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It’s probably on every job spec that’s been written since the start of time.

‘Looking for an innovative problem solver…’

‘…able to solve complicated problems as effectively as possible…’

‘…with a focus on getting to the heart of a problem’

Sound familiar?

It’s equally certain that you’ve talked up your own problem solving skills too, but how good are you really?

Whether you’re looking at a fresh technical dilemma, a new way to restructure a team or the best way to market to a new customer, take a look at our steps to problem solving success.

Separate the issues and the interests

All too often when people look to solve a problem, they fail to separate central business issues and the personal interests of those involved.

Start by identifying what’s caused the problem. Is it something that went wrong? Something that’s no longer working? A competitor taking some of your market share? Whatever it is, starting with the cause should always be the first part on your solution timeline, as it not only helps you to understand the problem itself most clearly, but may help you to take steps to avoid similar problems in the future.

Next, consider the nature and scope of the problem. Is the problem internal or external? Is it with a specific team or service or the business as a whole? What damage is the problem causing? Where is the biggest impact? Understanding the significance of the problem is important when deciding what resources to give it.

At this point, the best managers take the time to understand each person’s interest in the problem. Not only does this help stumbling blocks in getting the problem done, but it keeps everybody on board.

Consider whether people have workload concerns about solving the problem, for example, and make it clear that everyone’s responsibilities are understood and that time is allocated properly. When the core issues are confused with these interests, that’s when the solution becomes unclear.

Start your list

Giving time to this part of the process is hugely important. It often ends up being rushed and then you end up having to go for an inadequate answer to your problem.

Start with proper research. Has this problem come up in the past? What have others done? What expertise is required?

Give the people involved time to propose their own solutions and an open forum to discuss them, as the best answer could well come from an unexpected source.

The reason why you need to give proper time to the problem is to prevent fear from playing a part. Many companies can sit on their biggest problems until it’s too late to resolve them, which comes from concern over the sheer size of the problem. Sometimes the size is a problem in itself.

At this point, it’s always worth remembering the old adage. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Ask someone new

The most effective problem solvers and leaders will be adept at stepping back from a problem, assessing the component parts and plotting a clear, and potentially unexpected path to the answer.

This can be hard to do when you’ve become so absorbed by the problem, and one way round these concerns about objectivity is to bring someone new in.

Whether it’s a junior member of staff or someone from a separate department, they can be hugely beneficial to the process. Not only are they more likely to enter into the problem solving from an objective viewpoint, but it could actually be their different experience that separates them.

In his best-selling book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends a lot of time exploring how many of our decisions are informed by unconscious bias, whether it’s an orchestra looking for a new lead trumpet, or a jury being asked to make a life-changing decision on somebody’s guilt. Having someone outside of the initial process can benefit greatly to remove this bias and help you to consider an option that may have already been dismissed in a different light.

Evaluate

By now, you should have a number of options that are being considered. As you go through your list, look to cross off ideas, remembering that taking the best parts of each may help to inform your final solution.

Utilize pro and cons lists with what you’ve got left, considering things like cost effectiveness and time constraints, not forgetting your initial instinct. While careful deliberation of a problem is important, the part your instinct plays is important too. On the most complicated decisions, it is actually often our unconscious that plays a bigger role in analyzing the data we have in front of us, and so to dismiss it as a tool is foolish.

Hopefully at this point, you’ve found your answer. Create a clear plan of action and your idea won’t be put to waste.

The most important part of the process? Evaluate the effectiveness of the solution. Is the problem solved? To what extent? Unless you properly understand the effectiveness of what you did, you’ve not laid a platform to be more effective and improve in the future. That way, the next time a major problem arises, you’ll be much better placed to resolve it with speed and clarity.

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