Top tips for effective problem solving

Leaders and managers are constantly faced with challenges – so what’s the best way to approach solving them? Find out below!

1. Keep calm – don’t panic!

It’s important not to panic or rush into making quick decisions when faced with a significant problem. Take some time to think about the problem and the options that are available to you. You might find it helpful to put your initial thoughts down on paper and/or chat through your thinking with a colleague.

2. Avoid jumping to conclusions

Although it can be tempting to do so, it’s important not to jump to conclusions when faced with an unexpected problem. No matter how confident you might feel, ensure that you have hard facts and evidence to support your assumptions before taking any action.

3. Write it down

One of the most straightforward but effective ways to start tackling a problem is to write a short statement about it, underlining key words. Make sure the language you use is clear and unambiguous and try to be as specific as possible (e.g. ‘our IT system is no longer suitable for the volume of work in our team’). Writing the problem down in this way can help you to pinpoint what the core issues really are.

4. Break it down

It can also be helpful to break down the problem into its component parts and to identify some next actions to help you tackle each aspect of it. For example, if a project is behind schedule, your actions might include meeting with the project team to discuss the issue, liaising with contractors or suppliers, and updating project stakeholders and other managers.

5. Try different approaches

Adopting a process-led approach can often be an effective way of tackling a problem in a structured, logical manner. A popular problem-solving process involves taking the following five steps:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Analysing the problem
  3. Generating potential solutions
  4. Selecting the best solution
  5. Taking action

In more complex situations, a process-led approach may not be appropriate, and you may wish to consider adopting some alternatives to tackling the problem. Two alternatives are outlined below:

  • Appreciative Inquiry (AI) works on the principle that by appreciating what is good and valuable about a particular situation, and by questioning why this is the case, it’s possible to discover new possibilities for improvements.
  • Creative problem-solving involves two kinds of thinking: creative thinking (which is open-ended, divergent and imaginative) and critical thinking (which involves analysing, comparing and refining different possibilities). Combining these two types of thinking can help you approach a problem in a balanced manner.

6. Use appropriate tools and techniques

There are many tools and techniques available to support the problem-solving process. Depending on the nature of the problem, you may find one of the following popular techniques helpful:

  • Six Thinking Hats. Edward de Bono’s technique encourages a group to approach a problem from all possible angles. Every group member is required to think about the same issues at the same time, by putting on six different metaphorical hats. Each hat has a different colour, and represents a particular type of thought process.
  • Fishbone Analysis. This is a useful tool which is designed to help the user to systematically analyse the root causes of a problem or issue and to think logically through the different ways in which the problem can be tackled.
  • Argument Mapping. This technique is similar to mind mapping, and involves creating a visual representation of your thought process in relation to a specific problem. Typically, argument maps consist of box and arrow diagrams, and often look like flow diagrams.

7. Consider different perspectives

It’s good practice to consider the problem from a range of different perspectives, particularly those of the individuals who the problem affects. Depending on the situation, this could include team members, suppliers or customers. Considering the problem from these different angles can help you identify effective solutions that you may not otherwise have thought of.

8. Talk about it

It can often be helpful to explain the problem to your line manager and discuss the various solutions you’re considering. Equally, if you have a trusted colleague or friend who might be able to help you solve the problem (e.g. because of their background, experience or network) it can be useful to ask for their advice. When you do this, however, it’s important not to reveal any sensitive or confidential information to the other person.

9. Be creative

Don’t be afraid to consider new or even unusual solutions to your problem. If you have evidence to suggest that making changes to working practices or technology will prove beneficial, you should put forward a case for this and, if necessary, present it to the relevant individuals (e.g. your line manager or the senior team). If there is a cost attached to your proposed change, you should provide the necessary evidence to highlight what the overall cost saving and/or other benefits would be if your solution were to be implemented.

10. Be aware of problem-solving bias

Our biases can distort the way in which we perceive reality. Biases that can typically prevent us from solving problems effectively are:

  • Confirmation bias. This is the tendency to seek and choose solutions that fit with a preconceived idea of how the problem should be solved.
  • Overconfidence bias. This is when an insufficient range of options is identified, or when the chosen solution is not measured against factual information, because of our confidence in our own judgment.
  • The halo effect. This leads us to make assumptions about others based on a single trait we have witnessed (e.g. ‘she is always cheerful and friendly, so she can’t have caused this problem).
  • The bandwagon effect. This compels us to take the same course of action that others have taken.

One of the most effective ways to avoid these biases is to be aware of them. However, if you feel as though your view of a problem or the solutions available is being distorted by one of these biases, it can be helpful to ask a colleague or friend to review the situation from their perspective.

11. Take a break

If you feel as though you’re not making good progress, try taking a break from thinking about the problem. Turning your attention to other, less challenging tasks or going for a walk can be effective ways of doing this. Taking a break will give you the chance to clear your head; the solution may well present itself when you are not focusing so closely on the problem.

12. Persevere

Don’t be disheartened if you’re unable to solve the problem as quickly as you would like to. Taking your time to find the right solution, when you can, is always preferable to jumping to conclusions or rushing into making decisions. Remember to keep those who need to know (e.g. your team members or line manager) updated in terms of your progress, and to manage their expectations throughout the problem-solving process.

And finally… Reflect and evaluate

Once your problem is finally solved, take some time to reflect on which aspects of your approach worked, and what you would do differently next time. You may be able to apply some of these approaches the next time a problem arises.

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