Rational and Creative Problem Solving Part 1
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To start with I should say the information below is only ONE way to tackle
problem solving and as I'm sure you know there are many models and theories you
can use depending on your situation and the problem to be solved. What follow is
more of a process approach than a set model and of course even this approach
might not be appropriate to all situations.
Problem: A situation that is not what you want it to be that is
* Having an adverse affect on someone or something.
* Delaying or hindering progress
* An opportunity as yet undiscovered or realised
The identification and solving of problems is both a conscious and a
subconscious act, which we engage in for much of our working day. The size,
nature and severity of the problems may vary and the effective determination of
solutions is what keeps things moving in a positive direction.
As a consultant and business owner, you are almost certainly involved in problem
identification and problem solving much of the time. This is a process that if
approached rationally and creatively can be a real personal and professional
asset. You may be the sole identifier and solver of a problem or you may be one
of a team involved in working together to solve a problem. You may also, at
times, be the identifier of the problem or the problem solver and so having
skills in both areas is a real benefit.
Some might say that being a problem stater is a bad thing and I would agree if
your intent were simply to state the problem with no consideration for what
effective solutions might be possible. Similarly just being a problem solver can
be a bad thing, as the tendency to enjoy reactive, fire fighting behaviours can
mean that you rarely look to analyse why problems occur in the first place.
So being able to both identify problems and solve them are key skills for an
effective business owner, consultant and leader. And the key question in problem
solving is WHY?
"When a problem comes along, study it until you are
completely knowledgeable. Then find that weak spot, break the problem apart and
the rest will be easy." Norman Vincent Peale
In this 4 part series you will learn
* A basic 4 step process for problem solving
* Creative problem solving techniques
This week we will cover steps 1 and 2 of the problem solving process
Step 1 - Take stock of the current situation
Step 2 - Identify and clarify the cause and effect
Step 1 - What?
This first step is about being clear about the problem you are actually solving
and the environment in which that problem is being solved. If the problem is
complex you need to break it down into simpler parts and clarify exactly what
the problem is.
This step is about determining the parameters of the problem when and where it
started and what its characteristics are. It is also about clarifying what
differences are present that do not resemble how things should be.
Clarity at this stage is the most critical element otherwise subsequent steps
may be solving the wrong problem.
For example, imagine you are a sales manager
The initial problem statement - My team's sales figures are poor
This is a very general problem statement. It gives no context, no parameters and
may be assumptive too.
* Are all the members of your sales team under performing versus their
individual targets or is it only 1 or 2 individuals?
* Sales figures are poor versus what? - last year, target, what you thought?
* What does poor mean - 5% below, 50% below - how great is the problem?
* Are the sales targets realistic or have market conditions changed?
A more specific problem statement might be - Joe and Sarah have a 25%
shortfall against our agreed quarter 2 sales targets for 2007.
This is not only more specific but also quantitative.
A problem well stated is a problem half solved"
Charles F. Kettering
Step 2 - Why?
Once you have clarity about the specific problem, the next step is to look at
the cause and effect. Why is this problem occurring? What are all the
It is in this phase of the problem solving process that you have the opportunity
to look at all angles and all possibilities, which could be a contributory
factor to your problem.
For example, let's keep with our stated problem in step 1. Joe and Sarah have
a 25% shortfall against our agreed quarter 2 sales targets for 2007.
What could be the causes?
* They misunderstood the target
* They have made a mistake when entering their figures in the sales spreadsheet
* Joe has been helping Sarah and as a result has not been concentrating on his
own target - or vice versa
* Joe lost a large order and that was the sole cause
* Sarah made an error of judgement with her forecast for quarter 2
* Joe has family problems and is distracted
* Sarah hasn't brought in 3 major sales which have affected her overall results
As you can see there can be many causes, some simple errors, some performance
related and some related to influences out with work. There could be many more
and it is important to look at all possible causes before looking for a
solution. Why? Because if you assume the cause, you may solve the wrong problem.
For example if you assume that Joe and Sarah are both under performing and
assume it is skills related e.g. poor negotiation skills, you might determine
the solution to be negotiation skills training or coaching. However, if in fact
the real cause was a mistake or an external cause you would not only be solving
the wrong problem but also wasting time, money and effort in the process and as
well as not solving the real problem.
At this stage you might also consider the severity of the problem and its cause
and prioritise the finding and implementation of a solution. Spending a
disproportionate amount of time on insignificant problems is also a waste of
time and effort.
You can also consider the option at this stage to do nothing, if the problem is
determined to be not worth solving. For example, if Joe was about to leave the
company any corrective action might not be worth considering if the cause and
effect were totally Joe related.
Next time we will look at step 3 - identify options and consequences and
step 4 - envision what if scenarios.
About the Author
Beverley Hamilton works with independent business consultants to help them
grow a profitable consultancy and still have time for their life. You can get my
Free Ecourse Discover the 5 Most Common Incorrect Assumptions Independent
Business Consultants Make and a complimentary subscription to Quickstart,
the newsletter specifically for consultants. Go to
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2008-02-05 23:01:23 in Personal Articles