The problem with problem solving is that we’re getting worse at it, and 50% of business solutions are failing to solve the problem they’re intended to solve. The answer isn’t simply to improve problem solving skills, or apply problem solving methodology, or asking problem solving questions – there’s a more important first step.
In this post we’ll cover the number one thing to make your problems go away, and introduce a simple but effective four step problem solving methodology.
Reacting To Problems Vs Responding
The primary reason we’re stuck in what seems like never ending firefighting mode is that we put up with stuff for far too long, or treat the symptom instead of the cause.
Things move so quickly in business that we have more problems than the time and resource to solve them. Time pressure is intense, so it’s no surprise that we tend to “react” and
- Not identify or define the real problem in a clear and unambiguous manner
- Address symptoms instead of the root cause of the problem
- Leap to solutions too quickly, without generating enough alternatives
- Not include the perspectives of others
- Choose “obvious” solutions, “quick fixes”, or “low hanging fruit”
- Copy or mimic the competition, what’s worked before, or what’s worked for others
Make a Decision to Stop Reacting
If you really want to solve a problem then it’ll take a different approach, and a conscious effort. The most essential and first step is to make a decision to stop simply reacting to problems. Take the time to prioritise them, explore them, and get better at resolving them.
This may mean that you invest some time in developing your problem solving skills, learning a problem solving methodology and some problem solving strategies, and get better at asking problem solving questions.
And once you’ve made that decision to start solving problems effectively instead of reacting to them, here’s a simple four step problem solving methodology to apply.
Define the problem
Identify the problem that you really want to solve and create a “problem statement”. The qualities of a good problem statement are that it’s clear, brief and specific; is focused on something that you can directly own and solve; and doesn’t imply a solution.
It’s also important to be conscious of trying to address the source of the problem, and not just a symptom of it. You wouldn’t paint over a water mark without fixing the leak that caused it – would you?
Here’s an example of a good problem statement: “Three of our very best and most loyal customers have left us in the past month, and we need to be doing all we can to make sure that this doesn’t continue.”
Generate alternative solutions
There’s a very real tendency to react to situations by jumping to conclusions, and leaping onto the first solution that seems like it might work. One of the things I like to do as a coach is to generate at least 5 potential solutions to any problem before we take action.
If it’s a really significant problem then go the extra distance and do a full on brainstorm, and involve your team (if appropriate).
To get the best out your brainstorming
- Aim for quantity – set a minimum number eg 50 or 60 ideas
- Let the mind flow freely – with no judgment or argument
- Create a space for people to add more ideas later – we often come up with other thoughts later (probably in the shower. on the toilet, or out walking)
- Purposely ask for and include some ridiculous and fun ideas that sound crazy and impractical – it’ll help creativity, and you never know what spark may come from it.
Another concept I enjoy working with is “question storming”.
It’s the same as brainstorming, but instead of creating ideas for solutions we create 50 or more questions, such as… why did they leave, what have we changed in the past two or three months, what’s the competition doing differently, where did they go, why didn’t we know about it before they left, who else may be thinking of leaving, can we get them back, what would it take to get them back, how will this impact our business, what will we do to get new customers.
(If you’d like to know more about question storming – tell us and we’ll dedicate an entire post to it)
Evaluate and select a solution
Work with your team to select the top three options by considering what can be done fastest, with the least cost and resource required, that is likely to have the greatest impact.
Implement and follow up
Identify who will “own” the implementation of the solution; and make sure that you hold them accountable. Yes, that’s ONE named person.
Develop a plan to implement and follow up that includes milestones and checkpoints. It’s common to have 30, 60 and 90 day, 120 day goals for big challenges that will take time to implement.
Remember to clearly define what success looks like, so that you can identify if you’ve been successful at solving the problem you want to solve, or not.
In the case of the example that we’ve used – success could be that “no more of our top ten most valuable customers are lost in the next 12 months”.
Diarise to check in at each of the milestones. That includes 6 – 12 months after the solution has been implemented to review, and decide if the problem needs further monitoring or a change of tack.
By taking the time to identify the problems that need to be addressed, instead of reacting to them – we have a real opportunity to get rid of that problem once and for all instead of constantly fighting fires.
The four steps to solve problems are:
- Define the problem
- Generate alternative solutions
- Evaluate and select a solution
- Implement and follow up
Is there a problem that you’ve been battling with for an extended period of time, which is taking up far too much of your time and resources?
Do yourself a favour, and make the time and effort to solve it.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy “How To Handle Difficult Conversations At Work”