Become a Skilled Problem Solver at Work
Some people view problem solving as jumping directly from the problem to the solution—not even to a solution, but to the solution. And sometimes that works. But with anything more than trivial problems, problem solving is a process that entails several steps, including noticing there is a problem, establishing the scope of the problem, analyzing the problem, and finding a solution that resolves the problem.
Given the temptation to leap toward a solution, it may be important, especially at work, to have a structured approach to guide your problem-solving process. Of the seven steps for effective problem solving identified in this post originally published in The Business Journal of Sonoma/Marin, the first and the seventh are worth emphasizing because they are where people often go astray.
The first step is to identify the issues. That is, be clear about exactly what the problem is. Keep in mind that different people are likely to have different views of what the key issues are. This is especially the case in the software world, where multiple, diverse parties will almost always see issues differently.
The seventh step is to agree on contingencies, monitoring, and evaluation. Too often, people implement solutions and rush to the next problem, never looking back to gauge whether the solution really worked. They also fail to ask, “What are our options if this solution fails, or backfires, or simply doesn’t work as we hoped it would?”
Check out this list of more than twenty-five tools for solving business problems. I especially like the one on Failure Mode and Effects Analysis, which can help you identify potential problems before a solution is implemented. Woe to those who implement complex solutions without first doing this sort of analysis.
Consider also this broader three-step problem-solving method: Determine what the return on investment will be. Make a plan and communicate it. Prepare yourself for success or failure. Note: or failure. This method may be overly broad for the kinds of problems you face every day, but it certainly provides food for thought.
Of course, there are entire books on problem solving, including my favorite, Are Your Lights On? How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is, by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg. This book offers many important reminders, such as “If you can’t think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don’t understand the problem.” As the book notes, there are hundreds of things that can be overlooked in any problem definition. If you can’t come up with at least three of them, you’re likely to miss something important.
How good are you at solving problems? Or even thinking about problems that need solving? Here’s a quiz you can take to gauge your problem-solving skills. Once you’ve done that, you can gain authority as a problem solver.