Effective Problem-Solving Techniques in Business
January 20, 2023
Problem solving is an increasingly important soft skill for those in business. The Future of Jobs Survey by the World Economic Forum drives this point home. According to this report, complex problem solving is identified as one of the top 15 skills that will be sought by employers in 2025, along with other soft skills such as analytical thinking, creativity and leadership.
Dr. Amy David , clinical associate professor of management for supply chain and operations management, spoke about business problem-solving methods and how the Purdue University Online MBA program prepares students to be business decision-makers.
Why Are Problem-Solving Skills Essential in Leadership Roles?
Every business will face challenges at some point. Those that are successful will have people in place who can identify and solve problems before the damage is done.
“The business world is constantly changing, and companies need to be able to adapt well in order to produce good results and meet the needs of their customers,” David says. “They also need to keep in mind the triple bottom line of ‘people, profit and planet.’ And these priorities are constantly evolving.”
To that end, David says people in management or leadership need to be able to handle new situations, something that may be outside the scope of their everyday work.
“The name of the game these days is change—and the speed of change—and that means solving new problems on a daily basis,” she says.
The pace of information and technology has also empowered the customer in a new way that provides challenges—or opportunities—for businesses to respond.
“Our customers have a lot more information and a lot more power,” she says. “If you think about somebody having an unhappy experience and tweeting about it, that’s very different from maybe 15 years ago. Back then, if you had a bad experience with a product, you might grumble about it to one or two people.”
David says that this reality changes how quickly organizations need to react and respond to their customers. And taking prompt and decisive action requires solid problem-solving skills.
What Are Some of the Most Effective Problem-Solving Methods?
David says there are a few things to consider when encountering a challenge in business.
“When faced with a problem, are we talking about something that is broad and affects a lot of people? Or is it something that affects a select few? Depending on the issue and situation, you’ll need to use different types of problem-solving strategies,” she says.
There are a number of techniques that businesses use to problem solve. These can include:
- Five Whys : This approach is helpful when the problem at hand is clear but the underlying causes are less so. By asking “Why?” five times, the final answer should get at the potential root of the problem and perhaps yield a solution.
- Gap Analysis : Companies use gap analyses to compare current performance with expected or desired performance, which will help a company determine how to use its resources differently or adjust expectations.
- Gemba Walk : The name, which is derived from a Japanese word meaning “the real place,” refers to a commonly used technique that allows managers to see what works (and what doesn’t) from the ground up. This is an opportunity for managers to focus on the fundamental elements of the process, identify where the value stream is and determine areas that could use improvement.
- Porter’s Five Forces : Developed by Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter, applying the Five Forces is a way for companies to identify competitors for their business or services, and determine how the organization can adjust to stay ahead of the game.
- Six Thinking Hats : In his book of the same name, Dr. Edward de Bono details this method that encourages parallel thinking and attempting to solve a problem by trying on different “thinking hats.” Each color hat signifies a different approach that can be utilized in the problem-solving process, ranging from logic to feelings to creativity and beyond. This method allows organizations to view problems from different angles and perspectives.
- SWOT Analysis : This common strategic planning and management tool helps businesses identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).
“We have a lot of these different tools,” David says. “Which one to use when is going to be dependent on the problem itself, the level of the stakeholders, the number of different stakeholder groups and so on.”
Each of the techniques outlined above uses the same core steps of problem solving:
- Identify and define the problem
- Consider possible solutions
- Evaluate options
- Choose the best solution
- Implement the solution
- Evaluate the outcome
Data drives a lot of daily decisions in business and beyond. Analytics have also been deployed to problem solve.
“We have specific classes around storytelling with data and how you convince your audience to understand what the data is,” David says. “Your audience has to trust the data, and only then can you use it for real decision-making.”
Data can be a powerful tool for identifying larger trends and making informed decisions when it’s clearly understood and communicated. It’s also vital for performance monitoring and optimization.
How Is Problem Solving Prioritized in Purdue’s Online MBA?
The courses in the Purdue Online MBA program teach problem-solving methods to students, keeping them up to date with the latest techniques and allowing them to apply their knowledge to business-related scenarios.
“I can give you a model or a tool, but most of the time, a real-world situation is going to be a lot messier and more valuable than what we’ve seen in a textbook,” David says. “Asking students to take what they know and apply it to a case where there’s not one single correct answer is a big part of the learning experience.”
Make Your Own Decision to Further Your Career
An online MBA from Purdue University can help advance your career by teaching you problem-solving skills, decision-making strategies and more. Reach out today to learn more about earning an online MBA with Purdue University .
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10 Step Process for Effective Business Problem Solving
Posted august 3, 2021 by harriet genever.
When you start a small business or launch a startup, the one thing you can count on is the unexpected. No matter how thoroughly you plan, forecast , and test, problems are bound to arise. This is why as an entrepreneur, you need to know how to solve business problems effectively.
What is problem solving in business?
Problem solving in business relates to establishing processes that mitigate or remove obstacles currently preventing you from reaching strategic goals . These are typically complex issues that create a gap between actual results and your desired outcome. They may be present in a single team, operational process, or throughout your entire organization, typically without an immediate or obvious solution.
To approach problem solving successfully, you need to establish consistent processes that help you evaluate, explore solutions, prioritize execution, and measure success. In many ways, it should be similar to how you review business performance through a monthly plan review . You work through the same documentation, look for gaps, dig deeper to identify the root cause, and hash out options. Without this process, you simply cannot expect to solve problems efficiently or effectively.
Why problem solving is important for your business
While some would say problem-solving comes naturally, it’s actually a skill you can grow and refine over time. Problem solving skills will help you and your team tackle critical issues and conflicts as they arise. It starts from the top. You as the business owner or CEO needing to display the type of level-headed problem solving that you expect to see from your employees.
Doing so will help you and your staff quickly deal with issues, establish and refine a problem solving process, turn challenges into opportunities, and generally keep a level head. Now, the best business leaders didn’t just find a magic solution to solve their problems, they built processes and leveraged tools to find success. And you can do the same.
By following this 10-step process, you can develop your problem-solving skills and approach any issue that arises with confidence.
1. Define the problem
When a problem arises, it can be very easy to jump right into creating a solution. However, if you don’t thoroughly examine what led to the problem in the first place, you may create a strategy that doesn’t actually solve it. You may just be treating the symptoms.
For instance, if you realize that your sales from new customers are dropping, your first inclination might be to rush into putting together a marketing plan to increase exposure. But what if decreasing sales are just a symptom of the real problem?
When you define the problem, you want to be sure you’re not missing the forest for the trees. If you have a large issue on your hands, you’ll want to look at it from several different angles:
Is a competitor’s promotion or pricing affecting your sales? Are there new entrants in your market? How are they marketing their product or business?
Is your business model sustainable? Is it realistic for how fast you want to grow? Should you explore different pricing or cost strategies?
How are world events and the nation’s economy affecting your customers and your sales?
Are there any issues affecting your team? Do they have the tools and resources they need to succeed?
Is everyone on your team working toward the same goal ? Have you communicated your short-term and long-term business goals clearly and often?
There are a lot of ways to approach the issue when you’re facing a serious business problem. The key is to make sure you’re getting a full snapshot of what’s going on so you don’t waste money and resources on band-aid solutions.
Going back to our example, by looking at every facet of your business, you may discover that you’re spending more on advertising than your competitors already. And instead, there’s a communication gap within your team that’s leading to the mishandling of new customers and therefore lost sales.
If you jumped into fixing the exposure of your brand, you would have been dumping more money into an area you’re already winning. Potentially leading to greater losses as more and more new customers are dropped due to poor internal communication.
This is why it’s so vital that you explore your blind spots and track the problem to its source.
2. Conduct a SWOT analysis
All good businesses solve some sort of problem for customers. What if your particular business problem is actually an opportunity, or even a strength if considered from a different angle? This is when you’d want to conduct a SWOT analysis to determine if that is in fact the case.
SWOT is a great tool for strategic planning and bringing multiple viewpoints to the table when you’re looking at investing resources to solve a problem. This may even be incorporated in your attempts to identify the source of your problem, as it can quickly outline specific strengths and weaknesses of your business. And then by identifying any potential opportunities or threats, you can utilize your findings to kickstart a solution.
3. Identify multiple solutions with design thinking
As you approach solving your problem, you may want to consider using the design thinking approach . It’s often used by organizations looking to solve big, community-based problems. One of its strengths is that it requires involving a wide range of people in the problem-solving process. Which leads to multiple perspectives and solutions arising.
This approach—applying your company’s skills and expertise to a problem in the market—is the basis for design thinking.
It’s not about finding the most complex problems to solve, but about finding common needs within the organization and in the real world and coming up with solutions that fit those needs. When you’re solving business problems, this applies in the sense that you’re looking for solutions that address underlying issues—you’re looking at the big picture.
4. Conduct market research and customer outreach
Market research and customer outreach aren’t the sorts of things small business owners and startups can do once and then cross off the list. When you’re facing a roadblock, think back to the last time you did some solid market research or took a deep dive into understanding the competitive landscape .
Market research and the insights you get from customer outreach aren’t a silver bullet. Many companies struggle with what they should do with conflicting data points. But it’s worth struggling through and gathering information that can help you better understand your target market . Plus, your customers can be one of the best sources of criticism. It’s actually a gift if you can avoid taking the negatives personally .
The worst thing you can do when you’re facing challenges is isolating yourself from your customers and ignore your competition. So survey your customers. Put together a competitive matrix .
5. Seek input from your team and your mentors
Don’t do your SWOT analysis or design thinking work by yourself. The freedom to express concerns, opinions, and ideas will allow people in an organization to speak up. Their feedback is going to help you move faster and more efficiently. If you have a team in place, bring them into the discussion. You hired them to be experts in their area; use their expertise to navigate and dig deeper into underlying causes of problems and potential solutions.
If you’re running your business solo, at least bring in a trusted mentor. SCORE offers a free business mentorship program if you don’t already have one. It can also be helpful to connect with a strategic business advisor , especially if business financials aren’t your strongest suit.
Quoting Stephen Covey, who said that “strength lies in differences, not in similarities,” speaking to the importance of diversity when it comes to problem-solving in business. The more diverse a team is , the more often innovative solutions to the problems faced by the organization appear.
In fact, it has been found that groups that show greater diversity were better at solving problems than groups made up specifically of highly skilled problem solvers. So whoever you bring in to help you problem-solve, resist the urge to surround yourself with people who already agree with you about everything.
6. Apply lean planning for nimble execution
So you do your SWOT analysis and your design thinking exercise. You come up with a set of strong, data-driven ideas. But implementing them requires you to adjust your budget, or your strategic plan, or even your understanding of your target market.
Are you willing to change course? Can you quickly make adjustments? Well in order to grow, you can’t be afraid to be nimble .
By adopting the lean business planning method —the process of revising your business strategy regularly—you’ll be able to shift your strategies more fluidly. You don’t want to change course every week, and you don’t want to fall victim to shiny object thinking. But you can strike a balance that allows you to reduce your business’s risk while keeping your team heading in the right direction.
Along the way, you’ll make strategic decisions that don’t pan out the way you hoped. The best thing you can do is test your ideas and iterate often so you’re not wasting money and resources on things that don’t work. That’s Lean Planning .
7. Model different financial scenarios
When you’re trying to solve a serious business problem, one of the best things you can do is build a few different financial forecasts so you can model different scenarios. You might find that the idea that seemed the strongest will take longer than you thought to reverse a negative financial trend. At the very least you’ll have better insight into the financial impact of moving in a different direction.
The real benefit here is looking at different tactical approaches to the same problem. Maybe instead of increasing sales right now, you’re better off in the long run if you adopt a strategy to reduce churn and retain your best customers. You won’t know unless you model a few different scenarios. You can do this by using spreadsheets, and a tool like LivePlan can make it easier and quicker.
8. Watch your cash flow
While you’re working to solve a challenging business problem, pay particular attention to your cash flow and your cash flow forecast . Understanding when your company is at risk of running out of cash in the bank can help you be proactive. It’s a lot easier to get a line of credit while your financials still look good and healthy, than when you’re one pay period away from ruin.
If you’re dealing with a serious issue, it’s easy to start to get tunnel vision. You’ll benefit from maintaining a little breathing room for your business as you figure out what to do next.
9. Use a decision-making framework
Once you’ve gathered all the information you need, generated a number of ideas, and done some financial modeling, you might still feel uncertain. It’s natural—you’re not a fortune-teller. You’re trying to make the best decision you can with the information you have.
This article offers a really useful approach to making decisions. It starts with putting your options into a matrix like this one:
Use this sort of framework to put everything you’ve learned out on the table. If you’re working with a bigger team, this sort of exercise can also bring the rest of your team to the table so they feel some ownership over the outcome.
10. Identify key metrics to track
How will you know your problem is solved? And not just the symptom—how will you know when you’ve addressed the underlying issues? Before you dive into enacting the solution, make sure you know what success looks like.
Decide on a few key performance indicators . Take a baseline measurement, and set a goal and a timeframe. You’re essentially translating your solution into a plan, complete with milestones and goals. Without these, you’ve simply made a blind decision with no way to track success. You need those goals and milestones to make your plan real .
Problem solving skills to improve
As you and your team work through this process, it’s worth keeping in mind specific problem solving skills you should continue to develop. Bolstering your ability, as well as your team, to solve problems effectively will only make this process more useful and efficient. Here are a few key skills to work on.
It can be very easy to make quick, emotional responses in a time of crisis or when discussing something you’re passionate about. To avoid making assumptions and letting your emotions get the best of you, you need to focus on empathizing with others. This involves understanding your own emotional state, reactions and listening carefully to the responses of your team. The more you’re able to listen carefully, the better you’ll be at asking for and taking advice that actually leads to effective problem solving.
Jumping right into a solution can immediately kill the possibility of solving your problem. Just like when you start a business , you need to do the research into what the problem you’re solving actually is. Luckily, you can embed research into your problem solving by holding active reviews of financial performance and team processes. Simply asking “What? Where? When? How?” can lead to more in-depth explorations of potential issues.
The best thing you can do to grow your research abilities is to encourage and practice curiosity. Look at every problem as an opportunity. Something that may be trouble now, but is worth exploring and finding the right solution. You’ll pick up best practices, useful tools and fine-tune your own research process the more you’re willing to explore.
Creatively brainstorming with your team is somewhat of an art form. There needs to be a willingness to throw everything at the wall and act as if nothing is a bad idea at the start. This style of collaboration encourages participation without fear of rejection. It also helps outline potential solutions outside of your current scope, that you can refine and turn into realistic action.
Work on breaking down problems and try to give everyone in the room a voice. The more input you allow, the greater potential you have for finding the best solution.
One thing that can drag out acting upon a potential solution, is being indecisive. If you aren’t willing to state when the final cutoff for deliberation is, you simply won’t take steps quickly enough. This is when having a process for problem solving comes in handy, as it purposefully outlines when you should start taking action.
Work on choosing decision-makers, identify necessary results and be prepared to analyze and adjust if necessary. You don’t have to get it right every time, but taking action at the right time, even if it fails, is almost more vital than never taking a step.
Stemming off failure, you need to learn to be resilient. Again, no one gets it perfect every single time. There are so many factors in play to consider and sometimes even the most well-thought-out solution doesn’t stick. Instead of being down on yourself or your team, look to separate yourself from the problem and continue to think of it as a puzzle worth solving. Every failure is a learning opportunity and it only helps you further refine and eliminate issues in your strategy.
Problem solving is a process
The key to effective problem-solving in business is the ability to adapt. You can waste a lot of resources on staying the wrong course for too long. So make a plan to reduce your risk now. Think about what you’d do if you were faced with a problem large enough to sink your business. Be as proactive as you can.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2021.
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5 quick steps for solving business problems
Everyone experiences problems at work, but how we approach these problems makes all the difference in how well we resolve them in an efficient manner.
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Everyone experiences problems at work, but how we approach these problems makes all the difference in how well we resolve them in an efficient manner. In fact, the basics for business problem solving are not too much different from how we solve problems in our private lives. That said, we must first recognize there is a problem; second, identify the cause of the problem, third; gather all facts relating to the problem and, fourth, review the options available for solving the problem.
Below, you will find five steps for helping you solve even the most complex problems.
Define the problem
Ask yourself what the problem is. A clear understanding of the problem is the first step in solving it. If you are discussing a problem with a team member, don't assume that all parties involved define the problem in the same manner. Make sure that everyone agrees what the problem is so that there isn't any type of misunderstanding(s).
Understand the root cause(s) of the problem
We all want to resolve the problem, but we first need to find the root cause of the problem. Was it miscommunication? Was it the failure to follow certain processes or procedures? Understanding the root cause will help prevent the problem from happening again.
List possible solutions to the problem(s)
Go to a white board or flip chart and write out a list of possible solutions. It pays to spend extra time on the list, especially if the problem is rather complex in nature or requires communication with a team member, department or remote division to solve the problem.
Select the best possible solution
Rank the solutions in order, with #1 being the best solution. Don't forget to look at the cost(s) associated with each possible solution, too.
Make a decision to take action
Don't wait for the problem to grow out of hand, as it could have a huge ripple effect on your organization, especially if there is a customer involved. In addition, the longer the problem goes unresolved, the more stressful the problem can become for everyone involved. Also, new problems could arise at any time that can distract from solving the old problems if one waits.
Accepting responsibility for the consequences of actions taken or decisions made is the reason most people shy away from taking a leadership role in problem solving. But you don't have to be afraid, as people who are good at problem solving are some of the most valuable and respected people in business.
Need help or want more information about solving business problems? Contact Cindy McSwain using the information below.
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Cindy McSwain leads AGH’s outsourcing services group. Her team provides payroll, accounting, funds disbursement, controller, and other financial outsourcing services to numerous clients throughout the U.S. Prior to joining the outsourcing group, Cindy served AGH’s audit clients for 10 years, working with a wide range of middle-market, closely held and family-owned organizations.
Her current clients cross many industry sectors, including manufacturing and distribution, restaurants, retailers, medical and not-for-profit. She has participated in numerous SEC filings and public registrations and has experience in mergers and acquisitions. Cindy is a certified public accountant and a member of both the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Kansas Society of Certified Public Accountants.
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Six problem-solving mindsets for very uncertain times
Great problem solvers are made, not born. That’s what we’ve found after decades of problem solving with leaders across business, nonprofit, and policy sectors. These leaders learn to adopt a particularly open and curious mindset, and adhere to a systematic process for cracking even the most inscrutable problems. They’re terrific problem solvers under any conditions. And when conditions of uncertainty are at their peak, they’re at their brilliant best.
Six mutually reinforcing approaches underly their success: (1) being ever-curious about every element of a problem; (2) being imperfectionists , with a high tolerance for ambiguity; (3) having a “dragonfly eye” view of the world, to see through multiple lenses; (4) pursuing occurrent behavior and experimenting relentlessly; (5) tapping into the collective intelligence , acknowledging that the smartest people are not in the room; and (6) practicing “show and tell” because storytelling begets action (exhibit).
Here’s how they do it.
1. Be ever-curious
As any parent knows, four-year-olds are unceasing askers. Think of the never-ending “whys” that make little children so delightful—and relentless. For the very young, everything is new and wildly uncertain. But they’re on a mission of discovery, and they’re determined to figure things out. And they’re good at it! That high-energy inquisitiveness is why we have high shelves and childproof bottles.
When you face radical uncertainty, remember your four-year-old or channel the four-year-old within you. Relentlessly ask, “Why is this so?” Unfortunately, somewhere between preschool and the boardroom, we tend to stop asking. Our brains make sense of massive numbers of data points by imposing patterns that have worked for us and other humans in the past. That’s why a simple technique, worth employing at the beginning of problem solving, is simply to pause and ask why conditions or assumptions are so until you arrive at the root of the problem. 1 This approach was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.
Natural human biases in decision making, including confirmation, availability, and anchoring biases, often cause us to shut down the range of solutions too early. 2 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow , New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Better—and more creative—solutions come from being curious about the broader range of potential answers.
One simple suggestion from author and economist Caroline Webb to generate more curiosity in team problem solving is to put a question mark behind your initial hypotheses or first-cut answers. This small artifice is surprisingly powerful: it tends to encourage multiple solution paths and puts the focus, correctly, on assembling evidence. We also like thesis/antithesis, or red team/blue team, sessions, in which you divide a group into opposing teams that argue against the early answers—typically, more traditional conclusions that are more likely to come from a conventional pattern. Why is this solution better? Why not that one? We’ve found that better results come from embracing uncertainty. Curiosity is the engine of creativity.
We have to be comfortable with estimating probabilities to make good decisions, even when these guesses are imperfect. Unfortunately, we have truckloads of evidence showing that human beings aren’t good intuitive statisticians.
2. Tolerate ambiguity—and stay humble!
When we think of problem solvers, many of us tend to picture a poised and brilliant engineer. We may imagine a mastermind who knows what she’s doing and approaches a problem with purpose. The reality, though, is that most good problem solving has a lot of trial and error; it’s more like the apparent randomness of rugby than the precision of linear programming. We form hypotheses, porpoise into the data, and then surface and refine (or throw out) our initial guess at the answer. This above all requires an embrace of imperfection and a tolerance for ambiguity—and a gambler’s sense of probabilities.
The real world is highly uncertain. Reality unfolds as the complex product of stochastic events and human reactions. The impact of COVID-19 is but one example: we address the health and economic effects of the disease, and their complex interactions, with almost no prior knowledge. We have to be comfortable with estimating probabilities to make good decisions, even when these guesses are imperfect. Unfortunately, we have truckloads of evidence showing that human beings aren’t good intuitive statisticians. Guesses based on gut instinct can be wildly wrong. That’s why one of the keys to operating in uncertain environments is epistemic humility, which Erik Angner defines as “the realization that our knowledge is always provisional and incomplete—and that it might require revision in light of new evidence.” 3 Erik Angner, “Epistemic humility—knowing your limits in a pandemic,” Behavioral Scientist , April 13, 2020, behavioralscientist.org.
Recent research shows that we are better at solving problems when we think in terms of odds rather than certainties. 4 Annie Duke, Thinking in Terms of Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts , New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin, 2018. For example, when the Australian research body Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which owned a core patent on the wireless internet protocol, sought royalties from major companies, it was initially rebuffed. The CSIRO bet that it could go to court to protect its intellectual property because it estimated that it needed only 10 percent odds of success for this to be a good wager, given the legal costs and likely payoff. It improved its odds by picking the weakest of the IP violators and selecting a legal jurisdiction that favored plaintiffs. This probabilistic thinking paid off and eventually led to settlements to CSIRO exceeding $500 million. 5 CSIRO briefing to US Government, December 5, 2006. A tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to play the odds helped the organization feel its way to a good solution path.
To embrace imperfectionism with epistemic humility, start by challenging solutions that imply certainty. You can do that in the nicest way by asking questions such as “What would we have to believe for this to be true?” This brings to the surface implicit assumptions about probabilities and makes it easier to assess alternatives. When uncertainty is high, see if you can make small moves or acquire information at a reasonable cost to edge out into a solution set. Perfect knowledge is in short supply, particularly for complex business and societal problems. Embracing imperfection can lead to more effective problem solving. It’s practically a must in situations of high uncertainty, such as the beginning of a problem-solving process or during an emergency.
Good problem solving typically involves designing experiments to reduce key uncertainties. Each move provides additional information and builds capabilities.
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3. take a dragonfly-eye view.
Dragonfly-eye perception is common to great problem solvers. Dragonflies have large, compound eyes, with thousands of lenses and photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Although we don’t know exactly how their insect brains process all this visual information, by analogy they see multiple perspectives not available to humans. The idea of a dragonfly eye taking in 360 degrees of perception 6 Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction , New York, NY: Crown, 2015. is an attribute of “superforecasters”—people, often without domain expertise, who are the best at forecasting events.
Think of this as widening the aperture on a problem or viewing it through multiple lenses. The object is to see beyond the familiar tropes into which our pattern-recognizing brains want to assemble perceptions. By widening the aperture, we can identify threats or opportunities beyond the periphery of vision.
Consider the outbreak of HIV in India in the early 1990s—a major public-health threat. Ashok Alexander, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s India Aids Initiative, provided a brilliant example of not just vision but also dragonfly vision. Facing a complex social map with a rapidly increasing infection rate, he widened the problem’s definition, from a traditional epidemiological HIV transmission model at known “hot spots,” to one in which sex workers facing violence were made the centerpiece.
This approach led to the “Avahan solution,” which addressed a broader set of leverage points by including the sociocultural context of sex work. The solution was rolled out to more than 600 communities and eventually credited with preventing 600,000 infections. The narrow medical perspective was sensible and expected, but it didn’t tap into the related issue of violence against sex workers, which yielded a richer solution set. Often, a secret unlocks itself only when one looks at a problem from multiple perspectives, including some that initially seem orthogonal.
The secret to developing a dragonfly-eye view is to “anchor outside” rather than inside when faced with problems of uncertainty and opportunity. Take the broader ecosystem as a starting point. That will encourage you to talk with customers, suppliers, or, better yet, players in a different but related industry or space. Going through the customer journey with design-thinking in mind is another powerful way to get a 360-degree view of a problem. But take note: when decision makers face highly constrained time frames or resources, they may have to narrow the aperture and deliver a tight, conventional answer.
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4. pursue occurrent behavior.
Occurrent behavior is what actually happens in a time and place, not what was potential or predicted behavior. Complex problems don’t give up their secrets easily. But that shouldn’t deter problem solvers from exploring whether evidence on the facets of a solution can be observed, or running experiments to test hypotheses. You can think of this approach as creating data rather than just looking for what has been collected already. It’s critical for new market entry—or new market creation. It also comes in handy should you find that crunching old data is leading to stale solutions.
Most of the problem-solving teams we are involved with have twin dilemmas of uncertainty and complexity, at times combined as truly “wicked problems.” 7 A term coined in a now famous 1973 article: Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning,” Policy Sciences , 1973, Number 4, pp. 155–69. For companies ambitious to win in the great unknown in an emerging segment—such as electric cars or autonomous vehicles, where the market isn’t fully established—good problem solving typically involves designing experiments to reduce key uncertainties, not just relying on existing data. Each move (such as buying IP or acquiring a component supplier) and each experiment (including on-road closed tests) not only provides additional information to make decisions but also builds capabilities and assets that support further steps. Over time, their experiments, including alliances and acquisitions, come to resemble staircases that lead to either the goal or to abandonment of the goal. Problem-solving organizations can “bootstrap” themselves into highly uncertain new spaces, building information, foundational assets, and confidence as they take steps forward.
Risk-embracing problem solvers find a solution path by constantly experimenting. Statisticians use the abbreviation EVPI—the expected value of perfect information—to show the value of gaining additional information that typically comes from samples and experiments, such as responses to price changes in particular markets. A/B testing is a powerful tool for experimenting with prices, promotions, and other features and is particularly useful for digital marketplaces and consumer goods. Online marketplaces make A/B testing easy. Yet most conventional markets also offer opportunities to mimic the market’s segmentation and use it to test different approaches.
The mindset required to be a restless experimenter is consistent with the notion in start-ups of “failing fast.” It means that you get product and customer affirmation or rejection quickly through beta tests and trial offerings. Don’t take a lack of external data as an impediment—it may actually be a gift, since purchasable data is almost always from a conventional way of meeting needs, and is available to your competitors too. Your own experiments allow you to generate your own data; this gives you insights that others don’t have. If it is difficult (or unethical) to experiment, look for the “natural experiments” provided by different policies in similar locations. An example would be to compare outcomes in twin cities, such as Minneapolis–St. Paul.
It’s a mistake to think that your team has the smartest people in the room. They aren’t there. They’re invariably somewhere else. Nor do they need to be there if you can access their intelligence via other means.
5. Tap into collective intelligence and the wisdom of the crowd
Chris Bradley, a coauthor of Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick , 8 Chris Bradley, Marin Hirt, and Sven Smit, Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick: People, Probabilities, and Big Moves to Beat the Odds , Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018. observed that “it’s a mistake to think that on your team you have the smartest people in the room. They aren’t there. They’re invariably somewhere else.” 9 For more from Chris Bradley, in a conversation with Rob McLean, see “ Want better strategies? Become a bulletproof problem solver ,” August 2019. Nor do they need to be there if you can access their intelligence via other means. In an ever-changing world where conditions can evolve unpredictably, crowdsourcing invites the smartest people in the world to work with you. For example, in seeking a machine-learning algorithm to identify fish catch species and quantities on fishing boats, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) turned to Kaggle and offered a $150,000 prize for the best algorithm. This offer attracted 2,293 teams from all over the world. TNC now uses the winning algorithm to identify fish types and sizes caught on fishing boats in Asia to protect endangered Pacific tuna and other species.
Crowdsourced problem solving is familiar in another guise: benchmarking. When Sir Rod Carnegie was CEO of Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA), he was concerned about the costs of unscheduled downtime with heavy trucks, particularly those requiring tire changes. He asked his management team who was best in the world at changing tires; their answer was Formula One, the auto racing competition. A team traveled to the United Kingdom to learn best practice for tire changes in racetrack pits and then implemented what it learned thousands of miles away, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The smartest team for this problem wasn’t in the mining industry at all.
Of course, while crowdsourcing can be useful when conventional thinking yields solutions that are too expensive or incomplete for the challenge at hand, it has its limitations. Good crowdsourcing takes time to set up, can be expensive, and may signal to your competitors what you are up to. Beware of hidden costs, such as inadvertently divulging information and having to sieve through huge volumes of irrelevant, inferior suggestions to find the rare gem of a solution.
Accept that it’s OK to draw on diverse experiences and expertise other than your own. Start with brainstorming sessions that engage people from outside your team. Try broader crowdsourcing competitions to generate ideas. Or bring in deep-learning talent to see what insights exist in your data that conventional approaches haven’t brought to light. The broader the circles of information you access, the more likely it is that your solutions will be novel and creative.
Rookie problem solvers show you their analytic process and math to convince you they are clever. Seasoned problem solvers show you differently.
6. Show and tell to drive action
We started our list of mindsets with a reference to children, and we return to children now, with “show and tell.” As you no doubt remember—back when you were more curious!—show and tell is an elementary-school activity. It’s not usually associated with problem solving, but it probably piqued your interest. In fact, this approach is critical to problem solving. Show and tell is how you connect your audience with the problem and then use combinations of logic and persuasion to get action.
The show-and-tell mindset aims to bring decision makers into a problem-solving domain you have created. A team from the Nature Conservancy, for instance, was presenting a proposal asking a philanthropic foundation to support the restoration of oyster reefs. Before the presentation, the team brought 17 plastic buckets of water into the boardroom and placed them around the perimeter. When the foundation’s staff members entered the room, they immediately wanted to know what the buckets were for. The team explained that oyster-reef restoration massively improves water quality because each oyster filters 17 buckets of water per day. Fish stocks improve, and oysters can also be harvested to help make the economics work. The decision makers were brought into the problem-solving domain through show and tell. They approved the funding requested and loved the physical dimension of the problem they were part of solving.
Rookie problem solvers show you their analytic process and mathematics to convince you that they are clever. That’s sometimes called APK, the anxious parade of knowledge. But seasoned problem solvers show you differently. The most elegant problem solving is that which makes the solution obvious. The late economist Herb Simon put it this way: “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” 10 Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial , Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.
To get better at show and tell, start by being clear about the action that should flow from your problem solving and findings: the governing idea for change. Then find a way to present your logic visually so that the path to answers can be debated and embraced. Present the argument emotionally as well as logically, and show why the preferred action offers an attractive balance between risks and rewards. But don’t stop there. Spell out the risks of inaction, which often have a higher cost than imperfect actions have.
The mindsets of great problem solvers are just as important as the methods they employ. A mindset that encourages curiosity, embraces imperfection, rewards a dragonfly-eye view of the problem, creates new data from experiments and collective intelligence, and drives action through compelling show-and-tell storytelling creates radical new possibilities under high levels of unpredictability. Of course, these approaches can be helpful in a broad range of circumstances, but in times of massive uncertainty, they are essential.
Charles Conn is an alumnus of McKinsey’s Sydney office and is a board member of Patagonia and former CEO of the Rhodes Trust. Robert McLean is an alumnus of the Sydney office and is the advisory-board chair of the Nature Conservancy Australia. They are the authors of Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything (Wiley, 2018).
This article was edited by David Schwartz, an executive editor in the Tel Aviv office.
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What Is Problem Solving in Business?
Problem-solving in business is defined as implementing processes that reduce or remove obstacles that are preventing you or others from accomplishing operational and strategic business goals.
In business, a problem is a situation that creates a gap between the desired and actual outcomes. In addition, a true problem typically does not have an immediately obvious resolution.
Business problem-solving works best when it is approached through a consistent system in which individuals:
- Identify and define the problem
- Prioritize the problem based on size, potential impact, and urgency
- Complete a root-cause analysis
- Develop a variety of possible solutions
- Evaluate possible solutions and decide which is most effective
- Plan and implement the solution
Why Problem Solving Is Important in Business
Understanding the importance of problem-solving skills in the workplace will help you develop as a leader. Problem-solving skills will help you resolve critical issues and conflicts that you come across. Problem-solving is a valued skill in the workplace because it allows you to:
- Apply a standard problem-solving system to all challenges
- Find the root causes of problems
- Quickly deal with short-term business interruptions
- Form plans to deal with long-term problems and improve the organization
- See challenges as opportunities
- Keep your cool during challenges
How to Solve Business Problems Effectively
There are many different problem-solving skills, but most can be broken into general steps. Here is a four-step method for business problem solving:
1) Identify the Details of the Problem: Gather enough information to accurately define the problem. This can include data on procedures being used, employee actions, relevant workplace rules, and so on. Write down the specific outcome that is needed, but don’t assume what the solution should be.
2) Creatively Brainstorm Solutions: Alone or with a team, state every solution you can think of. You’ll often need to write them down. To get more solutions, brainstorm with the employees who have the greatest knowledge of the issue.
3) Evaluate Solutions and Make a Decision: Compare and contrast alternative solutions based on the feasibility of each one, including the resources needed to implement it and the return on investment of each one. Finally, make a firm decision on one solution that clearly addresses the root cause of the problem.
4) Take Action: Write up a detailed plan for implementing the solution, get the necessary approvals, and put it into action.
What Are Problem-Solving Skills?
Problem-solving skills are specific procedures that can be used to complete one or more of the four general steps of problem-solving (discussed above). Here are five important examples:
Using Emotional Intelligence: You’ll solve problems more calmly when you learn to recognize your own emotional patterns and to empathize with and guide the emotions of others. Avoid knee-jerk responses and making assumptions.
Researching Problems: An effective solution requires an accurate description of the problem. Define simple problems using quick research methods such as asking, “What? Where? When? and How much?.” Difficult problems require more in-depth research, such as data exploration, surveys, and interviews.
Creative Brainstorming: When brainstorming with a group, encourage idea creation by listening attentively to everyone, and recognizing everyone’s unique contributions.
Logical Reasoning: Develop standard logical steps for analyzing possible solutions to problems. Study and apply ideas about logical fallacies, deductive reasoning, and other areas of analytical thought.
Decisiveness: Use an agreed-upon system for choosing a solution, which can include assigning pros and cons to solutions, identifying mandatory results, getting feedback about solutions, choosing the decision-maker(s), and finishing or repeating the process.
How to Improve Problem-Solving Skills
Learning how to solve business problems takes time and effort. Though some people appear to have been born with superior problem-solving skills, great problem solvers usually have practiced and refined their abilities. You can develop high-level skills for solving problems too, through the following methods:
Ask and Listen: Don’t expect to solve every problem alone. Ask for advice, and listen to it carefully.
Practice Curiosity: Any time you’re involved in solving a problem, practice researching and defining the problem just a little longer than you would naturally.
Break Down Problems: Whenever possible, break large problems into their smallest units. Then, search for solutions to one unit at a time.
Don’t Label Yourself Negatively: Don’t allow a problem to mean something negative about you personally. Separate yourself from it. Look at it objectively and be part of the solution.
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Step 1: Define the Problem
- What is the problem?
- How did you discover the problem?
- When did the problem start and how long has this problem been going on?
- Is there enough data available to contain the problem and prevent it from getting passed to the next process step? If yes, contain the problem.
Step 2: Clarify the Problem
- What data is available or needed to help clarify, or fully understand the problem?
- Is it a top priority to resolve the problem at this point in time?
- Are additional resources required to clarify the problem? If yes, elevate the problem to your leader to help locate the right resources and form a team.
- Consider a Lean Event (Do-it, Burst, RPI, Project).
- ∙Ensure the problem is contained and does not get passed to the next process step.
Step 3: Define the Goals
- What is your end goal or desired future state?
- What will you accomplish if you fix this problem?
- What is the desired timeline for solving this problem?
Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem
- Identify possible causes of the problem.
- Prioritize possible root causes of the problem.
- What information or data is there to validate the root cause?
Step 5: Develop Action Plan
- Generate a list of actions required to address the root cause and prevent problem from getting to others.
- Assign an owner and timeline to each action.
- Status actions to ensure completion.
Step 6: Execute Action Plan
- Implement action plan to address the root cause.
- Verify actions are completed.
Step 7: Evaluate the Results
- Monitor and Collect Data.
- Did you meet your goals defined in step 3? If not, repeat the 8-Step Process.
- Were there any unforeseen consequences?
- If problem is resolved, remove activities that were added previously to contain the problem.
Step 8: Continuously Improve
- Look for additional opportunities to implement solution.
- Ensure problem will not come back and communicate lessons learned.
- If needed, repeat the 8-Step Problem Solving Process to drive further improvements.
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Are You Solving the Right Problem?
- Dwayne Spradlin
Most firms aren’t, and that undermines their innovation efforts.
The rigor with which a problem is defined is the most important factor in finding a good solution. Many organizations, however, are not proficient at articulating their problems and identifying which ones are crucial to their strategies.
They may even be trying to solve the wrong problems—missing opportunities and wasting resources in the process. The key is to ask the right questions.
The author describes a process that his firm, InnoCentive, has used to help clients define and articulate business, technical, social, and policy challenges and then present them to an online community of more than 250,000 solvers. The four-step process consists of asking a series of questions and using the answers to create a problem statement that will elicit novel ideas from an array of experts.
- Establish the need for a solution. What is the basic need? Who will benefit from a solution?
- Justify the need. Why should your organization attempt to solve this problem? Is it aligned with your strategy? If a solution is found, who will implement it?
- Contextualize the problem. What have you and others already tried? Are there internal and external constraints to implementing a solution?
- Write the problem statement. What requirements must a solution meet? What language should you use to describe the problem? How will you evaluate solutions and measure success?
EnterpriseWorks/VITA, a nonprofit organization, used this process to find a low-cost, lightweight, and convenient product that expands access to clean drinking water in the developing world.
“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein said.
- DS Dwayne Spradlin is the president and CEO of InnoCentive , an online marketplace that connects organizations with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of fields. He is a coauthor, with Alpheus Bingham, of The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise (FT Press, 2011).