The ability to solve problems effectively is one of the most valuable skills you can have.
Regardless your line of work, you’ve probably been faced with numerous situations, both in your personal and professional life, that required swift action to prevent further escalation of the problem. Whether you have to deal with an ongoing cross-department feud, staff shortages, project delivery delays or dysfunctional equipment, there are always fires that need to be put out at work.
Problem solving is often an intuitive process, but certain problems may require a more tactical and meticulous approach to ensure that they’re resolved successfully. In this article, we’ll walk you through the necessary steps you need to follow to become a better problem-solver at work — and beyond.
Step 1: Define the problem
Before you go into problem-solving mode, you must first establish what the problem is and get a solid understanding of all its components.
Start by answering a few questions, such as:
- Who is involved?
- What exactly happened?
- What caused the situation?
- Where did this problem occur?
- Why did it happen?
- What are the immediate effects of this problem?
- How is this problem affecting others?
- How is this problem affecting workflow?
By tackling some of these questions, you’ll be able to understand the full scale of the problem you’re facing, as well as all the aspects you’ll need to consider before you begin working on a solution.
Step 2: Collect feedback
If the problem at hand involves different people, then it's vital to let them offer their insights, too.
Each person may have a different view of what the problem is and what may be causing it. By allowing others to voice their concerns and share their perspective, you can gain a well-rounded understanding of the issue at hand. That said, to be able to come up with an effective solution, you must separate opinion from fact.
You must also take people’s interests into account. How is this problem affecting them? What solution would benefit them? Using tools such as surveys and hosting discussions could be an effective way to receive honest feedback and suggestions.
Step 3: Identify the source of the issue
Beyond defining the problem that you’re faced with, you may also need to identify the root of the problem. This will guide you towards a solution that not only fixes the problem that lies at the surface but also resolve a far deeper issue that could cause more problems to arise in the future.
Using the information you’ve collected, along with the feedback you received, you’ll be able to determine what may be the underlying cause of the problem you’re facing.
For example, you may be working on a collaborative project with colleagues from different departments and teams. However, you’re facing constant delays due to wires getting constantly crossed.
The apparent problem might be a lack of communication and team effort but, in reality, the source of the issue could be that the team didn’t come up with an action plan and set any clear objectives before embarking on the project. Therefore, to come up with a solution, you must first understand where the problem is stemming from.
Step 4: Brainstorm for solutions
Once you’ve determined what the problem is, it’s time to start brainstorming for ways to resolve it. Depending on the nature of the issue, you could brainstorm independently or have others participate in this process.
At this stage, you’ll need to take into consideration all the information, insights and feedback you have received to come up with appropriate solutions that could address the problem without creating new issues in the process.
Allow your imagination to run wild, and consider options from different angles. That said, give yourself a framework to work with; you’ll need to define what the objectives and desired outcomes of these solutions are, as well as any other considerations and limitations that need to be taken into account. You’ll also need to set a deadline, both for this step and the entire process ahead.
Step 5: Utilize problem-solving techniques
When faced with a problem that needs to be resolved quickly and effectively, there are a few techniques you can integrate within the process, including:
The five whys
Use this method to get to the root cause of a problem. Start by defining the problem and then ask why this is occurring. Your answer must be objective and grounded in fact. Then, ask why again in succession to your first answer. Repeat this process three more times, each time framing your “why” around your latest response.
Six thinking hats
This technique allows you to view the outstanding problem from six different perspectives; by the time you have ‘’tried’’ all the hats, you will have a richer insight into the situation. If you’re working on a problem as a team, each person can ‘’wear’’ a different hat.
The blue hat manages the decision-making process, focusing on summarizing all information. The green hat explores creative ideas and solutions. The red hat prioritizes emotions and feelings. The yellow hat focuses on the positive side of each idea. The white hat represents facts and figures. Finally, the black hat uses criticism to cancel out bad ideas.
Failure mode and effects analysis
With this method, you can identify potential failures and problems within your solution strategy. This could require a deeper analysis as well as previous data to support this process. In the end, you’ll be able to take preventative measures before you implement any solutions.
This technique facilitates discussion among bigger groups, helping them approach a problem in a more relaxed and creative setting. To start, create a space modeled after a café, and then let participants discuss and explore ongoing problems.
Step 6: Evaluate the alternatives
Once the brainstorming stage has been completed, you’ll need to evaluate your ideas, considering their merits and fallbacks.
The alternative you choose needs to meet certain criteria. For example, it needs to be aligned to the objectives and goals you established. Furthermore, you must ensure that everyone involved in this process agrees with the choice. More importantly, you should take the feasibility of this solution into account by considering budget constraints, resources, time, and company policies.
Utilizing SWOT analysis will certainly help here. With it, you can identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats attached to each possible solution. Ultimately, this will allow you to select the most appropriate choice.
By measuring these alternatives against these guidelines, you’ll be able to evaluate them individually and determine which one is the wisest choice.
Step 7: Implement the chosen solution
So, you’ve defined the problem, brainstormed a solution, evaluated your options and made your choice on how to address the issue. Now, it’s time to create an implementation strategy and set its wheels in motion.
If you’re working on resolving a problem individually, then you’ll need to determine how to best implement the solution to the problem. Whether it’s a step-by-step action plan, a detailed to-do list or a multitiered scheme, breaking down the process in more digestible sections will help you get started.
Meanwhile, if you’re working as part of a team, tasks will need to be distributed accordingly and allocated to each team member based on their roles. It’s important to check in with others during this stage and ensure that the implementation strategy is going to plan. And in case it isn’t, you’ll need to reconvene accordingly.
Step 8: Monitor progress
Once you have implemented your solution, you’ll need to monitor the progress that is made. This will enable you to identify areas that might need to be adjusted or changed so that you can meet your initial objectives.
If this was a collective effort, then having open channels of communication with the rest of your team will help you gather necessary feedback, too.
Step 9: Document everything
An important step that you should enforce throughout this process is keeping a detailed record of everything. This could include minutes from brainstorming sessions, notes on the initial problem, and plans on the implementation strategy.
By doing so, you’ll be able to preserve everything that was discussed, considered and examined while working towards solving this problem, and it will also help you reevaluate certain decisions and outcomes as you monitor progress.
When faced with complex situations, you must take the time to create a solution that will address the problem effectively and, hopefully, prevent it from reoccurring.
Use the above steps as a blueprint to guide yourself, and your team, through the problem-solving process. Before you can find a solution, you must first understand the problem in detail and gain insight into why it happened. From there on, you’ll be able to come up with an appropriate strategy that will address the issue at hand.
Got a question or want to share your own tips and thoughts on solving problems at work? Let us know in the comments section below.