10 steps to solving your problems

The following steps describe approaches I’ve found to be effective in solving problems, and doing do it better, faster and cheaper.

Everyone solves problems every day – or at least we attempt to solve them. I’m sure that you, like me, have seen the same or similar problems crop up in many different companies. Sometimes they arise over and over in the same company. No matter how hard people work at solving them, they remain intractable. Those few individuals and organisations that solve such problems stand out from the rest and gain competitive advantage.

The people trying to solve these problems are clever, capable and experienced. It’s not a matter of ability, intent or endeavour - generally, people do not know how to solve problems “once and for all”. Sometimes they are prevented from doing so, or they choose not to do so for emotional (irrational) reasons.

1. Use a model, don’t wing it.
Consistently successful problem solving demands the use of a problem solving model. There are many to choose from but some of those commonly used are:

  • PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and similar from the quality movement
  • DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) from the six sigma movement
  • AAA (Assess-Activate-Accelerate) from BusinesSPM
I find that PDCA is easy to remember, easy to use and effective. I developed the AAA model to emphasise the iterative nature of good problem solving and to emphasise that good performance is based on sound understanding of the problem and solid capability to address it.
For complex problems where there is no definitive solution (as for many personal, business and politico-economic problems) an excellent model is the Polarity Management method of Dr. Barry Johnson.

AAA Spiral scaledsmpolarity-150

2. Target someone else's problem, not your own
Always identify a target beneficiary of your problem solving other than yourself or your organisation. Your problems are usually a symptom of a problem you (or your organisation) has created for someone else. This beneficiary could be a customer, another department (an internal customer), a supplier, the community and so on. Doing so frees your thinking from the constraint of self-interest, allowing you to more clearly see the core problem and its affects and symptoms.
A good friend of mine once worked for a betting company. During one problem-solving session, he realised that the solutions being discussed were not ones that his father (a casual punter) would not enjoy. He grabbed a spare chair, placed it in front of the team and told them "my dad is sitting here, he's one of our customers and he's going to listen into our discussion". The tone of the meeting changed immediately and the outcome was a product offering that was both good for customers and good for the company.

3. Invest in analysis, rather than spend on (failed) solutions
The commonality of the above models is the emphasis on:

  • Understanding the problem
  • Considering a number of options, rather than a single solution
  • Verifying and validating the chosen solution
  • Iteration (only AAA, PDCA and PM).
A common mistake in problem solving is over-emphasis on getting to the (often pre-ordained) solution at the expense of understanding, options and confirmation. Another is to believe that you'll solve the problem completely and correctly with only one iteration.

4. Address causes not symptoms
Use of a problem solving model (and associated tools such as Ishikawa Diagrams) will help you avoid working on symptoms not the root causes of the problem, but they won’t guarantee it.


A problem solver or the leader of a team assigned to solve a problem must ensure that “why?” is enthusiastically and incessantly asked. If not, inherently simple problems can remain unsolved, sometimes to the extent that they become mythically unsolvable!
One IT company I worked for was continually plagued by conflict between the Sales and Services teams. Sales complained that Services quoted too high, causing opportunities to be lost. Services complained that Sales tried to get free pre-sales support from them and also preferred partner organisations for service delivery. Whenever such conflict reached danger point, meetings would be held to address the issue. Problem solving models were rarely used (sometimes they were tried, but were found to “get in the way”)!
In all cases, it was determined that Sales and Services should work as a team (we were, after all, working for the “one company”). This led to a diagnosis of “lack of teamwork” and so the solution was – obviously - teamwork training. Off the managers of Sales and Services would go to team building sessions and classroom training, and they would return rejuvenated and dedicated to working effectively with each other. But nothing changed. It then became standard for people to say that “Sales and Services can’t work together” and generally they didn’t - a state of “peaceful coexistence” was established. The “lack of team work” was a mere symptom, not a cause. The root cause was that Sales personnel were paid for revenue, and Services for profit, and no “rules of engagement” had been established to ensure that both revenue and profit were optimised.

5. Listen to all, not just the loudest (or biggest, or …)
As part of understanding a problem and developing potential solutions to it, a range of people should be engaged (with differing roles, skills, experience and knowledge). But “engaged” means active participation and active encouragement of participation. In many management meetings I have attended, where problems were discussed, some attendees would participate more than others, and more attention to be given to some than others. For example, If sales managers were present, it was those who were “on target” that dominated; those well behind in achievement tended to be silent. Others fought for attention. Darwinism is not an efficacious approach to problem solving, but a group approach – particularly a diverse group – is so, but only if everyone participates.
Use of an independent and competent facilitator is especially helpful in ensuring broad and effective participation.

6. Brainstorm solutions, not the solution
Brainstorming is a great way of encouraging creative thinking and maximising the use of all participants’ knowledge and experience. But there are a few caveats! First, brainstorming is good for identifying potential solutions but it can’t confirm that a potential solution is a viable one. That requires further investigation, modelling and perhaps a pilot or similar. Secondly, brainstorming should be a structured exercise with some form of rationalisation of “ideas” employed. I find that using Post-It notes for recording ideas works very well. Once the ideas have "dried up", Affinity Mapping or similar can be used to collect like ideas (but make sure collection doesn’t smother originality)


Again, an independent person should facilitate brainstorming sessions. A facilitator can ensure that involvement, creativity, and that time is used effectively.

7. Use consensus not compromise
The whole idea is to find a good solution, not to please everyone, or one or two particular participants. Work through ideas, options, concerns and criticisms until issues are resolved or have been “parked” for further work. This is also where a facilitator can be very effective.

8. Do the planning, don't just write a plan.
The implementation of solutions often needs a lot of effort from a number of people. That requires determination of what needs to be done, by whom, by when, in what manner, using what resources, and it what sequence. This can be quite complicated, and take as much time and effort as was spent on identifying the solution itself; but the effort is worth it.
When developing a plan, I recommend using a network diagram (a simple PERT or CPM format) rather than the common Gantt chart. Network diagrams capture predecessor and successor tasks, and creating them helps the planning process, whereas a Gantt chart tends to only document it.


9. Execute with discipline
A few observations: solution implementation demands a “project management” approach so make sure a project manager is appointed; project management to a great extent revolves around people making and meeting commitments – make sure that team members make those commitments and the keeping of them is enforced; coordinating people is hard work so use a collaboration tool or tools, one with email integration (I’ve used Producteev successfully but there are many similar tools available and some can be used for free); keeping commitments is easier if they are reviewed regularly and in “public” – try to embed reviews in existing meetings – and people tend to work to deadlines.

10. Sometimes, its better to just let it sit for a while
Occasionally, you will encounter problems for which, in spite of all your best and most rational efforts, you cannot find a viable solution. In these circumstances, I like to take a walk (often around beautiful Sydney Harbour) and think of other things, or just “be present”. It’s remarkable how often the answer will pop into my head. David Levitin describes the advantages of such “day dreaming” in this video.

Two great references for problem solving - the first online, the second a neat little handbook - are:

  1. Mind Tools
  2. Solve that problem” Quest Worldwide.

To find out more about how I can help you solve problems better, faster and cheaper, send me a connection request on LinkedIn via, or send me a message if we are already connected.
Top Image: Justin Lewis / Getty Images
All others from the source link.