outside of the past experience you're holding on to, or outside any preconceived ideas on how a tool is conventionally used.
More problem-solving tools
Hurson's productive thinking model.
In his book "Think Better," author and creativity guru Tim Hurson proposed a six-step model for solving problems creatively. The steps in his Productive Thinking Model are:
- Ask, "What is going on?" Define the problem and its impact on your company, then clarify your vision for the future.
- Ask, "What is success?" Define what the solution must do, what resources it needs, its scope , and the values it must uphold.
- Ask, "What is the question?" Generate a long list of questions that, when answered, will solve the problem.
- Generate answers . Answer the questions from step three.
- Forge the solution . Evaluate the ideas with potential based on the criteria from step two. Pick a solution.
- Align resources . Identify people and resources to execute the solution.
Use a fishbone diagram to see cause and effect
The most important part of defining the problem is looking at the possible root cause. You'll need to ask yourself questions like: Where and when is it happening? How is it occurring? With whom is it happening? Why is it happening?
You can get to the root cause with a fishbone diagram (also known as an Ishikawa diagram or a cause and effect diagram).
Basically, you put the effect on the right side as the problem statement. Then you list all possible causes on the left, grouped into larger cause categories. The resulting shape resembles a fish skeleton. Which is a perfect way to say, "This problem smells fishy."
Use analogies to get to a solution
Analogical thinking uses information from one area to help with a problem in a different area. In short, solving a different problem can lead you to find a solution to the actual problem. Watch out though! Analogies are difficult for beginners and take some getting used to.
An example: In the "radiation problem," a doctor has a patient with a tumor that cannot be operated on. The doctor can use rays to destroy the tumor but it also destroys healthy tissue.
Two researchers, Gick and Holyoak , noted that people solved the radiation problem much more easily after being asked to read a story about an invading general who must capture the fortress of a king but be careful to avoid landmines that will detonate if large forces traverse the streets. The general then sends small forces of men down different streets so the army can converge at the fortress at the same time and can capture it at full force.
Ask "12 what elses"
In her book " The Architecture of All Abundance ," author Lenedra J. Carroll (aka the mother of pop star Jewel) talks about a question-and-answer technique for getting out of a problem.
When faced with a problem, ask yourself a question about it and brainstorm 12 answers ("12 what elses") to that problem. Then you can go further by taking one answer, turning it into a question and generating 12 more "what elses." Repeat until the solution is golden brown, fully baked, and ready to take out of the oven.
Start using these techniques today
Hopefully you find these different techniques useful and they get your imagination rolling with ideas on how to solve different problems.
And if that's the case, then you have four different takeaways to use the next time a problem gets you tangled up:
- Don't start by trying to solve the problem. First, aim to understand the root of the problem.
- Use questions to generate ideas for solving the problem.
- Look to previous problems to find the answers to new ones.
- Clear your preconceived ideas and past experiences before attempting to tackle the problem.
How to solve problems with Wrike
Empower your team to be even more productive with Wrike's project management and collaboration tools. With documents, revisions, and project -related communication all in one place, employees can use Wrike as a single source of truth for all project information.
Get 360-degree visibility of all your work and identify problems before they occur — see schedule or resource conflicts on Gantt charts, easily view progress with custom statuses, and move work along with automated approvals.
Want to streamline your processes and ease future problem-solving? Get started with a free two-week trial of Wrike today.
What are your favorite problem-solving techniques?
Do you have a problem-solving technique that has worked wonders for your organization? Hit the comments below and share your wisdom!
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Everybody can benefit from having good problem solving skills as we all encounter problems on a daily basis. Some of these problems are obviously more severe or complex than others.
It would be wonderful to have the ability to solve all problems efficiently and in a timely fashion without difficulty, unfortunately though there is no one way in which all problems can be solved.
You will discover, as you read through our pages on problem solving, that the subject is complex.
However well prepared we are for problem solving, there is always an element of the unknown. Although planning and structuring will help make the problem solving process more likely to be successful, good judgement and an element of good luck will ultimately determine whether problem solving was a success.
Interpersonal relationships fail and businesses fail because of poor problem solving.
This is often due to either problems not being recognised or being recognised but not being dealt with appropriately.
Problem solving skills are highly sought after by employers as many companies rely on their employees to identify and solve problems.
A lot of the work in problem solving involves understanding what the underlying issues of the problem really are - not the symptoms. Dealing with a customer complaint may be seen as a problem that needs to be solved, and it's almost certainly a good idea to do so. The employee dealing with the complaint should be asking what has caused the customer to complain in the first place, if the cause of the complaint can be eliminated then the problem is solved.
In order to be effective at problem solving you are likely to need some other key skills, which include:
Creativity. Problems are usually solved either intuitively or systematically. Intuition is used when no new knowledge is needed - you know enough to be able to make a quick decision and solve the problem, or you use common sense or experience to solve the problem. More complex problems or problems that you have not experienced before will likely require a more systematic and logical approach to solve, and for these you will need to use creative thinking. See our page on Creative Thinking for more information.
Researching Skills. Defining and solving problems often requires you to do some research: this may be a simple Google search or a more rigorous research project. See our Research Methods section for ideas on how to conduct effective research.
Team Working. Many problems are best defined and solved with the input of other people. Team working may sound like a 'work thing' but it is just as important at home and school as well as in the workplace. See our Team-Working page for more.
Emotional Intelligence. It is worth considering the impact that a problem and/or its solution has on you and other people. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise the emotions of yourself and others, will help guide you to an appropriate solution. See our Emotional Intelligence pages for more.
Risk Management. Solving a problem involves a certain amount of risk - this risk needs to be weighed up against not solving the problem. You may find our Risk Management page useful.
Decision Making . Problem solving and decision making are closely related skills, and making a decision is an important part of the problem solving process as you will often be faced with various options and alternatives. See Decision Making for more.
The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.
John Foster Dulles, Former US Secretary of State.
What is a Problem?
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) defines a problem as:
“ A doubtful or difficult matter requiring a solution ”
“ Something hard to understand or accomplish or deal with.”
It is worth also considering our own view of what a problem is.
We are constantly exposed to opportunities in life, at work, at school and at home. However many opportunities are missed or not taken full advantage of. Often we are unsure how to take advantage of an opportunity and create barriers - reasons why we can't take advantage. These barriers can turn a potentially positive situation into a negative one, a problem.
Are we missing the 'big problem'? It is human nature to notice and focus on small, easy to solve problems but much harder to work on the big problems that may be causing some of the smaller ones.
It's useful to consider the following questions when faced with a problem.
Is the problem real or perceived?
Is this problem really an opportunity?
Does the problem need solving?
All problems have two features in common: goals and barriers.
Problems involve setting out to achieve some objective or desired state of affairs and can include avoiding a situation or event.
Goals can be anything that you wish to achieve, or where you want to be. If you are hungry then your goal is probably to eat something. If you are the head of an organisation (CEO), then your main goal may be to maximise profits and this main goal may need to be split into numerous sub-goals in order to fulfil the ultimate aim of increasing profits.
If there were no barriers in the way of achieving a goal, then there would be no problem. Problem solving involves overcoming the barriers or obstacles that prevent the immediate achievement of goals.
Following our examples above, if you feel hungry then your goal is to eat. A barrier to this may be that you have no food available - so you take a trip to the supermarket and buy some food, removing the barrier and thus solving the problem. Of course for the CEO wanting to increase profits there may be many more barriers preventing the goal from being reached. The CEO needs to attempt to recognise these barriers and remove them or find other ways to achieve the goals of the organisation.
Our problem solving pages provide a simple and structured approach to problem solving.
The approach referred to is generally designed for problem solving in an organisation or group context, but can also be easily adapted to work at an individual level at home or in education.
Trying to solve a complex problem alone however can be a mistake. The old adage " A problem shared is a problem halved " is sound advice.
Talking to others about problems is not only therapeutic but can help you see things from a different point of view, opening up more potential solutions.
Stages of Problem Solving
Effective problem solving usually involves working through a number of steps or stages, such as those outlined below.
This stage involves: detecting and recognising that there is a problem; identifying the nature of the problem; defining the problem.
The first phase of problem solving may sound obvious but often requires more thought and analysis. Identifying a problem can be a difficult task in itself. Is there a problem at all? What is the nature of the problem, are there in fact numerous problems? How can the problem be best defined? By spending some time defining the problem you will not only understand it more clearly yourself but be able to communicate its nature to others, which leads to the second phase.
Structuring the Problem:
This stage involves: a period of observation, careful inspection, fact-finding and developing a clear picture of the problem.
Following on from problem identification, structuring the problem is all about gaining more information about the problem and increasing understanding. This phase is all about fact finding and analysis, building a more comprehensive picture of both the goal(s) and the barrier(s). This stage may not be necessary for very simple problems but is essential for problems of a more complex nature.
Looking for Possible Solutions:
During this stage you will generate a range of possible courses of action, but with little attempt to evaluate them at this stage.
From the information gathered in the first two phases of the problem solving framework it is now time to start thinking about possible solutions to the identified problem. In a group situation this stage is often carried out as a brain-storming session, letting each person in the group express their views on possible solutions (or part solutions). In organisations different people will have different expertise in different areas and it is useful, therefore, to hear the views of each concerned party.
Making a Decision:
This stage involves careful analysis of the different possible courses of action and then selecting the best solution for implementation.
This is perhaps the most complex part of the problem solving process. Following on from the previous step it is now time to look at each potential solution and carefully analyse it. Some solutions may not be possible, due to other problems like time constraints or budgets. It is important at this stage to also consider what might happen if nothing was done to solve the problem - sometimes trying to solve a problem that leads to many more problems requires some very creative thinking and innovative ideas.
Finally, make a decision on which course of action to take - decision making is an important skill in itself and we recommend that you see our pages on decision making .
This stage involves accepting and carrying out the chosen course of action.
Implementation means acting on the chosen solution. During implementation more problems may arise especially if identification or structuring of the original problem was not carried out fully.
The last stage is about reviewing the outcomes of problem solving over a period of time, including seeking feedback as to the success of the outcomes of the chosen solution.
The final stage of problem solving is concerned with checking that the process was successful. This can be achieved by monitoring and gaining feedback from people affected by any changes that occurred. It is good practice to keep a record of outcomes and any additional problems that occurred.
Continue to: Identifying and Structuring Problems Social Problem Solving
See also: Project Management Risk Management Effective Decision Making
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Why should your organization attempt to solve this problem? Is it aligned with your strategy? If a solution is found, who will implement it?
You'd think that many brains working together would mean better solutions, but the reality is that too often problem-solving teams fall victim
Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution
This guide walks you through the methods, strategies, practical steps and questions you need to ask for an effective problem solving
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