One of the earliest skills to learn as a new manager and one that will be tested many times over your career is how to solve problems and make decisions. When you are new to management or entry-level supervision, in particular, it is often tempting to solve problems and decisions by reacting to them. You are under pressure, stressed, short of time and so surely any solution is better than no solution at all.
More experienced managers will already have recognised that being under pressure, stressed and short of time are not states of being simply for the new manager. In many cases they come with the role of manager.
This article will focus on a ‘rational’ approach to solving problems, by which I mean a structured, systematic method designed to increase understanding, expand the options and evaluate the merits of any proposed solution. This is in contrast to a more intuitive, ‘gut’-feel approach. Although rational and intuitive thinking are often presented as diametric opposites this is somewhat of a false dichotomy. In reality, they are ends of a spectrum and I’ll let you into a little secret…no-one is at either of the far ends of this continuum, but we are all on it somewhere.
If we are self-aware we know where we are on this continuum. The reality is that no matter how intuitive we believe we are we still, whether consciously or subconsciously, perform some of the actions typically associated with rational thinking. These will include data gathering (we can’t help but gather data from our surroundings), analysis, weighing up options and so on. Similarly, with the rational approach we will eventually have to come up with options and make predictions about their likelihood of success as we evaluate their suitability as solutions. Both innovating and forecasting rely heavily on intuition.
Coming back to the subject of the article then. The following is a simplified version of the type of problem solving process taught on business and management qualifications every day. If you don’t yet know if you are more ‘rational’ than ‘intuitive’ in your problem solving you soon will. If, as you read this, you find yourself agreeing that following certain steps, in a prescribed order, increases the chances of not missing something crucial and ensures thoroughness then you are closer to the ‘rational’ end of the scale. On the other hand if you are already screaming, “Just make a decision before we all die of old age!”, or you want to hurry to the ‘fun’ part of coming up with solutions then you are more intuitive than rational.
Problem Solving Steps
1. Define the problem
This fundamental step is often where people struggle most. It is easy, when busy, to assume we know what the problem is and to react instinctively.
This step is about taking a step back and writing, or at least articulating, the problem and having a shared understanding if we are operating, as most of us do, in a team environment.
We should be careful not to imply solutions or causes and we need to avoid generalised statements. For example, we do not have a parking problem (too general), it isn’t that too many people drive to work (possible cause) or that we need a bigger car park (suggesting a solution). It is simply that at the busiest times of day only 75% of staff can find a parking space.
If we identify a number of problems then we need to prioritise them.
2. Look at potential causes for the problem
The biggest problem isn’t not knowing the causes, it is thinking we do know the causes and being wrong.
My wife and I illustrate this phenomenon perfectly with our approaches to IT problems. My wife knows nothing (relatively speaking) so her approach to IT problems is quite simple, call IT and then make them a tea or coffee when they arrive. By contrast, I am a decent amateur when it comes to technology and therein lies the problem. If something goes wrong I will fiddle and mess with settings, all with good intent of course. Often I get it right, but when I get it wrong I create a problem many degrees of magnitude worse than if I had stopped as soon as I’d reached my level of competence. It’s not difficult to work out which of us is least popular with IT.
So this step is about identifying all the factors that could be causing the problem and then narrowing it down to the causes that are having the biggest impact. The challenge here is to be thorough in listing these causes, since it is easy to have pet hates and to immediately jump to the conclusion that this is the cause. Interestingly, intuition is a big help here in thinking beyond the obvious.
Your outcome is to have a clear understanding of the actual cause(s) of the problem. The danger of skipping this step – because the cause is “obvious to everyone” – is that we deal with symptoms and the problem continues.
3. Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem
Finally, the fun part.
It is not difficult to get people engaged in this step because this is all about having ideas and being creative. This is all about brainstorming for solutions. It is about collecting as many ideas as possible, then screening them to find the best idea. It's critical when collecting the ideas to not pass judgement on them too soon -- just write them down as you hear them.
One of your challenges in this step is managing the urgency-focused people who already ‘know’ what the solution is. In fact, they have known what the solution was since the start and have just been humouring you up to this point – at least that’s their perception. You will have to manage them with your best diplomacy and engage your emotional intelligence, because they will also be highly unlikely to admit that they have learned anything new about the problem by following your approach.
Once you have your extensive list of possible solutions you then have to evaluate them to find the best one, or ones. The good news is that if you have done the hard work up to now then you will find that combining ideas and making individual ideas stronger is relatively painless.
This stage, therefore is really in two parts and is much like recruitment and selection. The first part is about finding ideas that could solve the problem and the second part is about deciding which of those ideas will best solve the problem.
4. Implement the Solution
By definition this is the most active stage and includes the following:
a. Plan the implementation – this should be as comprehensive as needed by the size of the problem. It may involve full project management, with risk assessments, etc. or it might just be a one page action plan. Remember the importance of communication here.
b. Monitor the implementation – this will be a reflection of the action plan.
c. Adjust the plan, as needed – as with most plans there may need to be flexibility. Assuming you were thorough in the early stages of the problem solving process and creative in the latter stages then you will be prepared for the glitches.
d. Verify you have solved the problem – this is an important, and often overlooked, part of the process. There are a few reasons to verify you have solved the problem: it gives the team satisfaction; it gives you the chance to celebrate success and recognise their efforts; and it give credibility to the process, thus increasing the team’s commitment to its use.
This four-step process is common sense when broken down in the simplest way. It is a structure that is intuitively used - somewhat ironically - in many professions. Whenever we ask an expert they tend to follow the steps outlined above; the hard part is for us to it when we are so entrenched in the problem that we already ‘know’ what needs to happen.
A visit to the doctor is a classic example:
1. They seek to define the problem by asking us questions and looking for the facts.
2. They use this intelligence to identify the causes of the symptoms. They may even go back to step 1.
3. They use their training to identify the possible solutions and then select the best one.
4. They give us plan to follow to get better, monitoring and adjusting as needed.
Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, intuitive problem solving can easily result in very rational solutions and outcomes, and rational problem solving can lead to results we all know are, intuitively, the correct ones. As most of us have found during our careers is important to value the difference and the answer usually lies in balancing two seemingly conflicting approaches.