The How and Why of Problem Solving

Problem Solving – The How and Why

In a previous blog, the focus was Effective Conflict Resolution.  In many cases, only once a conflict is truly resolved and emotions are diffused can you start solving a problem and achieving desired results.

Individuals are continually confronted with situations requiring more than just a simple solution. Effective problem solving requires an individual to employ a systematic and creative approach. This approach generates solutions considering the short- and long-term business implications. Effective problem solving is best viewed as a method to create positive opportunities.

General Problem

The general problem has, in most cases, triggered the need to problem-solve. It is less important to get the general problem statement “right” than to get it down on paper so the process may begin. By documenting the general issue, you establish a starting point. Frequently, the general problem is a symptom of the real problem you are trying to pinpoint.

People and Timing

When you are initially confronted with a problem, an important consideration is deciding who should be involved, who the decision-makers are and, what time frame is required to solve it. If an individual or a group of individuals is/are going to be significantly affected by the results, you may want to involve them in the process. You may not initially know whom to involve, so be open to more involvement at any time in the process. Increased participation in solving the problem may increase the time commitment; however, the power of group resources, a variety of perspectives and brainpower significantly outweighs the additional time required.

Facts and Feelings

Symptoms are the facts (qualitative and quantitative) and feelings associated with the general problem at hand. The highest success in stating symptoms comes when you tap into both the rational facts and the emotional feelings. It is important to be as complete as possible when listing all the facts and feelings. One process is sometimes called a “brain dump” or brainstorming, as you simply want to get everything you can out on the table. If you are group problem solving, it gets everyone involved. Upon completion of the brain dump,  it is very helpful to order the symptoms under two headings — driving forces (plus) and restraining forces (minus) — and then rate each symptom as having a high, medium, or low impact on the problem.

Coming up with well-thought-out restrainers and drivers is usually an excellent way to identify the change elements surrounding the problem. Change issues require the problem solver(s) to step into the shoes of others who are affected by the issue. Give consideration and weight to an individual or group’s resistance to change and, conversely, the group’s high capacity for change.

Root Problem Statement

Once the symptoms have been rated on impact and put in some kind of order, the problem may become much clearer or more specific. If the problem does not become clearer, it is usually because the listed symptoms are incomplete and, therefore, should be reviewed.

Finding a root problem is just as it sounds. It is focused and foundational. Frequently, one of the restraining forces noted in the symptoms will be identified as the root problem to be solved. From this point forward, the root problem becomes “the problem.” Once the root problem is solved, the general problem will have been addressed.

A specific root problem must be stated. A very good statement usually has “how to” in it somewhere. Then it is very easy to link a goal statement to your problem statement. It is critical the problem statement is accurate. The whole process is useless if the root problem is not identified correctly. Too broad a problem statement will result in you being all over the map and therefore not having enough focus.

One of the most frustrating aspects of problem-solving occurs when several problems are layered over each other and are interconnected. The attempt to solve one problem affects another. Complexity usually has to do with the size, impact, interconnectivity, and dynamics of the problem. This model can be used for complex problems. The key to solving a complex problem is drilling into the depth of the identified root problem.


Once the root problem has been clarified, it is critical to set a goal. If possible, it helps to set a SMART goal, but at minimum, the goal should be a first­ cut goal. Simple problems are usually possible to quantify.

S                 Shared

M                Measurable

A                 Actionable

R                 Realistic

T                 Time-Phased

Generate Options

A significant amount of discipline is required at the option generation stage. Because of the realities of day-to-day jobs, there is a tendency to be very tactical and want to solve the problem along one path — one option with a series of tactics; however, the generating of options, and later the evaluation of the options, results in a much more effective process. The driving forces tend to be better maximized and the restraining forces negated or at least minimized. Option generation can be done using numerous processes, including spectrum generation and brainstorming.

A spectrum is generated by laying out each end of the spectrum for solving the problem and then filling in the middle ground options.   The spectrum method tends to work well when a similar problem has occurred in the past and the options are easy to generate. An example of two ends of the spectrum for a poor-performing employee could be as follows:

Brainstorming can be much more creative than trying to generate a spectrum because you randomly consider all options. Ordering is not a constraint. Brainstorming is very effective when a similar problem has not been experienced in the past or a current problem is proving to be very difficult to solve.

Location and Consultation

Generating a wide range of options requires creativity. If you have the opportunity, consider the environment and location during problem-solving. A different physical location may allow for more open thought and discussion adding to the creativity and aiding the progression of the process. Creativity may also come from the objective point of view of a trusted outside individual, especially when considering or evaluating options.

Evaluate Options

Once the options have been generated, it is usually possible to quickly select two or three of the top options. These options are then evaluated against the original driving and restraining focus and measured against the SMART or first-cut goal that is desired. A simple plus/minus is done on each evaluation. Always address cost and risk implications. As noted earlier, this exercise begins to draw out not only the best option but also some good tactical ideas to maximize the drivers and minimize the restrainers.

Drivers and Restrainers

Restraining and driving forces oppose each other. When evaluating an option, you will see the drivers are trying to move toward a solution and the restrainers are an obstacle repelling the drivers. To a large extent, the drivers and restrainers are in equilibrium. This makes sense because it is this present equilibrium causing the current problem to exist.

When evaluating an option, it often seems an easy solution is to maximize the drivers because by doing so, we can overpower the restrainers and head toward a solution; however, a restrainer frequently responds and only strengthens to maintain the present state.

When evaluating an option, it is best to consider what will decrease the restrainer. Doing so will make the option more attractive. When you decrease the restrainers, you create momentum for the drivers.

Choose an Option

Based on the evaluation, pick the best option. At times, choosing a course of action can be very difficult and may even be a 50 /50 decision. You may choose the same option you expected to choose when you began the process; however, your problem now has a higher chance of being solved effectively. The discipline of following the problem-solving model enables you to be more aware of the restrainers and drivers. Therefore, your solution and plan will be much more effective.

Find Opportunity

This may seem hard to believe but almost every problem provides a great opportunity. Frequently there is a great opportunity to develop your own skill. In addition, there is a chance to improve a direct report’s skill or the relationship between you and an individual, a group of people or, even a supplier. By thinking in this positive light, your approach to solving the problem can be very effective and quite different.

The most consistent and effective leaders are those who think of the relational and long-term positive opportunities derived from solving the problem together.

Action Plan

Once an option has been selected, draft an action plan. This plan can usually stand on its own without the rest of the problem-solving done to date. If it is a plan several people must read and execute, it is worthwhile to provide a brief “background to the root problem” and a clear “statement of the problem.” A  SMART goal should then be clearly stated. This should be done regardless of the number of people involved in the plan. Stating a clear SMART goal provides excellent focus for everyone. The core of the tactical action plan is to draft the plan in a chart form. In effect, the chart drives the stair steps, the person who is accountable, the timing, any subgoals and, any additional comments.

Framework for Problem Solving

Identify the Issue
-The general issue…what is presenting itself
-A Starting Point…helps give direction to the rest of the process
-Often a symptom of the root problem

Gather Data
-Facts and feelings
-Symptoms of the general problem
-Who else is involved
-What is the timeframe to solve the problem
-What are the financial considerations
-The 5 why’s…keep asking why
-What does your ‘gut’ say
-Drivers and Restrainers…prioritize and measure impact of each (Low, Medium, High)

Root Problem Statement
-Clarity after the data gathering step
-Clear, specific, focused
-Statement has a ‘how to’ to give it forward momentum
-The most critical step of the process


o Methods: Brainstorming…random; Spectrum generation…linear (worst case to base case)
o Considerations: Physical location…what location is most conducive to the creative process; Outside consultation; Record your options

o Select 2-3 top options
o Evaluate against original drivers and restrainers
o Perform a +/- chart for each
o Other considerations
o Helps develop tactics to maximize drivers and minimize restrainers

o Pick the best one based on evaluation
o Might be the one expected to choose before you began the process

Action Plan
-Root Problem Statement
-SMART Goal…short term and long term
-Tactics, timing, people, budget
-Critical Path Schedule
-Execute/Measurement/Feedback mechanism