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Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology, field research, and data analytics.

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

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From deciding what to eat for dinner to considering whether it's the right time to buy a house, problem-solving is a large part of our daily lives. Learn some of the problem-solving strategies that exist and how to use them in real life, along with ways to overcome obstacles that are making it harder to resolve the issues you face.

What Is Problem-Solving?

In cognitive psychology , the term 'problem-solving' refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyze, and solve problems.

A problem exists when there is a goal that we want to achieve but the process by which we will achieve it is not obvious to us. Put another way, there is something that we want to occur in our life, yet we are not immediately certain how to make it happen.

Maybe you want a better relationship with your spouse or another family member but you're not sure how to improve it. Or you want to start a business but are unsure what steps to take. Problem-solving helps you figure out how to achieve these desires.

The problem-solving process involves:

  • Discovery of the problem
  • Deciding to tackle the issue
  • Seeking to understand the problem more fully
  • Researching available options or solutions
  • Taking action to resolve the issue

Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue is faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.

Problem-Solving Mental Processes

Several mental processes are at work during problem-solving. Among them are:

  • Perceptually recognizing the problem
  • Representing the problem in memory
  • Considering relevant information that applies to the problem
  • Identifying different aspects of the problem
  • Labeling and describing the problem

Problem-Solving Strategies

There are many ways to go about solving a problem. Some of these strategies might be used on their own, or you may decide to employ multiple approaches when working to figure out and fix a problem.

An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that, by following certain "rules" produces a solution. Algorithms are commonly used in mathematics to solve division or multiplication problems. But they can be used in other fields as well.

In psychology, algorithms can be used to help identify individuals with a greater risk of mental health issues. For instance, research suggests that certain algorithms might help us recognize children with an elevated risk of suicide or self-harm.

One benefit of algorithms is that they guarantee an accurate answer. However, they aren't always the best approach to problem-solving, in part because detecting patterns can be incredibly time-consuming.

There are also concerns when machine learning is involved—also known as artificial intelligence (AI)—such as whether they can accurately predict human behaviors.

Heuristics are shortcut strategies that people can use to solve a problem at hand. These "rule of thumb" approaches allow you to simplify complex problems, reducing the total number of possible solutions to a more manageable set.

If you find yourself sitting in a traffic jam, for example, you may quickly consider other routes, taking one to get moving once again. When shopping for a new car, you might think back to a prior experience when negotiating got you a lower price, then employ the same tactics.

While heuristics may be helpful when facing smaller issues, major decisions shouldn't necessarily be made using a shortcut approach. Heuristics also don't guarantee an effective solution, such as when trying to drive around a traffic jam only to find yourself on an equally crowded route.

Trial and Error

A trial-and-error approach to problem-solving involves trying a number of potential solutions to a particular issue, then ruling out those that do not work. If you're not sure whether to buy a shirt in blue or green, for instance, you may try on each before deciding which one to purchase.

This can be a good strategy to use if you have a limited number of solutions available. But if there are many different choices available, narrowing down the possible options using another problem-solving technique can be helpful before attempting trial and error.

In some cases, the solution to a problem can appear as a sudden insight. You are facing an issue in a relationship or your career when, out of nowhere, the solution appears in your mind and you know exactly what to do.

Insight can occur when the problem in front of you is similar to an issue that you've dealt with in the past. Although, you may not recognize what is occurring since the underlying mental processes that lead to insight often happen outside of conscious awareness .

Research indicates that insight is most likely to occur during times when you are alone—such as when going on a walk by yourself, when you're in the shower, or when lying in bed after waking up.

How to Apply Problem-Solving Strategies in Real Life

If you're facing a problem, you can implement one or more of these strategies to find a potential solution. Here's how to use them in real life:

  • Create a flow chart . If you have time, you can take advantage of the algorithm approach to problem-solving by sitting down and making a flow chart of each potential solution, its consequences, and what happens next.
  • Recall your past experiences . When a problem needs to be solved fairly quickly, heuristics may be a better approach. Think back to when you faced a similar issue, then use your knowledge and experience to choose the best option possible.
  • Start trying potential solutions . If your options are limited, start trying them one by one to see which solution is best for achieving your desired goal. If a particular solution doesn't work, move on to the next.
  • Take some time alone . Since insight is often achieved when you're alone, carve out time to be by yourself for a while. The answer to your problem may come to you, seemingly out of the blue, if you spend some time away from others.

Obstacles to Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is not a flawless process as there are a number of obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. These obstacles include:

  • Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people can make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions. Thus, they may not even try some potential options.
  • Functional fixedness : This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. Functional fixedness prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
  • Irrelevant or misleading information: When trying to solve a problem, it's important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. The more complex the problem, the easier it is to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
  • Mental set: A mental set is a tendency to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

In the end, if your goal is to become a better problem-solver, it's helpful to remember that this is a process. Thus, if you want to improve your problem-solving skills, following these steps can help lead you to your solution:

  • Recognize that a problem exists . If you are facing a problem, there are generally signs. For instance, if you have a mental illness , you may experience excessive fear or sadness, mood changes, and changes in sleeping or eating habits. Recognizing these signs can help you realize that an issue exists.
  • Decide to solve the problem . Make a conscious decision to solve the issue at hand. Commit to yourself that you will go through the steps necessary to find a solution.
  • Seek to fully understand the issue . Analyze the problem you face, looking at it from all sides. If your problem is relationship-related, for instance, ask yourself how the other person may be interpreting the issue. You might also consider how your actions might be contributing to the situation.
  • Research potential options . Using the problem-solving strategies mentioned, research potential solutions. Make a list of options, then consider each one individually. What are some pros and cons of taking the available routes? What would you need to do to make them happen?
  • Take action . Select the best solution possible and take action. Action is one of the steps required for change . So, go through the motions needed to resolve the issue.
  • Try another option, if needed . If the solution you chose didn't work, don't give up. Either go through the problem-solving process again or simply try another option.

You can find a way to solve your problems as long as you keep working toward this goal—even if the best solution is simply to let go because no other good solution exists.

Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving .  Front Hum Neurosci . 2018;12:261. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

Dunbar K. Problem solving . A Companion to Cognitive Science . 2017. doi:10.1002/9781405164535.ch20

Stewart SL, Celebre A, Hirdes JP, Poss JW. Risk of suicide and self-harm in kids: The development of an algorithm to identify high-risk individuals within the children's mental health system . Child Psychiat Human Develop . 2020;51:913-924. doi:10.1007/s10578-020-00968-9

Rosenbusch H, Soldner F, Evans AM, Zeelenberg M. Supervised machine learning methods in psychology: A practical introduction with annotated R code . Soc Personal Psychol Compass . 2021;15(2):e12579. doi:10.1111/spc3.12579

Mishra S. Decision-making under risk: Integrating perspectives from biology, economics, and psychology . Personal Soc Psychol Rev . 2014;18(3):280-307. doi:10.1177/1088868314530517

Csikszentmihalyi M, Sawyer K. Creative insight: The social dimension of a solitary moment . In: The Systems Model of Creativity . 2015:73-98. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-9085-7_7

Chrysikou EG, Motyka K, Nigro C, Yang SI, Thompson-Schill SL. Functional fixedness in creative thinking tasks depends on stimulus modality .  Psychol Aesthet Creat Arts . 2016;10(4):425‐435. doi:10.1037/aca0000050

Huang F, Tang S, Hu Z. Unconditional perseveration of the short-term mental set in chunk decomposition .  Front Psychol . 2018;9:2568. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02568

National Alliance on Mental Illness. Warning signs and symptoms .

Mayer RE. Thinking, problem solving, cognition, 2nd ed .

Schooler JW, Ohlsson S, Brooks K. Thoughts beyond words: When language overshadows insight. J Experiment Psychol: General . 1993;122:166-183. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.2.166

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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8 Effective Problem-Solving Strategies

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If you need to solve a problem, there are a number of different problem-solving strategies that can help you come up with an accurate decision. Sometimes the best choice is to use a step-by-step approach that leads to the right solution, but other problems may require a trial-and-error approach. 

Some helpful problem-solving strategies include: Brainstorming Step-by-step algorithms Trial-and-error Working backward Heuristics Insight Writing it down Getting some sleep

Table of Contents

Why Use Problem-Solving Strategies

While you can always make a wild guess or pick at random, that certainly isn’t the most accurate way to come up with a solution. Using a more structured approach allows you to:

  • Understand the nature of the problem
  • Determine how you will solve it
  • Research different options
  • Take steps to solve the problem and resolve the issue

There are many tools and strategies that can be used to solve problems, and some problems may require more than one of these methods in order to come up with a solution.

Problem-Solving Strategies

The problem-solving strategy that works best depends on the nature of the problem and how much time you have available to make a choice. Here are eight different techniques that can help you solve whatever type of problem you might face.

Brainstorming

Coming up with a lot of potential solutions can be beneficial, particularly early on in the process. You might brainstorm on your own, or enlist the help of others to get input that you might not have otherwise considered.

Step-by-Step

Also known as an algorithm, this approach involves following a predetermined formula that is guaranteed to produce the correct result. While this can be useful in some situations—such as solving a math problem—it is not always practical in every situation.

On the plus side, algorithms can be very accurate and reliable. Unfortunately, they can also be time-consuming.

And in some situations, you cannot follow this approach because you simply don’t have access to all of the information you would need to do so.

Trial-and-Error

This problem-solving strategy involves trying a number of different solutions in order to figure out which one works best. This requires testing steps or more options to solve the problem or pick the right solution. 

For example, if you are trying to perfect a recipe, you might have to experiment with varying amounts of a certain ingredient before you figure out which one you prefer.

On the plus side, trial-and-error can be a great problem-solving strategy in situations that require an individualized solution. However, this approach can be very time-consuming and costly.

Working Backward

This problem-solving strategy involves looking at the end result and working your way back through the chain of events. It can be a useful tool when you are trying to figure out what might have led to a particular outcome.

It can also be a beneficial way to play out how you will complete a task. For example, if you know you need to have a project done by a certain date, working backward can help you figure out the steps you’ll need to complete in order to successfully finish the project.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow you to come up with solutions quite quickly. They are often based on past experiences that are then applied to other situations. They are, essentially, a handy rule of thumb.

For example, imagine a student is trying to pick classes for the next term. While they aren’t sure which classes they’ll enjoy the most, they know that they tend to prefer subjects that involve a lot of creativity. They utilize this heuristic to pick classes that involve art and creative writing.

The benefit of a heuristic is that it is a fast way to make fairly accurate decisions. The trade-off is that you give up some accuracy in order to gain speed and efficiency.

Sometimes, the solution to a problem seems to come out of nowhere. You might suddenly envision a solution after struggling with the problem for a while. Or you might abruptly recognize the correct solution that you hadn’t seen before. 

No matter the source, insight-based problem-solving relies on following your gut instincts. While this may not be as objective or accurate as some other problem-solving strategies, it can be a great way to come up with creative, novel solutions.

Write It Down

Sometimes putting the problem and possible solutions down in paper can be a useful way to visualize solutions. Jot down whatever might help you envision your options. Draw a picture, create a mind map, or just write some notes to clarify your thoughts.

Get Some Sleep

If you’re facing a big problem or trying to make an important decision, try getting a good night’s sleep before making a choice. Sleep plays an essential role in memory consolidation, so getting some rest may help you access the information or insight you need to make the best choice.

Other Considerations

Even with an arsenal of problem-solving strategies at your disposal, coming up with solutions isn’t always easy. Certain challenges can make the process more difficult. A few issues that might emerge include:

  • Mental set : When people form a mental set, they only rely on things that have worked in the last. Sometimes this can be useful, but in other cases, it can severely hinder the problem-solving process.
  • Cognitive biases : Unconscious cognitive biases can make it difficult to see situations clearly and objectively. As a result, you may not consider all of your options or ignore relevant information.
  • Misinformation : Poorly sourced clues and irrelevant details can add more complications. Being able to sort out what’s relevant and what’s not is essential for solving problems accurately.
  • Functional fixedness : Functional fixedness happens when people only think of customary solutions to problems. It can hinder out-of-the-box thinking and prevents insightful, creative solutions.

Important Problem-Solving Skills

Becoming a good problem solver can be useful in a variety of domains, from school to work to interpersonal relationships. Important problem-solving skills encompass being able to identify problems, coming up with effective solutions, and then implementing these solutions.

According to a 2023 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 61.4% of employers look for problem-solving skills on applicant resumes.

Some essential problem-solving skills include:

  • Research skills
  • Analytical abilities
  • Decision-making skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Time management 
  • Emotional intelligence

Solving a problem is complex and requires the ability to recognize the issue, collect and analyze relevant data, and make decisions about the best course of action. It can also involve asking others for input, communicating goals, and providing direction to others.

How to Become a Better Problem-Solver

If you’re ready to strengthen your problem-solving abilities, here are some steps you can take:

Identify the Problem

Before you can practice your problem-solving skills, you need to be able to recognize that there is a problem. When you spot a potential issue, ask questions about when it started and what caused it.

Do Your Research

Instead of jumping right in to finding solutions, do research to make sure you fully understand the problem and have all the background information you need. This helps ensure you don’t miss important details.

Hone Your Skills

Consider signing up for a class or workshop focused on problem-solving skill development. There are also books that focus on different methods and approaches.

The best way to strengthen problem-solving strategies is to give yourself plenty of opportunities to practice. Look for new challenges that allow you to think critically, analytically, and creatively.

Final Thoughts

If you have a problem to solve, there are plenty of strategies that can help you make the right choice. The key is to pick the right one, but also stay flexible and willing to shift gears.

In many cases, you might find that you need more than one strategy to make the choices that are right for your life.

Brunet, J. F., McNeil, J., Doucet, É., & Forest, G. (2020). The association between REM sleep and decision-making: Supporting evidences. Physiology & Behavior , 225, 113109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2020.113109

Chrysikou, E. G, Motyka, K., Nigro, C., Yang, S. I. , & Thompson-Schill, S. L. (2016). Functional fixedness in creative thinking tasks depends on stimulus modality. Psychol Aesthet Creat Arts , 10(4):425‐435. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000050

Sarathy, V. (2018). Real world problem-solving. Front Hum Neurosci , 12:261. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

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The Art of Effective Problem Solving: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Author: Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

Whether we realise it or not, problem solving skills are an important part of our daily lives. From resolving a minor annoyance at home to tackling complex business challenges at work, our ability to solve problems has a significant impact on our success and happiness. However, not everyone is naturally gifted at problem-solving, and even those who are can always improve their skills. In this blog post, we will go over the art of effective problem-solving step by step.

You will learn how to define a problem, gather information, assess alternatives, and implement a solution, all while honing your critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Whether you’re a seasoned problem solver or just getting started, this guide will arm you with the knowledge and tools you need to face any challenge with confidence. So let’s get started!

Problem Solving Methodologies

Individuals and organisations can use a variety of problem-solving methodologies to address complex challenges. 8D and A3 problem solving techniques are two popular methodologies in the Lean Six Sigma framework.

Methodology of 8D (Eight Discipline) Problem Solving:

The 8D problem solving methodology is a systematic, team-based approach to problem solving. It is a method that guides a team through eight distinct steps to solve a problem in a systematic and comprehensive manner.

The 8D process consists of the following steps:

8D Problem Solving2 - Learnleansigma

  • Form a team: Assemble a group of people who have the necessary expertise to work on the problem.
  • Define the issue: Clearly identify and define the problem, including the root cause and the customer impact.
  • Create a temporary containment plan: Put in place a plan to lessen the impact of the problem until a permanent solution can be found.
  • Identify the root cause: To identify the underlying causes of the problem, use root cause analysis techniques such as Fishbone diagrams and Pareto charts.
  • Create and test long-term corrective actions: Create and test a long-term solution to eliminate the root cause of the problem.
  • Implement and validate the permanent solution: Implement and validate the permanent solution’s effectiveness.
  • Prevent recurrence: Put in place measures to keep the problem from recurring.
  • Recognize and reward the team: Recognize and reward the team for its efforts.

Download the 8D Problem Solving Template

A3 Problem Solving Method:

The A3 problem solving technique is a visual, team-based problem-solving approach that is frequently used in Lean Six Sigma projects. The A3 report is a one-page document that clearly and concisely outlines the problem, root cause analysis, and proposed solution.

The A3 problem-solving procedure consists of the following steps:

  • Determine the issue: Define the issue clearly, including its impact on the customer.
  • Perform root cause analysis: Identify the underlying causes of the problem using root cause analysis techniques.
  • Create and implement a solution: Create and implement a solution that addresses the problem’s root cause.
  • Monitor and improve the solution: Keep an eye on the solution’s effectiveness and make any necessary changes.

Subsequently, in the Lean Six Sigma framework, the 8D and A3 problem solving methodologies are two popular approaches to problem solving. Both methodologies provide a structured, team-based problem-solving approach that guides individuals through a comprehensive and systematic process of identifying, analysing, and resolving problems in an effective and efficient manner.

Step 1 – Define the Problem

The definition of the problem is the first step in effective problem solving. This may appear to be a simple task, but it is actually quite difficult. This is because problems are frequently complex and multi-layered, making it easy to confuse symptoms with the underlying cause. To avoid this pitfall, it is critical to thoroughly understand the problem.

To begin, ask yourself some clarifying questions:

  • What exactly is the issue?
  • What are the problem’s symptoms or consequences?
  • Who or what is impacted by the issue?
  • When and where does the issue arise?

Answering these questions will assist you in determining the scope of the problem. However, simply describing the problem is not always sufficient; you must also identify the root cause. The root cause is the underlying cause of the problem and is usually the key to resolving it permanently.

Try asking “why” questions to find the root cause:

  • What causes the problem?
  • Why does it continue?
  • Why does it have the effects that it does?

By repeatedly asking “ why ,” you’ll eventually get to the bottom of the problem. This is an important step in the problem-solving process because it ensures that you’re dealing with the root cause rather than just the symptoms.

Once you have a firm grasp on the issue, it is time to divide it into smaller, more manageable chunks. This makes tackling the problem easier and reduces the risk of becoming overwhelmed. For example, if you’re attempting to solve a complex business problem, you might divide it into smaller components like market research, product development, and sales strategies.

To summarise step 1, defining the problem is an important first step in effective problem-solving. You will be able to identify the root cause and break it down into manageable parts if you take the time to thoroughly understand the problem. This will prepare you for the next step in the problem-solving process, which is gathering information and brainstorming ideas.

Step 2 – Gather Information and Brainstorm Ideas

Brainstorming - Learnleansigma

Gathering information and brainstorming ideas is the next step in effective problem solving. This entails researching the problem and relevant information, collaborating with others, and coming up with a variety of potential solutions. This increases your chances of finding the best solution to the problem.

Begin by researching the problem and relevant information. This could include reading articles, conducting surveys, or consulting with experts. The goal is to collect as much information as possible in order to better understand the problem and possible solutions.

Next, work with others to gather a variety of perspectives. Brainstorming with others can be an excellent way to come up with new and creative ideas. Encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas when working in a group, and make an effort to actively listen to what others have to say. Be open to new and unconventional ideas and resist the urge to dismiss them too quickly.

Finally, use brainstorming to generate a wide range of potential solutions. This is the place where you can let your imagination run wild. At this stage, don’t worry about the feasibility or practicality of the solutions; instead, focus on generating as many ideas as possible. Write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous or unusual it may appear. This can be done individually or in groups.

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential solutions, it’s time to assess them and select the best one. This is the next step in the problem-solving process, which we’ll go over in greater detail in the following section.

Step 3 – Evaluate Options and Choose the Best Solution

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential solutions, it’s time to assess them and select the best one. This is the third step in effective problem solving, and it entails weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, considering their feasibility and practicability, and selecting the solution that is most likely to solve the problem effectively.

To begin, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. This will assist you in determining the potential outcomes of each solution and deciding which is the best option. For example, a quick and easy solution may not be the most effective in the long run, whereas a more complex and time-consuming solution may be more effective in solving the problem in the long run.

Consider each solution’s feasibility and practicability. Consider the following:

  • Can the solution be implemented within the available resources, time, and budget?
  • What are the possible barriers to implementing the solution?
  • Is the solution feasible in today’s political, economic, and social environment?

You’ll be able to tell which solutions are likely to succeed and which aren’t by assessing their feasibility and practicability.

Finally, choose the solution that is most likely to effectively solve the problem. This solution should be based on the criteria you’ve established, such as the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, their feasibility and practicability, and your overall goals.

It is critical to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to problems. What is effective for one person or situation may not be effective for another. This is why it is critical to consider a wide range of solutions and evaluate each one based on its ability to effectively solve the problem.

Step 4 – Implement and Monitor the Solution

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When you’ve decided on the best solution, it’s time to put it into action. The fourth and final step in effective problem solving is to put the solution into action, monitor its progress, and make any necessary adjustments.

To begin, implement the solution. This may entail delegating tasks, developing a strategy, and allocating resources. Ascertain that everyone involved understands their role and responsibilities in the solution’s implementation.

Next, keep an eye on the solution’s progress. This may entail scheduling regular check-ins, tracking metrics, and soliciting feedback from others. You will be able to identify any potential roadblocks and make any necessary adjustments in a timely manner if you monitor the progress of the solution.

Finally, make any necessary modifications to the solution. This could entail changing the solution, altering the plan of action, or delegating different tasks. Be willing to make changes if they will improve the solution or help it solve the problem more effectively.

It’s important to remember that problem solving is an iterative process, and there may be times when you need to start from scratch. This is especially true if the initial solution does not effectively solve the problem. In these situations, it’s critical to be adaptable and flexible and to keep trying new solutions until you find the one that works best.

To summarise, effective problem solving is a critical skill that can assist individuals and organisations in overcoming challenges and achieving their objectives. Effective problem solving consists of four key steps: defining the problem, generating potential solutions, evaluating alternatives and selecting the best solution, and implementing the solution.

You can increase your chances of success in problem solving by following these steps and considering factors such as the pros and cons of each solution, their feasibility and practicability, and making any necessary adjustments. Furthermore, keep in mind that problem solving is an iterative process, and there may be times when you need to go back to the beginning and restart. Maintain your adaptability and try new solutions until you find the one that works best for you.

  • Novick, L.R. and Bassok, M., 2005.  Problem Solving . Cambridge University Press.

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Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website www.learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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7.3 Problem-Solving

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe problem solving strategies
  • Define algorithm and heuristic
  • Explain some common roadblocks to effective problem solving

   People face problems every day—usually, multiple problems throughout the day. Sometimes these problems are straightforward: To double a recipe for pizza dough, for example, all that is required is that each ingredient in the recipe be doubled. Sometimes, however, the problems we encounter are more complex. For example, say you have a work deadline, and you must mail a printed copy of a report to your supervisor by the end of the business day. The report is time-sensitive and must be sent overnight. You finished the report last night, but your printer will not work today. What should you do? First, you need to identify the problem and then apply a strategy for solving the problem.

The study of human and animal problem solving processes has provided much insight toward the understanding of our conscious experience and led to advancements in computer science and artificial intelligence. Essentially much of cognitive science today represents studies of how we consciously and unconsciously make decisions and solve problems. For instance, when encountered with a large amount of information, how do we go about making decisions about the most efficient way of sorting and analyzing all the information in order to find what you are looking for as in visual search paradigms in cognitive psychology. Or in a situation where a piece of machinery is not working properly, how do we go about organizing how to address the issue and understand what the cause of the problem might be. How do we sort the procedures that will be needed and focus attention on what is important in order to solve problems efficiently. Within this section we will discuss some of these issues and examine processes related to human, animal and computer problem solving.

PROBLEM-SOLVING STRATEGIES

   When people are presented with a problem—whether it is a complex mathematical problem or a broken printer, how do you solve it? Before finding a solution to the problem, the problem must first be clearly identified. After that, one of many problem solving strategies can be applied, hopefully resulting in a solution.

Problems themselves can be classified into two different categories known as ill-defined and well-defined problems (Schacter, 2009). Ill-defined problems represent issues that do not have clear goals, solution paths, or expected solutions whereas well-defined problems have specific goals, clearly defined solutions, and clear expected solutions. Problem solving often incorporates pragmatics (logical reasoning) and semantics (interpretation of meanings behind the problem), and also in many cases require abstract thinking and creativity in order to find novel solutions. Within psychology, problem solving refers to a motivational drive for reading a definite “goal” from a present situation or condition that is either not moving toward that goal, is distant from it, or requires more complex logical analysis for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward that goal. Processes relating to problem solving include problem finding also known as problem analysis, problem shaping where the organization of the problem occurs, generating alternative strategies, implementation of attempted solutions, and verification of the selected solution. Various methods of studying problem solving exist within the field of psychology including introspection, behavior analysis and behaviorism, simulation, computer modeling, and experimentation.

A problem-solving strategy is a plan of action used to find a solution. Different strategies have different action plans associated with them (table below). For example, a well-known strategy is trial and error. The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” describes trial and error. In terms of your broken printer, you could try checking the ink levels, and if that doesn’t work, you could check to make sure the paper tray isn’t jammed. Or maybe the printer isn’t actually connected to your laptop. When using trial and error, you would continue to try different solutions until you solved your problem. Although trial and error is not typically one of the most time-efficient strategies, it is a commonly used one.

Method Description Example
Trial and error Continue trying different solutions until problem is solved Restarting phone, turning off WiFi, turning off bluetooth in order to determine why your phone is malfunctioning
Algorithm Step-by-step problem-solving formula Instruction manual for installing new software on your computer
Heuristic General problem-solving framework Working backwards; breaking a task into steps

   Another type of strategy is an algorithm. An algorithm is a problem-solving formula that provides you with step-by-step instructions used to achieve a desired outcome (Kahneman, 2011). You can think of an algorithm as a recipe with highly detailed instructions that produce the same result every time they are performed. Algorithms are used frequently in our everyday lives, especially in computer science. When you run a search on the Internet, search engines like Google use algorithms to decide which entries will appear first in your list of results. Facebook also uses algorithms to decide which posts to display on your newsfeed. Can you identify other situations in which algorithms are used?

A heuristic is another type of problem solving strategy. While an algorithm must be followed exactly to produce a correct result, a heuristic is a general problem-solving framework (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). You can think of these as mental shortcuts that are used to solve problems. A “rule of thumb” is an example of a heuristic. Such a rule saves the person time and energy when making a decision, but despite its time-saving characteristics, it is not always the best method for making a rational decision. Different types of heuristics are used in different types of situations, but the impulse to use a heuristic occurs when one of five conditions is met (Pratkanis, 1989):

  • When one is faced with too much information
  • When the time to make a decision is limited
  • When the decision to be made is unimportant
  • When there is access to very little information to use in making the decision
  • When an appropriate heuristic happens to come to mind in the same moment

Working backwards is a useful heuristic in which you begin solving the problem by focusing on the end result. Consider this example: You live in Washington, D.C. and have been invited to a wedding at 4 PM on Saturday in Philadelphia. Knowing that Interstate 95 tends to back up any day of the week, you need to plan your route and time your departure accordingly. If you want to be at the wedding service by 3:30 PM, and it takes 2.5 hours to get to Philadelphia without traffic, what time should you leave your house? You use the working backwards heuristic to plan the events of your day on a regular basis, probably without even thinking about it.

Another useful heuristic is the practice of accomplishing a large goal or task by breaking it into a series of smaller steps. Students often use this common method to complete a large research project or long essay for school. For example, students typically brainstorm, develop a thesis or main topic, research the chosen topic, organize their information into an outline, write a rough draft, revise and edit the rough draft, develop a final draft, organize the references list, and proofread their work before turning in the project. The large task becomes less overwhelming when it is broken down into a series of small steps.

Further problem solving strategies have been identified (listed below) that incorporate flexible and creative thinking in order to reach solutions efficiently.

Additional Problem Solving Strategies :

  • Abstraction – refers to solving the problem within a model of the situation before applying it to reality.
  • Analogy – is using a solution that solves a similar problem.
  • Brainstorming – refers to collecting an analyzing a large amount of solutions, especially within a group of people, to combine the solutions and developing them until an optimal solution is reached.
  • Divide and conquer – breaking down large complex problems into smaller more manageable problems.
  • Hypothesis testing – method used in experimentation where an assumption about what would happen in response to manipulating an independent variable is made, and analysis of the affects of the manipulation are made and compared to the original hypothesis.
  • Lateral thinking – approaching problems indirectly and creatively by viewing the problem in a new and unusual light.
  • Means-ends analysis – choosing and analyzing an action at a series of smaller steps to move closer to the goal.
  • Method of focal objects – putting seemingly non-matching characteristics of different procedures together to make something new that will get you closer to the goal.
  • Morphological analysis – analyzing the outputs of and interactions of many pieces that together make up a whole system.
  • Proof – trying to prove that a problem cannot be solved. Where the proof fails becomes the starting point or solving the problem.
  • Reduction – adapting the problem to be as similar problems where a solution exists.
  • Research – using existing knowledge or solutions to similar problems to solve the problem.
  • Root cause analysis – trying to identify the cause of the problem.

The strategies listed above outline a short summary of methods we use in working toward solutions and also demonstrate how the mind works when being faced with barriers preventing goals to be reached.

One example of means-end analysis can be found by using the Tower of Hanoi paradigm . This paradigm can be modeled as a word problems as demonstrated by the Missionary-Cannibal Problem :

Missionary-Cannibal Problem

Three missionaries and three cannibals are on one side of a river and need to cross to the other side. The only means of crossing is a boat, and the boat can only hold two people at a time. Your goal is to devise a set of moves that will transport all six of the people across the river, being in mind the following constraint: The number of cannibals can never exceed the number of missionaries in any location. Remember that someone will have to also row that boat back across each time.

Hint : At one point in your solution, you will have to send more people back to the original side than you just sent to the destination.

The actual Tower of Hanoi problem consists of three rods sitting vertically on a base with a number of disks of different sizes that can slide onto any rod. The puzzle starts with the disks in a neat stack in ascending order of size on one rod, the smallest at the top making a conical shape. The objective of the puzzle is to move the entire stack to another rod obeying the following rules:

  • 1. Only one disk can be moved at a time.
  • 2. Each move consists of taking the upper disk from one of the stacks and placing it on top of another stack or on an empty rod.
  • 3. No disc may be placed on top of a smaller disk.

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

  Figure 7.02. Steps for solving the Tower of Hanoi in the minimum number of moves when there are 3 disks.

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

Figure 7.03. Graphical representation of nodes (circles) and moves (lines) of Tower of Hanoi.

The Tower of Hanoi is a frequently used psychological technique to study problem solving and procedure analysis. A variation of the Tower of Hanoi known as the Tower of London has been developed which has been an important tool in the neuropsychological diagnosis of executive function disorders and their treatment.

GESTALT PSYCHOLOGY AND PROBLEM SOLVING

As you may recall from the sensation and perception chapter, Gestalt psychology describes whole patterns, forms and configurations of perception and cognition such as closure, good continuation, and figure-ground. In addition to patterns of perception, Wolfgang Kohler, a German Gestalt psychologist traveled to the Spanish island of Tenerife in order to study animals behavior and problem solving in the anthropoid ape.

As an interesting side note to Kohler’s studies of chimp problem solving, Dr. Ronald Ley, professor of psychology at State University of New York provides evidence in his book A Whisper of Espionage  (1990) suggesting that while collecting data for what would later be his book  The Mentality of Apes (1925) on Tenerife in the Canary Islands between 1914 and 1920, Kohler was additionally an active spy for the German government alerting Germany to ships that were sailing around the Canary Islands. Ley suggests his investigations in England, Germany and elsewhere in Europe confirm that Kohler had served in the German military by building, maintaining and operating a concealed radio that contributed to Germany’s war effort acting as a strategic outpost in the Canary Islands that could monitor naval military activity approaching the north African coast.

While trapped on the island over the course of World War 1, Kohler applied Gestalt principles to animal perception in order to understand how they solve problems. He recognized that the apes on the islands also perceive relations between stimuli and the environment in Gestalt patterns and understand these patterns as wholes as opposed to pieces that make up a whole. Kohler based his theories of animal intelligence on the ability to understand relations between stimuli, and spent much of his time while trapped on the island investigation what he described as  insight , the sudden perception of useful or proper relations. In order to study insight in animals, Kohler would present problems to chimpanzee’s by hanging some banana’s or some kind of food so it was suspended higher than the apes could reach. Within the room, Kohler would arrange a variety of boxes, sticks or other tools the chimpanzees could use by combining in patterns or organizing in a way that would allow them to obtain the food (Kohler & Winter, 1925).

While viewing the chimpanzee’s, Kohler noticed one chimp that was more efficient at solving problems than some of the others. The chimp, named Sultan, was able to use long poles to reach through bars and organize objects in specific patterns to obtain food or other desirables that were originally out of reach. In order to study insight within these chimps, Kohler would remove objects from the room to systematically make the food more difficult to obtain. As the story goes, after removing many of the objects Sultan was used to using to obtain the food, he sat down ad sulked for a while, and then suddenly got up going over to two poles lying on the ground. Without hesitation Sultan put one pole inside the end of the other creating a longer pole that he could use to obtain the food demonstrating an ideal example of what Kohler described as insight. In another situation, Sultan discovered how to stand on a box to reach a banana that was suspended from the rafters illustrating Sultan’s perception of relations and the importance of insight in problem solving.

Grande (another chimp in the group studied by Kohler) builds a three-box structure to reach the bananas, while Sultan watches from the ground.  Insight , sometimes referred to as an “Ah-ha” experience, was the term Kohler used for the sudden perception of useful relations among objects during problem solving (Kohler, 1927; Radvansky & Ashcraft, 2013).

Solving puzzles.

   Problem-solving abilities can improve with practice. Many people challenge themselves every day with puzzles and other mental exercises to sharpen their problem-solving skills. Sudoku puzzles appear daily in most newspapers. Typically, a sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid. The simple sudoku below (see figure) is a 4×4 grid. To solve the puzzle, fill in the empty boxes with a single digit: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Here are the rules: The numbers must total 10 in each bolded box, each row, and each column; however, each digit can only appear once in a bolded box, row, and column. Time yourself as you solve this puzzle and compare your time with a classmate.

How long did it take you to solve this sudoku puzzle? (You can see the answer at the end of this section.)

   Here is another popular type of puzzle (figure below) that challenges your spatial reasoning skills. Connect all nine dots with four connecting straight lines without lifting your pencil from the paper:

Did you figure it out? (The answer is at the end of this section.) Once you understand how to crack this puzzle, you won’t forget.

   Take a look at the “Puzzling Scales” logic puzzle below (figure below). Sam Loyd, a well-known puzzle master, created and refined countless puzzles throughout his lifetime (Cyclopedia of Puzzles, n.d.).

A puzzle involving a scale is shown. At the top of the figure it reads: “Sam Loyds Puzzling Scales.” The first row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with 3 blocks and a top on the left and 12 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “Since the scales now balance.” The next row of the puzzle shows a balanced scale with just the top on the left, and 1 block and 8 marbles on the right. Below this row it reads: “And balance when arranged this way.” The third row shows an unbalanced scale with the top on the left side, which is much lower than the right side. The right side is empty. Below this row it reads: “Then how many marbles will it require to balance with that top?”

What steps did you take to solve this puzzle? You can read the solution at the end of this section.

Pitfalls to problem solving.

   Not all problems are successfully solved, however. What challenges stop us from successfully solving a problem? Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Imagine a person in a room that has four doorways. One doorway that has always been open in the past is now locked. The person, accustomed to exiting the room by that particular doorway, keeps trying to get out through the same doorway even though the other three doorways are open. The person is stuck—but she just needs to go to another doorway, instead of trying to get out through the locked doorway. A mental set is where you persist in approaching a problem in a way that has worked in the past but is clearly not working now.

Functional fixedness is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for. During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, NASA engineers at Mission Control had to overcome functional fixedness to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the spacecraft. An explosion in a module of the spacecraft damaged multiple systems. The astronauts were in danger of being poisoned by rising levels of carbon dioxide because of problems with the carbon dioxide filters. The engineers found a way for the astronauts to use spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses to create a makeshift air filter, which saved the lives of the astronauts.

   Researchers have investigated whether functional fixedness is affected by culture. In one experiment, individuals from the Shuar group in Ecuador were asked to use an object for a purpose other than that for which the object was originally intended. For example, the participants were told a story about a bear and a rabbit that were separated by a river and asked to select among various objects, including a spoon, a cup, erasers, and so on, to help the animals. The spoon was the only object long enough to span the imaginary river, but if the spoon was presented in a way that reflected its normal usage, it took participants longer to choose the spoon to solve the problem. (German & Barrett, 2005). The researchers wanted to know if exposure to highly specialized tools, as occurs with individuals in industrialized nations, affects their ability to transcend functional fixedness. It was determined that functional fixedness is experienced in both industrialized and nonindustrialized cultures (German & Barrett, 2005).

In order to make good decisions, we use our knowledge and our reasoning. Often, this knowledge and reasoning is sound and solid. Sometimes, however, we are swayed by biases or by others manipulating a situation. For example, let’s say you and three friends wanted to rent a house and had a combined target budget of $1,600. The realtor shows you only very run-down houses for $1,600 and then shows you a very nice house for $2,000. Might you ask each person to pay more in rent to get the $2,000 home? Why would the realtor show you the run-down houses and the nice house? The realtor may be challenging your anchoring bias. An anchoring bias occurs when you focus on one piece of information when making a decision or solving a problem. In this case, you’re so focused on the amount of money you are willing to spend that you may not recognize what kinds of houses are available at that price point.

The confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if you think that your professor is not very nice, you notice all of the instances of rude behavior exhibited by the professor while ignoring the countless pleasant interactions he is involved in on a daily basis. Hindsight bias leads you to believe that the event you just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t. In other words, you knew all along that things would turn out the way they did. Representative bias describes a faulty way of thinking, in which you unintentionally stereotype someone or something; for example, you may assume that your professors spend their free time reading books and engaging in intellectual conversation, because the idea of them spending their time playing volleyball or visiting an amusement park does not fit in with your stereotypes of professors.

Finally, the availability heuristic is a heuristic in which you make a decision based on an example, information, or recent experience that is that readily available to you, even though it may not be the best example to inform your decision . Biases tend to “preserve that which is already established—to maintain our preexisting knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and hypotheses” (Aronson, 1995; Kahneman, 2011). These biases are summarized in the table below.

Bias Description
Anchoring Tendency to focus on one particular piece of information when making decisions or problem-solving
Confirmation Focuses on information that confirms existing beliefs
Hindsight Belief that the event just experienced was predictable
Representative Unintentional stereotyping of someone or something
Availability Decision is based upon either an available precedent or an example that may be faulty

Were you able to determine how many marbles are needed to balance the scales in the figure below? You need nine. Were you able to solve the problems in the figures above? Here are the answers.

The first puzzle is a Sudoku grid of 16 squares (4 rows of 4 squares) is shown. Half of the numbers were supplied to start the puzzle and are colored blue, and half have been filled in as the puzzle’s solution and are colored red. The numbers in each row of the grid, left to right, are as follows. Row 1: blue 3, red 1, red 4, blue 2. Row 2: red 2, blue 4, blue 1, red 3. Row 3: red 1, blue 3, blue 2, red 4. Row 4: blue 4, red 2, red 3, blue 1.The second puzzle consists of 9 dots arranged in 3 rows of 3 inside of a square. The solution, four straight lines made without lifting the pencil, is shown in a red line with arrows indicating the direction of movement. In order to solve the puzzle, the lines must extend beyond the borders of the box. The four connecting lines are drawn as follows. Line 1 begins at the top left dot, proceeds through the middle and right dots of the top row, and extends to the right beyond the border of the square. Line 2 extends from the end of line 1, through the right dot of the horizontally centered row, through the middle dot of the bottom row, and beyond the square’s border ending in the space beneath the left dot of the bottom row. Line 3 extends from the end of line 2 upwards through the left dots of the bottom, middle, and top rows. Line 4 extends from the end of line 3 through the middle dot in the middle row and ends at the right dot of the bottom row.

   Many different strategies exist for solving problems. Typical strategies include trial and error, applying algorithms, and using heuristics. To solve a large, complicated problem, it often helps to break the problem into smaller steps that can be accomplished individually, leading to an overall solution. Roadblocks to problem solving include a mental set, functional fixedness, and various biases that can cloud decision making skills.

References:

Openstax Psychology text by Kathryn Dumper, William Jenkins, Arlene Lacombe, Marilyn Lovett and Marion Perlmutter licensed under CC BY v4.0. https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology

Review Questions:

1. A specific formula for solving a problem is called ________.

a. an algorithm

b. a heuristic

c. a mental set

d. trial and error

2. Solving the Tower of Hanoi problem tends to utilize a  ________ strategy of problem solving.

a. divide and conquer

b. means-end analysis

d. experiment

3. A mental shortcut in the form of a general problem-solving framework is called ________.

4. Which type of bias involves becoming fixated on a single trait of a problem?

a. anchoring bias

b. confirmation bias

c. representative bias

d. availability bias

5. Which type of bias involves relying on a false stereotype to make a decision?

6. Wolfgang Kohler analyzed behavior of chimpanzees by applying Gestalt principles to describe ________.

a. social adjustment

b. student load payment options

c. emotional learning

d. insight learning

7. ________ is a type of mental set where you cannot perceive an object being used for something other than what it was designed for.

a. functional fixedness

c. working memory

Critical Thinking Questions:

1. What is functional fixedness and how can overcoming it help you solve problems?

2. How does an algorithm save you time and energy when solving a problem?

Personal Application Question:

1. Which type of bias do you recognize in your own decision making processes? How has this bias affected how you’ve made decisions in the past and how can you use your awareness of it to improve your decisions making skills in the future?

anchoring bias

availability heuristic

confirmation bias

functional fixedness

hindsight bias

problem-solving strategy

representative bias

trial and error

working backwards

Answers to Exercises

algorithm:  problem-solving strategy characterized by a specific set of instructions

anchoring bias:  faulty heuristic in which you fixate on a single aspect of a problem to find a solution

availability heuristic:  faulty heuristic in which you make a decision based on information readily available to you

confirmation bias:  faulty heuristic in which you focus on information that confirms your beliefs

functional fixedness:  inability to see an object as useful for any other use other than the one for which it was intended

heuristic:  mental shortcut that saves time when solving a problem

hindsight bias:  belief that the event just experienced was predictable, even though it really wasn’t

mental set:  continually using an old solution to a problem without results

problem-solving strategy:  method for solving problems

representative bias:  faulty heuristic in which you stereotype someone or something without a valid basis for your judgment

trial and error:  problem-solving strategy in which multiple solutions are attempted until the correct one is found

working backwards:  heuristic in which you begin to solve a problem by focusing on the end result

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What is an example of problem-solving?

What are the 5 steps to problem-solving, 10 effective problem-solving strategies, what skills do efficient problem solvers have, how to improve your problem-solving skills.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes — from workplace conflict to budget cuts.

Creative problem-solving is one of the most in-demand skills in all roles and industries. It can boost an organization’s human capital and give it a competitive edge. 

Problem-solving strategies are ways of approaching problems that can help you look beyond the obvious answers and find the best solution to your problem . 

Let’s take a look at a five-step problem-solving process and how to combine it with proven problem-solving strategies. This will give you the tools and skills to solve even your most complex problems.

Good problem-solving is an essential part of the decision-making process . To see what a problem-solving process might look like in real life, let’s take a common problem for SaaS brands — decreasing customer churn rates.

To solve this problem, the company must first identify it. In this case, the problem is that the churn rate is too high. 

Next, they need to identify the root causes of the problem. This could be anything from their customer service experience to their email marketing campaigns. If there are several problems, they will need a separate problem-solving process for each one. 

Let’s say the problem is with email marketing — they’re not nurturing existing customers. Now that they’ve identified the problem, they can start using problem-solving strategies to look for solutions. 

This might look like coming up with special offers, discounts, or bonuses for existing customers. They need to find ways to remind them to use their products and services while providing added value. This will encourage customers to keep paying their monthly subscriptions.

They might also want to add incentives, such as access to a premium service at no extra cost after 12 months of membership. They could publish blog posts that help their customers solve common problems and share them as an email newsletter.

The company should set targets and a time frame in which to achieve them. This will allow leaders to measure progress and identify which actions yield the best results.

team-meeting-problem-solving-strategies

Perhaps you’ve got a problem you need to tackle. Or maybe you want to be prepared the next time one arises. Either way, it’s a good idea to get familiar with the five steps of problem-solving. 

Use this step-by-step problem-solving method with the strategies in the following section to find possible solutions to your problem.

1. Identify the problem

The first step is to know which problem you need to solve. Then, you need to find the root cause of the problem. 

The best course of action is to gather as much data as possible, speak to the people involved, and separate facts from opinions. 

Once this is done, formulate a statement that describes the problem. Use rational persuasion to make sure your team agrees .

2. Break the problem down 

Identifying the problem allows you to see which steps need to be taken to solve it. 

First, break the problem down into achievable blocks. Then, use strategic planning to set a time frame in which to solve the problem and establish a timeline for the completion of each stage.

3. Generate potential solutions

At this stage, the aim isn’t to evaluate possible solutions but to generate as many ideas as possible. 

Encourage your team to use creative thinking and be patient — the best solution may not be the first or most obvious one.

Use one or more of the different strategies in the following section to help come up with solutions — the more creative, the better.

4. Evaluate the possible solutions

Once you’ve generated potential solutions, narrow them down to a shortlist. Then, evaluate the options on your shortlist. 

There are usually many factors to consider. So when evaluating a solution, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will my team be on board with the proposition?
  • Does the solution align with organizational goals ?
  • Is the solution likely to achieve the desired outcomes?
  • Is the solution realistic and possible with current resources and constraints?
  • Will the solution solve the problem without causing additional unintended problems?

woman-helping-her-colleague-problem-solving-strategies

5. Implement and monitor the solutions

Once you’ve identified your solution and got buy-in from your team, it’s time to implement it. 

But the work doesn’t stop there. You need to monitor your solution to see whether it actually solves your problem. 

Request regular feedback from the team members involved and have a monitoring and evaluation plan in place to measure progress.

If the solution doesn’t achieve your desired results, start this step-by-step process again.

There are many different ways to approach problem-solving. Each is suitable for different types of problems. 

The most appropriate problem-solving techniques will depend on your specific problem. You may need to experiment with several strategies before you find a workable solution.

Here are 10 effective problem-solving strategies for you to try:

  • Use a solution that worked before
  • Brainstorming
  • Work backward
  • Use the Kipling method
  • Draw the problem
  • Use trial and error
  • Sleep on it
  • Get advice from your peers
  • Use the Pareto principle
  • Add successful solutions to your toolkit

Let’s break each of these down.

1. Use a solution that worked before

It might seem obvious, but if you’ve faced similar problems in the past, look back to what worked then. See if any of the solutions could apply to your current situation and, if so, replicate them.

2. Brainstorming

The more people you enlist to help solve the problem, the more potential solutions you can come up with.

Use different brainstorming techniques to workshop potential solutions with your team. They’ll likely bring something you haven’t thought of to the table.

3. Work backward

Working backward is a way to reverse engineer your problem. Imagine your problem has been solved, and make that the starting point.

Then, retrace your steps back to where you are now. This can help you see which course of action may be most effective.

4. Use the Kipling method

This is a method that poses six questions based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “ I Keep Six Honest Serving Men .” 

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is the problem important?
  • When did the problem arise, and when does it need to be solved?
  • How did the problem happen?
  • Where is the problem occurring?
  • Who does the problem affect?

Answering these questions can help you identify possible solutions.

5. Draw the problem

Sometimes it can be difficult to visualize all the components and moving parts of a problem and its solution. Drawing a diagram can help.

This technique is particularly helpful for solving process-related problems. For example, a product development team might want to decrease the time they take to fix bugs and create new iterations. Drawing the processes involved can help you see where improvements can be made.

woman-drawing-mind-map-problem-solving-strategies

6. Use trial-and-error

A trial-and-error approach can be useful when you have several possible solutions and want to test them to see which one works best.

7. Sleep on it

Finding the best solution to a problem is a process. Remember to take breaks and get enough rest . Sometimes, a walk around the block can bring inspiration, but you should sleep on it if possible.

A good night’s sleep helps us find creative solutions to problems. This is because when you sleep, your brain sorts through the day’s events and stores them as memories. This enables you to process your ideas at a subconscious level. 

If possible, give yourself a few days to develop and analyze possible solutions. You may find you have greater clarity after sleeping on it. Your mind will also be fresh, so you’ll be able to make better decisions.

8. Get advice from your peers

Getting input from a group of people can help you find solutions you may not have thought of on your own. 

For solo entrepreneurs or freelancers, this might look like hiring a coach or mentor or joining a mastermind group. 

For leaders , it might be consulting other members of the leadership team or working with a business coach .

It’s important to recognize you might not have all the skills, experience, or knowledge necessary to find a solution alone. 

9. Use the Pareto principle

The Pareto principle — also known as the 80/20 rule — can help you identify possible root causes and potential solutions for your problems.

Although it’s not a mathematical law, it’s a principle found throughout many aspects of business and life. For example, 20% of the sales reps in a company might close 80% of the sales. 

You may be able to narrow down the causes of your problem by applying the Pareto principle. This can also help you identify the most appropriate solutions.

10. Add successful solutions to your toolkit

Every situation is different, and the same solutions might not always work. But by keeping a record of successful problem-solving strategies, you can build up a solutions toolkit. 

These solutions may be applicable to future problems. Even if not, they may save you some of the time and work needed to come up with a new solution.

three-colleagues-looking-at-computer-problem-solving-strategies

Improving problem-solving skills is essential for professional development — both yours and your team’s. Here are some of the key skills of effective problem solvers:

  • Critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Communication skills , including active listening
  • Decision-making
  • Planning and prioritization
  • Emotional intelligence , including empathy and emotional regulation
  • Time management
  • Data analysis
  • Research skills
  • Project management

And they see problems as opportunities. Everyone is born with problem-solving skills. But accessing these abilities depends on how we view problems. Effective problem-solvers see problems as opportunities to learn and improve.

Ready to work on your problem-solving abilities? Get started with these seven tips.

1. Build your problem-solving skills

One of the best ways to improve your problem-solving skills is to learn from experts. Consider enrolling in organizational training , shadowing a mentor , or working with a coach .

2. Practice

Practice using your new problem-solving skills by applying them to smaller problems you might encounter in your daily life. 

Alternatively, imagine problematic scenarios that might arise at work and use problem-solving strategies to find hypothetical solutions.

3. Don’t try to find a solution right away

Often, the first solution you think of to solve a problem isn’t the most appropriate or effective.

Instead of thinking on the spot, give yourself time and use one or more of the problem-solving strategies above to activate your creative thinking. 

two-colleagues-talking-at-corporate-event-problem-solving-strategies

4. Ask for feedback

Receiving feedback is always important for learning and growth. Your perception of your problem-solving skills may be different from that of your colleagues. They can provide insights that help you improve. 

5. Learn new approaches and methodologies

There are entire books written about problem-solving methodologies if you want to take a deep dive into the subject. 

We recommend starting with “ Fixed — How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving ” by Amy E. Herman. 

6. Experiment

Tried-and-tested problem-solving techniques can be useful. However, they don’t teach you how to innovate and develop your own problem-solving approaches. 

Sometimes, an unconventional approach can lead to the development of a brilliant new idea or strategy. So don’t be afraid to suggest your most “out there” ideas.

7. Analyze the success of your competitors

Do you have competitors who have already solved the problem you’re facing? Look at what they did, and work backward to solve your own problem. 

For example, Netflix started in the 1990s as a DVD mail-rental company. Its main competitor at the time was Blockbuster. 

But when streaming became the norm in the early 2000s, both companies faced a crisis. Netflix innovated, unveiling its streaming service in 2007. 

If Blockbuster had followed Netflix’s example, it might have survived. Instead, it declared bankruptcy in 2010.

Use problem-solving strategies to uplevel your business

When facing a problem, it’s worth taking the time to find the right solution. 

Otherwise, we risk either running away from our problems or headlong into solutions. When we do this, we might miss out on other, better options.

Use the problem-solving strategies outlined above to find innovative solutions to your business’ most perplexing problems.

If you’re ready to take problem-solving to the next level, request a demo with BetterUp . Our expert coaches specialize in helping teams develop and implement strategies that work.

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Maximize your time and productivity with strategies from our expert coaches.

Elizabeth Perry, ACC

Elizabeth Perry is a Coach Community Manager at BetterUp. She uses strategic engagement strategies to cultivate a learning community across a global network of Coaches through in-person and virtual experiences, technology-enabled platforms, and strategic coaching industry partnerships. With over 3 years of coaching experience and a certification in transformative leadership and life coaching from Sofia University, Elizabeth leverages transpersonal psychology expertise to help coaches and clients gain awareness of their behavioral and thought patterns, discover their purpose and passions, and elevate their potential. She is a lifelong student of psychology, personal growth, and human potential as well as an ICF-certified ACC transpersonal life and leadership Coach.

What is lateral thinking? 7 techniques to encourage creative ideas

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></center></p><h2>17 Smart Problem-Solving Strategies: Master Complex Problems</h2><ul><li>March 3, 2024</li><li>Productivity</li><li>25 min read</li></ul><p><center><img style=

Struggling to overcome challenges in your life? We all face problems, big and small, on a regular basis.

So how do you tackle them effectively? What are some key problem-solving strategies and skills that can guide you?

Effective problem-solving requires breaking issues down logically, generating solutions creatively, weighing choices critically, and adapting plans flexibly based on outcomes. Useful strategies range from leveraging past solutions that have worked to visualizing problems through diagrams. Core skills include analytical abilities, innovative thinking, and collaboration.

Want to improve your problem-solving skills? Keep reading to find out 17 effective problem-solving strategies, key skills, common obstacles to watch for, and tips on improving your overall problem-solving skills.

Key Takeaways:

  • Effective problem-solving requires breaking down issues logically, generating multiple solutions creatively, weighing choices critically, and adapting plans based on outcomes.
  • Useful problem-solving strategies range from leveraging past solutions to brainstorming with groups to visualizing problems through diagrams and models.
  • Core skills include analytical abilities, innovative thinking, decision-making, and team collaboration to solve problems.
  • Common obstacles include fear of failure, information gaps, fixed mindsets, confirmation bias, and groupthink.
  • Boosting problem-solving skills involves learning from experts, actively practicing, soliciting feedback, and analyzing others’ success.
  • Onethread’s project management capabilities align with effective problem-solving tenets – facilitating structured solutions, tracking progress, and capturing lessons learned.

What Is Problem-Solving?

Problem-solving is the process of understanding an issue, situation, or challenge that needs to be addressed and then systematically working through possible solutions to arrive at the best outcome.

It involves critical thinking, analysis, logic, creativity, research, planning, reflection, and patience in order to overcome obstacles and find effective answers to complex questions or problems.

The ultimate goal is to implement the chosen solution successfully.

What Are Problem-Solving Strategies?

Problem-solving strategies are like frameworks or methodologies that help us solve tricky puzzles or problems we face in the workplace, at home, or with friends.

Imagine you have a big jigsaw puzzle. One strategy might be to start with the corner pieces. Another could be looking for pieces with the same colors. 

Just like in puzzles, in real life, we use different plans or steps to find solutions to problems. These strategies help us think clearly, make good choices, and find the best answers without getting too stressed or giving up.

Why Is It Important To Know Different Problem-Solving Strategies?

Why Is It Important To Know Different Problem-Solving Strategies

Knowing different problem-solving strategies is important because different types of problems often require different approaches to solve them effectively. Having a variety of strategies to choose from allows you to select the best method for the specific problem you are trying to solve.

This improves your ability to analyze issues thoroughly, develop solutions creatively, and tackle problems from multiple angles. Knowing multiple strategies also aids in overcoming roadblocks if your initial approach is not working.

Here are some reasons why you need to know different problem-solving strategies:

  • Different Problems Require Different Tools: Just like you can’t use a hammer to fix everything, some problems need specific strategies to solve them.
  • Improves Creativity: Knowing various strategies helps you think outside the box and come up with creative solutions.
  • Saves Time: With the right strategy, you can solve problems faster instead of trying things that don’t work.
  • Reduces Stress: When you know how to tackle a problem, it feels less scary and you feel more confident.
  • Better Outcomes: Using the right strategy can lead to better solutions, making things work out better in the end.
  • Learning and Growth: Each time you solve a problem, you learn something new, which makes you smarter and better at solving future problems.

Knowing different ways to solve problems helps you tackle anything that comes your way, making life a bit easier and more fun!

17 Effective Problem-Solving Strategies

Effective problem-solving strategies include breaking the problem into smaller parts, brainstorming multiple solutions, evaluating the pros and cons of each, and choosing the most viable option. 

Critical thinking and creativity are essential in developing innovative solutions. Collaboration with others can also provide diverse perspectives and ideas. 

By applying these strategies, you can tackle complex issues more effectively.

Now, consider a challenge you’re dealing with. Which strategy could help you find a solution? Here we will discuss key problem strategies in detail.

1. Use a Past Solution That Worked

Use a Past Solution That Worked

This strategy involves looking back at previous similar problems you have faced and the solutions that were effective in solving them.

It is useful when you are facing a problem that is very similar to something you have already solved. The main benefit is that you don’t have to come up with a brand new solution – you already know the method that worked before will likely work again.

However, the limitation is that the current problem may have some unique aspects or differences that mean your old solution is not fully applicable.

The ideal process is to thoroughly analyze the new challenge, identify the key similarities and differences versus the past case, adapt the old solution as needed to align with the current context, and then pilot it carefully before full implementation.

An example is using the same negotiation tactics from purchasing your previous home when putting in an offer on a new house. Key terms would be adjusted but overall it can save significant time versus developing a brand new strategy.

2. Brainstorm Solutions

Brainstorm Solutions

This involves gathering a group of people together to generate as many potential solutions to a problem as possible.

It is effective when you need creative ideas to solve a complex or challenging issue. By getting input from multiple people with diverse perspectives, you increase the likelihood of finding an innovative solution.

The main limitation is that brainstorming sessions can sometimes turn into unproductive gripe sessions or discussions rather than focusing on productive ideation —so they need to be properly facilitated.

The key to an effective brainstorming session is setting some basic ground rules upfront and having an experienced facilitator guide the discussion. Rules often include encouraging wild ideas, avoiding criticism of ideas during the ideation phase, and building on others’ ideas.

For instance, a struggling startup might hold a session where ideas for turnaround plans are generated and then formalized with financials and metrics.

3. Work Backward from the Solution

Work Backward from the Solution

This technique involves envisioning that the problem has already been solved and then working step-by-step backward toward the current state.

This strategy is particularly helpful for long-term, multi-step problems. By starting from the imagined solution and identifying all the steps required to reach it, you can systematically determine the actions needed. It lets you tackle a big hairy problem through smaller, reversible steps.

A limitation is that this approach may not be possible if you cannot accurately envision the solution state to start with.

The approach helps drive logical systematic thinking for complex problem-solving, but should still be combined with creative brainstorming of alternative scenarios and solutions.

An example is planning for an event – you would imagine the successful event occurring, then determine the tasks needed the week before, two weeks before, etc. all the way back to the present.

4. Use the Kipling Method

Use the Kipling Method

This method, named after author Rudyard Kipling, provides a framework for thoroughly analyzing a problem before jumping into solutions.

It consists of answering six fundamental questions: What, Where, When, How, Who, and Why about the challenge. Clearly defining these core elements of the problem sets the stage for generating targeted solutions.

The Kipling method enables a deep understanding of problem parameters and root causes before solution identification. By jumping to brainstorm solutions too early, critical information can be missed or the problem is loosely defined, reducing solution quality.

Answering the six fundamental questions illuminates all angles of the issue. This takes time but pays dividends in generating optimal solutions later tuned precisely to the true underlying problem.

The limitation is that meticulously working through numerous questions before addressing solutions can slow progress.

The best approach blends structured problem decomposition techniques like the Kipling method with spurring innovative solution ideation from a diverse team. 

An example is using this technique after a technical process failure – the team would systematically detail What failed, Where/When did it fail, How it failed (sequence of events), Who was involved, and Why it likely failed before exploring preventative solutions.

5. Try Different Solutions Until One Works (Trial and Error)

Try Different Solutions Until One Works (Trial and Error)

This technique involves attempting various potential solutions sequentially until finding one that successfully solves the problem.

Trial and error works best when facing a concrete, bounded challenge with clear solution criteria and a small number of discrete options to try. By methodically testing solutions, you can determine the faulty component.

A limitation is that it can be time-intensive if the working solution set is large.

The key is limiting the variable set first. For technical problems, this boundary is inherent and each element can be iteratively tested. But for business issues, artificial constraints may be required – setting decision rules upfront to reduce options before testing.

Furthermore, hypothesis-driven experimentation is far superior to blind trial and error – have logic for why Option A may outperform Option B.

Examples include fixing printer jams by testing different paper tray and cable configurations or resolving website errors by tweaking CSS/HTML line-by-line until the code functions properly.

6. Use Proven Formulas or Frameworks (Heuristics)

Use Proven Formulas or Frameworks (Heuristics)

Heuristics refers to applying existing problem-solving formulas or frameworks rather than addressing issues completely from scratch.

This allows leveraging established best practices rather than reinventing the wheel each time.

It is effective when facing recurrent, common challenges where proven structured approaches exist.

However, heuristics may force-fit solutions to non-standard problems.

For example, a cost-benefit analysis can be used instead of custom weighting schemes to analyze potential process improvements.

Onethread allows teams to define, save, and replicate configurable project templates so proven workflows can be reliably applied across problems with some consistency rather than fully custom one-off approaches each time.

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7. Trust Your Instincts (Insight Problem-Solving)

Trust Your Instincts (Insight Problem-Solving)

Insight is a problem-solving technique that involves waiting patiently for an unexpected “aha moment” when the solution pops into your mind.

It works well for personal challenges that require intuitive realizations over calculated logic. The unconscious mind makes connections leading to flashes of insight when relaxing or doing mundane tasks unrelated to the actual problem.

Benefits include out-of-the-box creative solutions. However, the limitations are that insights can’t be forced and may never come at all if too complex. Critical analysis is still required after initial insights.

A real-life example would be a writer struggling with how to end a novel. Despite extensive brainstorming, they feel stuck. Eventually while gardening one day, a perfect unexpected plot twist sparks an ideal conclusion. However, once written they still carefully review if the ending flows logically from the rest of the story.

8. Reverse Engineer the Problem

Reverse Engineer the Problem

This approach involves deconstructing a problem in reverse sequential order from the current undesirable outcome back to the initial root causes.

By mapping the chain of events backward, you can identify the origin of where things went wrong and establish the critical junctures for solving it moving ahead. Reverse engineering provides diagnostic clarity on multi-step problems.

However, the limitation is that it focuses heavily on autopsying the past versus innovating improved future solutions.

An example is tracing back from a server outage, through the cascade of infrastructure failures that led to it finally terminating at the initial script error that triggered the crisis. This root cause would then inform the preventative measure.

9. Break Down Obstacles Between Current and Goal State (Means-End Analysis)

Break Down Obstacles Between Current and Goal State (Means-End Analysis)

This technique defines the current problem state and the desired end goal state, then systematically identifies obstacles in the way of getting from one to the other.

By mapping the barriers or gaps, you can then develop solutions to address each one. This methodically connects the problem to solutions.

A limitation is that some obstacles may be unknown upfront and only emerge later.

For example, you can list down all the steps required for a new product launch – current state through production, marketing, sales, distribution, etc. to full launch (goal state) – to highlight where resource constraints or other blocks exist so they can be addressed.

Onethread allows dividing big-picture projects into discrete, manageable phases, milestones, and tasks to simplify execution just as problems can be decomposed into more achievable components. Features like dependency mapping further reinforce interconnections.

Using Onethread’s issues and subtasks feature, messy problems can be decomposed into manageable chunks.

10. Ask “Why” Five Times to Identify the Root Cause (The 5 Whys)

Ask "Why" Five Times to Identify the Root Cause (The 5 Whys)

This technique involves asking “Why did this problem occur?” and then responding with an answer that is again met with asking “Why?” This process repeats five times until the root cause is revealed.

Continually asking why digs deeper from surface symptoms to underlying systemic issues.

It is effective for getting to the source of problems originating from human error or process breakdowns.

However, some complex issues may have multiple tangled root causes not solvable through this approach alone.

An example is a retail store experiencing a sudden decline in customers. Successively asking why five times may trace an initial drop to parking challenges, stemming from a city construction project – the true starting point to address.

11. Evaluate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT Analysis)

Evaluate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT Analysis)

This involves analyzing a problem or proposed solution by categorizing internal and external factors into a 2×2 matrix: Strengths, Weaknesses as the internal rows; Opportunities and Threats as the external columns.

Systematically identifying these elements provides balanced insight to evaluate options and risks. It is impactful when evaluating alternative solutions or developing strategy amid complexity or uncertainty.

The key benefit of SWOT analysis is enabling multi-dimensional thinking when rationally evaluating options. Rather than getting anchored on just the upsides or the existing way of operating, it urges a systematic assessment through four different lenses:

  • Internal Strengths: Our core competencies/advantages able to deliver success
  • Internal Weaknesses: Gaps/vulnerabilities we need to manage
  • External Opportunities: Ways we can differentiate/drive additional value
  • External Threats: Risks we must navigate or mitigate

Multiperspective analysis provides the needed holistic view of the balanced risk vs. reward equation for strategic decision making amid uncertainty.

However, SWOT can feel restrictive if not tailored and evolved for different issue types.

Teams should view SWOT analysis as a starting point, augmenting it further for distinct scenarios.

An example is performing a SWOT analysis on whether a small business should expand into a new market – evaluating internal capabilities to execute vs. risks in the external competitive and demand environment to inform the growth decision with eyes wide open.

12. Compare Current vs Expected Performance (Gap Analysis)

Compare Current vs Expected Performance (Gap Analysis)

This technique involves comparing the current state of performance, output, or results to the desired or expected levels to highlight shortfalls.

By quantifying the gaps, you can identify problem areas and prioritize address solutions.

Gap analysis is based on the simple principle – “you can’t improve what you don’t measure.” It enables facts-driven problem diagnosis by highlighting delta to goals, not just vague dissatisfaction that something seems wrong. And measurement immediately suggests improvement opportunities – address the biggest gaps first.

This data orientation also supports ROI analysis on fixing issues – the return from closing larger gaps outweighs narrowly targeting smaller performance deficiencies.

However, the approach is only effective if robust standards and metrics exist as the benchmark to evaluate against. Organizations should invest upfront in establishing performance frameworks.

Furthermore, while numbers are invaluable, the human context behind problems should not be ignored – quantitative versus qualitative gap assessment is optimally blended.

For example, if usage declines are noted during software gap analysis, this could be used as a signal to improve user experience through design.

13. Observe Processes from the Frontline (Gemba Walk)

Observe Processes from the Frontline (Gemba Walk)

A Gemba walk involves going to the actual place where work is done, directly observing the process, engaging with employees, and finding areas for improvement.

By experiencing firsthand rather than solely reviewing abstract reports, practical problems and ideas emerge.

The limitation is Gemba walks provide anecdotes not statistically significant data. It complements but does not replace comprehensive performance measurement.

An example is a factory manager inspecting the production line to spot jam areas based on direct reality rather than relying on throughput dashboards alone back in her office. Frontline insights prove invaluable.

14. Analyze Competitive Forces (Porter’s Five Forces)

Analyze Competitive Forces (Porter’s Five Forces)

This involves assessing the marketplace around a problem or business situation via five key factors: competitors, new entrants, substitute offerings, suppliers, and customer power.

Evaluating these forces illuminates risks and opportunities for strategy development and issue resolution. It is effective for understanding dynamic external threats and opportunities when operating in a contested space.

However, over-indexing on only external factors can overlook the internal capabilities needed to execute solutions.

A startup CEO, for example, may analyze market entry barriers, whitespace opportunities, and disruption risks across these five forces to shape new product rollout strategies and marketing approaches.

15. Think from Different Perspectives (Six Thinking Hats)

Think from Different Perspectives (Six Thinking Hats)

The Six Thinking Hats is a technique developed by Edward de Bono that encourages people to think about a problem from six different perspectives, each represented by a colored “thinking hat.”

The key benefit of this strategy is that it pushes team members to move outside their usual thinking style and consider new angles. This brings more diverse ideas and solutions to the table.

It works best for complex problems that require innovative solutions and when a team is stuck in an unproductive debate. The structured framework keeps the conversation flowing in a positive direction.

Limitations are that it requires training on the method itself and may feel unnatural at first. Team dynamics can also influence success – some members may dominate certain “hats” while others remain quiet.

A real-life example is a software company debating whether to build a new feature. The white hat focuses on facts, red on gut feelings, black on potential risks, yellow on benefits, green on new ideas, and blue on process. This exposes more balanced perspectives before deciding.

Onethread centralizes diverse stakeholder communication onto one platform, ensuring all voices are incorporated when evaluating project tradeoffs, just as problem-solving should consider multifaceted solutions.

16. Visualize the Problem (Draw it Out)

Visualize the Problem (Draw it Out)

Drawing out a problem involves creating visual representations like diagrams, flowcharts, and maps to work through challenging issues.

This strategy is helpful when dealing with complex situations with lots of interconnected components. The visuals simplify the complexity so you can thoroughly understand the problem and all its nuances.

Key benefits are that it allows more stakeholders to get on the same page regarding root causes and it sparks new creative solutions as connections are made visually.

However, simple problems with few variables don’t require extensive diagrams. Additionally, some challenges are so multidimensional that fully capturing every aspect is difficult.

A real-life example would be mapping out all the possible causes leading to decreased client satisfaction at a law firm. An intricate fishbone diagram with branches for issues like service delivery, technology, facilities, culture, and vendor partnerships allows the team to trace problems back to their origins and brainstorm targeted fixes.

17. Follow a Step-by-Step Procedure (Algorithms)

Follow a Step-by-Step Procedure (Algorithms)

An algorithm is a predefined step-by-step process that is guaranteed to produce the correct solution if implemented properly.

Using algorithms is effective when facing problems that have clear, binary right and wrong answers. Algorithms work for mathematical calculations, computer code, manufacturing assembly lines, and scientific experiments.

Key benefits are consistency, accuracy, and efficiency. However, they require extensive upfront development and only apply to scenarios with strict parameters. Additionally, human error can lead to mistakes.

For example, crew members of fast food chains like McDonald’s follow specific algorithms for food prep – from grill times to ingredient amounts in sandwiches, to order fulfillment procedures. This ensures uniform quality and service across all locations. However, if a step is missed, errors occur.

The Problem-Solving Process

The Problem-Solving Process

The problem-solving process typically includes defining the issue, analyzing details, creating solutions, weighing choices, acting, and reviewing results.

In the above, we have discussed several problem-solving strategies. For every problem-solving strategy, you have to follow these processes. Here’s a detailed step-by-step process of effective problem-solving:

Step 1: Identify the Problem

The problem-solving process starts with identifying the problem. This step involves understanding the issue’s nature, its scope, and its impact. Once the problem is clearly defined, it sets the foundation for finding effective solutions.

Identifying the problem is crucial. It means figuring out exactly what needs fixing. This involves looking at the situation closely, understanding what’s wrong, and knowing how it affects things. It’s about asking the right questions to get a clear picture of the issue. 

This step is important because it guides the rest of the problem-solving process. Without a clear understanding of the problem, finding a solution is much harder. It’s like diagnosing an illness before treating it. Once the problem is identified accurately, you can move on to exploring possible solutions and deciding on the best course of action.

Step 2: Break Down the Problem

Breaking down the problem is a key step in the problem-solving process. It involves dividing the main issue into smaller, more manageable parts. This makes it easier to understand and tackle each component one by one.

After identifying the problem, the next step is to break it down. This means splitting the big issue into smaller pieces. It’s like solving a puzzle by handling one piece at a time. 

By doing this, you can focus on each part without feeling overwhelmed. It also helps in identifying the root causes of the problem. Breaking down the problem allows for a clearer analysis and makes finding solutions more straightforward. 

Each smaller problem can be addressed individually, leading to an effective resolution of the overall issue. This approach not only simplifies complex problems but also aids in developing a systematic plan to solve them.

Step 3: Come up with potential solutions

Coming up with potential solutions is the third step in the problem-solving process. It involves brainstorming various options to address the problem, considering creativity and feasibility to find the best approach.

After breaking down the problem, it’s time to think of ways to solve it. This stage is about brainstorming different solutions. You look at the smaller issues you’ve identified and start thinking of ways to fix them. This is where creativity comes in. 

You want to come up with as many ideas as possible, no matter how out-of-the-box they seem. It’s important to consider all options and evaluate their pros and cons. This process allows you to gather a range of possible solutions. 

Later, you can narrow these down to the most practical and effective ones. This step is crucial because it sets the stage for deciding on the best solution to implement. It’s about being open-minded and innovative to tackle the problem effectively.

Step 4: Analyze the possible solutions

Analyzing the possible solutions is the fourth step in the problem-solving process. It involves evaluating each proposed solution’s advantages and disadvantages to determine the most effective and feasible option.

After coming up with potential solutions, the next step is to analyze them. This means looking closely at each idea to see how well it solves the problem. You weigh the pros and cons of every solution.

Consider factors like cost, time, resources, and potential outcomes. This analysis helps in understanding the implications of each option. It’s about being critical and objective, ensuring that the chosen solution is not only effective but also practical.

This step is vital because it guides you towards making an informed decision. It involves comparing the solutions against each other and selecting the one that best addresses the problem.

By thoroughly analyzing the options, you can move forward with confidence, knowing you’ve chosen the best path to solve the issue.

Step 5: Implement and Monitor the Solutions

Implementing and monitoring the solutions is the final step in the problem-solving process. It involves putting the chosen solution into action and observing its effectiveness, making adjustments as necessary.

Once you’ve selected the best solution, it’s time to put it into practice. This step is about action. You implement the chosen solution and then keep an eye on how it works. Monitoring is crucial because it tells you if the solution is solving the problem as expected. 

If things don’t go as planned, you may need to make some changes. This could mean tweaking the current solution or trying a different one. The goal is to ensure the problem is fully resolved. 

This step is critical because it involves real-world application. It’s not just about planning; it’s about doing and adjusting based on results. By effectively implementing and monitoring the solutions, you can achieve the desired outcome and solve the problem successfully.

Why This Process is Important

Following a defined process to solve problems is important because it provides a systematic, structured approach instead of a haphazard one. Having clear steps guides logical thinking, analysis, and decision-making to increase effectiveness. Key reasons it helps are:

  • Clear Direction: This process gives you a clear path to follow, which can make solving problems less overwhelming.
  • Better Solutions: Thoughtful analysis of root causes, iterative testing of solutions, and learning orientation lead to addressing the heart of issues rather than just symptoms.
  • Saves Time and Energy: Instead of guessing or trying random things, this process helps you find a solution more efficiently.
  • Improves Skills: The more you use this process, the better you get at solving problems. It’s like practicing a sport. The more you practice, the better you play.
  • Maximizes collaboration: Involving various stakeholders in the process enables broader inputs. Their communication and coordination are streamlined through organized brainstorming and evaluation.
  • Provides consistency: Standard methodology across problems enables building institutional problem-solving capabilities over time. Patterns emerge on effective techniques to apply to different situations.

The problem-solving process is a powerful tool that can help us tackle any challenge we face. By following these steps, we can find solutions that work and learn important skills along the way.

Key Skills for Efficient Problem Solving

Key Skills for Efficient Problem Solving

Efficient problem-solving requires breaking down issues logically, evaluating options, and implementing practical solutions.

Key skills include critical thinking to understand root causes, creativity to brainstorm innovative ideas, communication abilities to collaborate with others, and decision-making to select the best way forward. Staying adaptable, reflecting on outcomes, and applying lessons learned are also essential.

With practice, these capacities will lead to increased personal and team effectiveness in systematically addressing any problem.

 Let’s explore the powers you need to become a problem-solving hero!

Critical Thinking and Analytical Skills

Critical thinking and analytical skills are vital for efficient problem-solving as they enable individuals to objectively evaluate information, identify key issues, and generate effective solutions. 

These skills facilitate a deeper understanding of problems, leading to logical, well-reasoned decisions. By systematically breaking down complex issues and considering various perspectives, individuals can develop more innovative and practical solutions, enhancing their problem-solving effectiveness.

Communication Skills

Effective communication skills are essential for efficient problem-solving as they facilitate clear sharing of information, ensuring all team members understand the problem and proposed solutions. 

These skills enable individuals to articulate issues, listen actively, and collaborate effectively, fostering a productive environment where diverse ideas can be exchanged and refined. By enhancing mutual understanding, communication skills contribute significantly to identifying and implementing the most viable solutions.

Decision-Making

Strong decision-making skills are crucial for efficient problem-solving, as they enable individuals to choose the best course of action from multiple alternatives. 

These skills involve evaluating the potential outcomes of different solutions, considering the risks and benefits, and making informed choices. Effective decision-making leads to the implementation of solutions that are likely to resolve problems effectively, ensuring resources are used efficiently and goals are achieved.

Planning and Prioritization

Planning and prioritization are key for efficient problem-solving, ensuring resources are allocated effectively to address the most critical issues first. This approach helps in organizing tasks according to their urgency and impact, streamlining efforts towards achieving the desired outcome efficiently.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence enhances problem-solving by allowing individuals to manage emotions, understand others, and navigate social complexities. It fosters a positive, collaborative environment, essential for generating creative solutions and making informed, empathetic decisions.

Leadership skills drive efficient problem-solving by inspiring and guiding teams toward common goals. Effective leaders motivate their teams, foster innovation, and navigate challenges, ensuring collective efforts are focused and productive in addressing problems.

Time Management

Time management is crucial in problem-solving, enabling individuals to allocate appropriate time to each task. By efficiently managing time, one can ensure that critical problems are addressed promptly without neglecting other responsibilities.

Data Analysis

Data analysis skills are essential for problem-solving, as they enable individuals to sift through data, identify trends, and extract actionable insights. This analytical approach supports evidence-based decision-making, leading to more accurate and effective solutions.

Research Skills

Research skills are vital for efficient problem-solving, allowing individuals to gather relevant information, explore various solutions, and understand the problem’s context. This thorough exploration aids in developing well-informed, innovative solutions.

Becoming a great problem solver takes practice, but with these skills, you’re on your way to becoming a problem-solving hero. 

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills?

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

Improving your problem-solving skills can make you a master at overcoming challenges. Learn from experts, practice regularly, welcome feedback, try new methods, experiment, and study others’ success to become better.

Learning from Experts

Improving problem-solving skills by learning from experts involves seeking mentorship, attending workshops, and studying case studies. Experts provide insights and techniques that refine your approach, enhancing your ability to tackle complex problems effectively.

To enhance your problem-solving skills, learning from experts can be incredibly beneficial. Engaging with mentors, participating in specialized workshops, and analyzing case studies from seasoned professionals can offer valuable perspectives and strategies. 

Experts share their experiences, mistakes, and successes, providing practical knowledge that can be applied to your own problem-solving process. This exposure not only broadens your understanding but also introduces you to diverse methods and approaches, enabling you to tackle challenges more efficiently and creatively.

Improving problem-solving skills through practice involves tackling a variety of challenges regularly. This hands-on approach helps in refining techniques and strategies, making you more adept at identifying and solving problems efficiently.

One of the most effective ways to enhance your problem-solving skills is through consistent practice. By engaging with different types of problems on a regular basis, you develop a deeper understanding of various strategies and how they can be applied. 

This hands-on experience allows you to experiment with different approaches, learn from mistakes, and build confidence in your ability to tackle challenges.

Regular practice not only sharpens your analytical and critical thinking skills but also encourages adaptability and innovation, key components of effective problem-solving.

Openness to Feedback

Being open to feedback is like unlocking a secret level in a game. It helps you boost your problem-solving skills. Improving problem-solving skills through openness to feedback involves actively seeking and constructively responding to critiques. 

This receptivity enables you to refine your strategies and approaches based on insights from others, leading to more effective solutions. 

Learning New Approaches and Methodologies

Learning new approaches and methodologies is like adding new tools to your toolbox. It makes you a smarter problem-solver. Enhancing problem-solving skills by learning new approaches and methodologies involves staying updated with the latest trends and techniques in your field. 

This continuous learning expands your toolkit, enabling innovative solutions and a fresh perspective on challenges.

Experimentation

Experimentation is like being a scientist of your own problems. It’s a powerful way to improve your problem-solving skills. Boosting problem-solving skills through experimentation means trying out different solutions to see what works best. This trial-and-error approach fosters creativity and can lead to unique solutions that wouldn’t have been considered otherwise.

Analyzing Competitors’ Success

Analyzing competitors’ success is like being a detective. It’s a smart way to boost your problem-solving skills. Improving problem-solving skills by analyzing competitors’ success involves studying their strategies and outcomes. Understanding what worked for them can provide valuable insights and inspire effective solutions for your own challenges. 

Challenges in Problem-Solving

Facing obstacles when solving problems is common. Recognizing these barriers, like fear of failure or lack of information, helps us find ways around them for better solutions.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is like a big, scary monster that stops us from solving problems. It’s a challenge many face. Because being afraid of making mistakes can make us too scared to try new solutions. 

How can we overcome this? First, understand that it’s okay to fail. Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of learning. Every time we fail, we discover one more way not to solve a problem, getting us closer to the right solution. Treat each attempt like an experiment. It’s not about failing; it’s about testing and learning.

Lack of Information

Lack of information is like trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. It’s a big challenge in problem-solving. Because without all the necessary details, finding a solution is much harder. 

How can we fix this? Start by gathering as much information as you can. Ask questions, do research, or talk to experts. Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues. The more information you collect, the clearer the picture becomes. Then, use what you’ve learned to think of solutions. 

Fixed Mindset

A fixed mindset is like being stuck in quicksand; it makes solving problems harder. It means thinking you can’t improve or learn new ways to solve issues. 

How can we change this? First, believe that you can grow and learn from challenges. Think of your brain as a muscle that gets stronger every time you use it. When you face a problem, instead of saying “I can’t do this,” try thinking, “I can’t do this yet.” Look for lessons in every challenge and celebrate small wins. 

Everyone starts somewhere, and mistakes are just steps on the path to getting better. By shifting to a growth mindset, you’ll see problems as opportunities to grow. Keep trying, keep learning, and your problem-solving skills will soar!

Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is like trying to finish a race before it starts. It’s a challenge in problem-solving. That means making a decision too quickly without looking at all the facts. 

How can we avoid this? First, take a deep breath and slow down. Think about the problem like a puzzle. You need to see all the pieces before you know where they go. Ask questions, gather information, and consider different possibilities. Don’t choose the first solution that comes to mind. Instead, compare a few options. 

Feeling Overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed is like being buried under a mountain of puzzles. It’s a big challenge in problem-solving. When we’re overwhelmed, everything seems too hard to handle. 

How can we deal with this? Start by taking a step back. Breathe deeply and focus on one thing at a time. Break the big problem into smaller pieces, like sorting puzzle pieces by color. Tackle each small piece one by one. It’s also okay to ask for help. Sometimes, talking to someone else can give you a new perspective. 

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is like wearing glasses that only let you see what you want to see. It’s a challenge in problem-solving. Because it makes us focus only on information that agrees with what we already believe, ignoring anything that doesn’t. 

How can we overcome this? First, be aware that you might be doing it. It’s like checking if your glasses are on right. Then, purposely look for information that challenges your views. It’s like trying on a different pair of glasses to see a new perspective. Ask questions and listen to answers, even if they don’t fit what you thought before.

Groupthink is like everyone in a group deciding to wear the same outfit without asking why. It’s a challenge in problem-solving. It means making decisions just because everyone else agrees, without really thinking it through. 

How can we avoid this? First, encourage everyone in the group to share their ideas, even if they’re different. It’s like inviting everyone to show their unique style of clothes. 

Listen to all opinions and discuss them. It’s okay to disagree; it helps us think of better solutions. Also, sometimes, ask someone outside the group for their thoughts. They might see something everyone in the group missed.

Overcoming obstacles in problem-solving requires patience, openness, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. By recognizing these barriers, we can develop strategies to navigate around them, leading to more effective and creative solutions.

What are the most common problem-solving techniques?

The most common techniques include brainstorming, the 5 Whys, mind mapping, SWOT analysis, and using algorithms or heuristics. Each approach has its strengths, suitable for different types of problems.

What’s the best problem-solving strategy for every situation?

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. The best approach depends on the problem’s complexity, available resources, and time constraints. Combining multiple techniques often yields the best results.

How can I improve my problem-solving skills?

Improve your problem-solving skills by practicing regularly, learning from experts, staying open to feedback, and continuously updating your knowledge on new approaches and methodologies.

Are there any tools or resources to help with problem-solving?

Yes, tools like mind mapping software, online courses on critical thinking, and books on problem-solving techniques can be very helpful. Joining forums or groups focused on problem-solving can also provide support and insights.

What are some common mistakes people make when solving problems?

Common mistakes include jumping to conclusions without fully understanding the problem, ignoring valuable feedback, sticking to familiar solutions without considering alternatives, and not breaking down complex problems into manageable parts.

Final Words

Mastering problem-solving strategies equips us with the tools to tackle challenges across all areas of life. By understanding and applying these techniques, embracing a growth mindset, and learning from both successes and obstacles, we can transform problems into opportunities for growth. Continuously improving these skills ensures we’re prepared to face and solve future challenges more effectively.

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3 What is Problem Solving?

Chapter table of contents, what is problem solving.

  • What Does Problem Solving Look Like?

Developing Problem Solving Processes

Summary of strategies, problem solving:  an important job skill.

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

The ability to solve problems is a basic life skill and is essential to our day-to-day lives, at home, at school, and at work. We solve problems every day without really thinking about how we solve them. For example: it’s raining and you need to go to the store. What do you do? There are lots of possible solutions. Take your umbrella and walk. If you don’t want to get wet, you can drive, or take the bus. You might decide to call a friend for a ride, or you might decide to go to the store another day. There is no right way to solve this problem and different people will solve it differently.

Problem solving is the process of identifying a problem, developing possible solution paths, and taking the appropriate course of action.

Why is problem solving important? Good problem solving skills empower you not only in your personal life but are critical in your professional life. In the current fast-changing global economy, employers often identify everyday problem solving as crucial to the success of their organizations. For employees, problem solving can be used to develop practical and creative solutions, and to show independence and initiative to employers.

what does problem solving look like?

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

The ability to solve problems is a skill at which you can improve.  So how exactly do you practice problem solving? Learning about different problem solving strategies and when to use them will give you a good start. Problem solving is a process. Most strategies provide steps that help you identify the problem and choose the best solution. There are two basic types of strategies: algorithmic and heuristic.

Algorithmic strategies are traditional step-by-step guides to solving problems. They are great for solving math problems (in algebra: multiply and divide, then add or subtract) or for helping us remember the correct order of things (a mnemonic such as “Spring Forward, Fall Back” to remember which way the clock changes for daylight saving time, or “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” to remember what direction to turn bolts and screws). Algorithms are best when there is a single path to the correct solution.

But what do you do when there is no single solution for your problem? Heuristic methods are general guides used to identify possible solutions. A popular one that is easy to remember is IDEAL [Bransford & Stein [1] ] :

IDEAL is just one problem solving strategy. Building a toolbox of problem solving strategies will improve your problem solving skills. With practice, you will be able to recognize and use multiple strategies to solve complex problems.

What is the best way to get a peanut out of a tube that cannot be moved? Watch a chimpanzee solve this problem in the video below [Geert Stienissen [2] ].

Problem solving is a process that uses steps to solve problems. But what does that really mean? Let's break it down and start building our toolbox of problem solving strategies.

What is the first step of solving any problem? The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and identify the right cause of the problem. This may sound obvious, but similar problems can arise from different events, and the real issue may not always be apparent. To really solve the problem, it's important to find out what started it all. This is called identifying the root cause .

Example: You and your classmates have been working long hours on a project in the school's workshop. The next afternoon, you try to use your student ID card to access the workshop, but discover that your magnetic strip has been demagnetized. Since the card was a couple of years old, you chalk it up to wear and tear and get a new ID card. Later that same week you learn that several of your classmates had the same problem! After a little investigation, you discover that a strong magnet was stored underneath a workbench in the workshop. The magnet was the root cause of the demagnetized student ID cards.

The best way to identify the root cause of the problem is to ask questions and gather information. If you have a vague problem, investigating facts is more productive than guessing a solution. Ask yourself questions about the problem. What do you know about the problem? What do you not know? When was the last time it worked correctly? What has changed since then? Can you diagram the process into separate steps? Where in the process is the problem occurring? Be curious, ask questions, gather facts, and make logical deductions rather than assumptions.

When issues and problems arise, it is important that they are addressed in an efficient and timely manner. Communication is an important tool because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost, and save money. Although, each path in this exercise ended with a description of a problem solving tool for your toolbox, the first step is always to identify the problem and define the context in which it happened.

There are several strategies that can be used to identify the root cause of a problem. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving that helps people answer the question of why the problem occurred. RCA uses a specific set of steps, with associated tools like the “5 Why Analysis" or the “Cause and Effect Diagram,” to identify the origin of the problem, so that you can:

Once the underlying cause is identified and the scope of the issue defined, the next step is to explore possible strategies to fix the problem.

If you are not sure how to fix the problem, it is okay to ask for help. Problem solving is a process and a skill that is learned with practice. It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and that no one knows everything. Life is about learning. It is okay to ask for help when you don’t have the answer. When you collaborate to solve problems you improve workplace communication and accelerates finding solutions as similar problems arise.

One tool that can be useful for generating possible solutions is brainstorming . Brainstorming is a technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. The goal is to come up with as many ideas as you can, in a fixed amount of time. Although brainstorming is best done in a group, it can be done individually.

Depending on your path through the exercise, you may have discovered that a couple of your coworkers had experienced similar problems. This should have been an indicator that there was a larger problem that needed to be addressed.

In any workplace, communication of problems and issues (especially those that involve safety) is always important. This is especially crucial in manufacturing where people are constantly working with heavy, costly, and sometimes dangerous equipment. When issues and problems arise, it is important that they be addressed in an efficient and timely manner.  Because it can prevent problems from recurring, avoid injury to personnel, reduce rework and scrap, and ultimately, reduce cost and save money; effective communication is an important tool..

One strategy for improving communication is the huddle . Just like football players on the field, a huddle is a short meeting with everyone standing in a circle.   It's always important that team members are aware of how their work impacts one another.  A daily team huddle is a great way to ensure that as well as making team members aware of changes to the schedule or any problems or safety issues that have been identified. When done right, huddles create collaboration, communication, and accountability to results. Impromptu huddles can be used to gather information on a specific issue and get each team member's input.

"Never try to solve all the problems at once — make them line up for you one-by-one.” — Richard Sloma

Problem solving improves efficiency and communication on the shop floor. It increases a company's efficiency and profitability, so it's one of the top skills employers look for when hiring new employees.  Employers consider professional skills, such as problem solving, as critical to their business’s success.

The 2011 survey, "Boiling Point? The skills gap in U.S. manufacturing [3] ," polled over a thousand manufacturing executives who reported that the number one skill deficiency among their current employees is problem solving, which makes it difficult for their companies to adapt to the changing needs of the industry.

  • Bransford, J. & Stein, B.S. (). The Ideal Problem Solver: A Guide For Improving Thinking, Learning, And Creativity . New York, NY: W.H. Freeman. ↵
  • National Geographic. [Geert Stienissen]. (2010, August 19). Insight learning: Chimpanzee Problem Solving [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPz6uvIbWZE ↵
  • Report: Boiling Point: The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing Deloitte / The Manufacturing Institute, October 2011. Retrieved from http://www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/Hidden/2011-Skills-Gap-Report/2011-Skills-Gap-Report.aspx ↵

Introduction to Industrial Engineering Copyright © 2020 by Bonnie Boardman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Turn your team into skilled problem solvers with these problem-solving strategies

Sarah Laoyan contributor headshot

Picture this, you're handling your daily tasks at work and your boss calls you in and says, "We have a problem." 

Unfortunately, we don't live in a world in which problems are instantly resolved with the snap of our fingers. Knowing how to effectively solve problems is an important professional skill to hone. If you have a problem that needs to be solved, what is the right process to use to ensure you get the most effective solution?

In this article we'll break down the problem-solving process and how you can find the most effective solutions for complex problems.

What is problem solving? 

Problem solving is the process of finding a resolution for a specific issue or conflict. There are many possible solutions for solving a problem, which is why it's important to go through a problem-solving process to find the best solution. You could use a flathead screwdriver to unscrew a Phillips head screw, but there is a better tool for the situation. Utilizing common problem-solving techniques helps you find the best solution to fit the needs of the specific situation, much like using the right tools.

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4 steps to better problem solving

While it might be tempting to dive into a problem head first, take the time to move step by step. Here’s how you can effectively break down the problem-solving process with your team:

1. Identify the problem that needs to be solved

One of the easiest ways to identify a problem is to ask questions. A good place to start is to ask journalistic questions, like:

Who : Who is involved with this problem? Who caused the problem? Who is most affected by this issue?

What: What is happening? What is the extent of the issue? What does this problem prevent from moving forward?

Where: Where did this problem take place? Does this problem affect anything else in the immediate area? 

When: When did this problem happen? When does this problem take effect? Is this an urgent issue that needs to be solved within a certain timeframe?

Why: Why is it happening? Why does it impact workflows?

How: How did this problem occur? How is it affecting workflows and team members from being productive?

Asking journalistic questions can help you define a strong problem statement so you can highlight the current situation objectively, and create a plan around that situation.

Here’s an example of how a design team uses journalistic questions to identify their problem:

Overarching problem: Design requests are being missed

Who: Design team, digital marketing team, web development team

What: Design requests are forgotten, lost, or being created ad hoc.

Where: Email requests, design request spreadsheet

When: Missed requests on January 20th, January 31st, February 4th, February 6th

How : Email request was lost in inbox and the intake spreadsheet was not updated correctly. The digital marketing team had to delay launching ads for a few days while design requests were bottlenecked. Designers had to work extra hours to ensure all requests were completed.

In this example, there are many different aspects of this problem that can be solved. Using journalistic questions can help you identify different issues and who you should involve in the process.

2. Brainstorm multiple solutions

If at all possible, bring in a facilitator who doesn't have a major stake in the solution. Bringing an individual who has little-to-no stake in the matter can help keep your team on track and encourage good problem-solving skills.

Here are a few brainstorming techniques to encourage creative thinking:

Brainstorm alone before hand: Before you come together as a group, provide some context to your team on what exactly the issue is that you're brainstorming. This will give time for you and your teammates to have some ideas ready by the time you meet.

Say yes to everything (at first): When you first start brainstorming, don't say no to any ideas just yet—try to get as many ideas down as possible. Having as many ideas as possible ensures that you’ll get a variety of solutions. Save the trimming for the next step of the strategy. 

Talk to team members one-on-one: Some people may be less comfortable sharing their ideas in a group setting. Discuss the issue with team members individually and encourage them to share their opinions without restrictions—you might find some more detailed insights than originally anticipated.

Break out of your routine: If you're used to brainstorming in a conference room or over Zoom calls, do something a little different! Take your brainstorming meeting to a coffee shop or have your Zoom call while you're taking a walk. Getting out of your routine can force your brain out of its usual rut and increase critical thinking.

3. Define the solution

After you brainstorm with team members to get their unique perspectives on a scenario, it's time to look at the different strategies and decide which option is the best solution for the problem at hand. When defining the solution, consider these main two questions: What is the desired outcome of this solution and who stands to benefit from this solution? 

Set a deadline for when this decision needs to be made and update stakeholders accordingly. Sometimes there's too many people who need to make a decision. Use your best judgement based on the limitations provided to do great things fast.

4. Implement the solution

To implement your solution, start by working with the individuals who are as closest to the problem. This can help those most affected by the problem get unblocked. Then move farther out to those who are less affected, and so on and so forth. Some solutions are simple enough that you don’t need to work through multiple teams.

After you prioritize implementation with the right teams, assign out the ongoing work that needs to be completed by the rest of the team. This can prevent people from becoming overburdened during the implementation plan . Once your solution is in place, schedule check-ins to see how the solution is working and course-correct if necessary.

Implement common problem-solving strategies

There are a few ways to go about identifying problems (and solutions). Here are some strategies you can try, as well as common ways to apply them:

Trial and error

Trial and error problem solving doesn't usually require a whole team of people to solve. To use trial and error problem solving, identify the cause of the problem, and then rapidly test possible solutions to see if anything changes. 

This problem-solving method is often used in tech support teams through troubleshooting.

The 5 whys problem-solving method helps get to the root cause of an issue. You start by asking once, “Why did this issue happen?” After answering the first why, ask again, “Why did that happen?” You'll do this five times until you can attribute the problem to a root cause. 

This technique can help you dig in and find the human error that caused something to go wrong. More importantly, it also helps you and your team develop an actionable plan so that you can prevent the issue from happening again.

Here’s an example:

Problem: The email marketing campaign was accidentally sent to the wrong audience.

“Why did this happen?” Because the audience name was not updated in our email platform.

“Why were the audience names not changed?” Because the audience segment was not renamed after editing. 

“Why was the audience segment not renamed?” Because everybody has an individual way of creating an audience segment.

“Why does everybody have an individual way of creating an audience segment?” Because there is no standardized process for creating audience segments. 

“Why is there no standardized process for creating audience segments?” Because the team hasn't decided on a way to standardize the process as the team introduced new members. 

In this example, we can see a few areas that could be optimized to prevent this mistake from happening again. When working through these questions, make sure that everyone who was involved in the situation is present so that you can co-create next steps to avoid the same problem. 

A SWOT analysis

A SWOT analysis can help you highlight the strengths and weaknesses of a specific solution. SWOT stands for:

Strength: Why is this specific solution a good fit for this problem? 

Weaknesses: What are the weak points of this solution? Is there anything that you can do to strengthen those weaknesses?

Opportunities: What other benefits could arise from implementing this solution?

Threats: Is there anything about this decision that can detrimentally impact your team?

As you identify specific solutions, you can highlight the different strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of each solution. 

This particular problem-solving strategy is good to use when you're narrowing down the answers and need to compare and contrast the differences between different solutions. 

Even more successful problem solving

After you’ve worked through a tough problem, don't forget to celebrate how far you've come. Not only is this important for your team of problem solvers to see their work in action, but this can also help you become a more efficient, effective , and flexible team. The more problems you tackle together, the more you’ll achieve. 

Looking for a tool to help solve problems on your team? Track project implementation with a work management tool like Asana .

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Effective problem solving is all about using the right process and following a plan tailored to the issue at hand. Recognizing your team or organization has an issue isn’t enough to come up with effective problem solving strategies. 

To truly understand a problem and develop appropriate solutions, you will want to follow a solid process, follow the necessary problem solving steps, and bring all of your problem solving skills to the table.   We’ll forst look at what problem solving strategies you can employ with your team when looking for a way to approach the process. We’ll then discuss the problem solving skills you need to be more effective at solving problems, complete with an activity from the SessionLab library you can use to develop that skill in your team.

Let’s get to it! 

Problem solving strategies

What skills do i need to be an effective problem solver, how can i improve my problem solving skills.

Problem solving strategies are methods of approaching and facilitating the process of problem-solving with a set of techniques , actions, and processes. Different strategies are more effective if you are trying to solve broad problems such as achieving higher growth versus more focused problems like, how do we improve our customer onboarding process?

Broadly, the problem solving steps outlined above should be included in any problem solving strategy though choosing where to focus your time and what approaches should be taken is where they begin to differ. You might find that some strategies ask for the problem identification to be done prior to the session or that everything happens in the course of a one day workshop.

The key similarity is that all good problem solving strategies are structured and designed. Four hours of open discussion is never going to be as productive as a four-hour workshop designed to lead a group through a problem solving process.

Good problem solving strategies are tailored to the team, organization and problem you will be attempting to solve. Here are some example problem solving strategies you can learn from or use to get started.

Use a workshop to lead a team through a group process

Often, the first step to solving problems or organizational challenges is bringing a group together effectively. Most teams have the tools, knowledge, and expertise necessary to solve their challenges – they just need some guidance in how to use leverage those skills and a structure and format that allows people to focus their energies.

Facilitated workshops are one of the most effective ways of solving problems of any scale. By designing and planning your workshop carefully, you can tailor the approach and scope to best fit the needs of your team and organization. 

Problem solving workshop

  • Creating a bespoke, tailored process
  • Tackling problems of any size
  • Building in-house workshop ability and encouraging their use

Workshops are an effective strategy for solving problems. By using tried and test facilitation techniques and methods, you can design and deliver a workshop that is perfectly suited to the unique variables of your organization. You may only have the capacity for a half-day workshop and so need a problem solving process to match. 

By using our session planner tool and importing methods from our library of 700+ facilitation techniques, you can create the right problem solving workshop for your team. It might be that you want to encourage creative thinking or look at things from a new angle to unblock your groups approach to problem solving. By tailoring your workshop design to the purpose, you can help ensure great results.

One of the main benefits of a workshop is the structured approach to problem solving. Not only does this mean that the workshop itself will be successful, but many of the methods and techniques will help your team improve their working processes outside of the workshop. 

We believe that workshops are one of the best tools you can use to improve the way your team works together. Start with a problem solving workshop and then see what team building, culture or design workshops can do for your organization!

Run a design sprint

Great for: 

  • aligning large, multi-discipline teams
  • quickly designing and testing solutions
  • tackling large, complex organizational challenges and breaking them down into smaller tasks

By using design thinking principles and methods, a design sprint is a great way of identifying, prioritizing and prototyping solutions to long term challenges that can help solve major organizational problems with quick action and measurable results.

Some familiarity with design thinking is useful, though not integral, and this strategy can really help a team align if there is some discussion around which problems should be approached first. 

The stage-based structure of the design sprint is also very useful for teams new to design thinking.  The inspiration phase, where you look to competitors that have solved your problem, and the rapid prototyping and testing phases are great for introducing new concepts that will benefit a team in all their future work. 

It can be common for teams to look inward for solutions and so looking to the market for solutions you can iterate on can be very productive. Instilling an agile prototyping and testing mindset can also be great when helping teams move forwards – generating and testing solutions quickly can help save time in the long run and is also pretty exciting!

Break problems down into smaller issues

Organizational challenges and problems are often complicated and large scale in nature. Sometimes, trying to resolve such an issue in one swoop is simply unachievable or overwhelming. Try breaking down such problems into smaller issues that you can work on step by step. You may not be able to solve the problem of churning customers off the bat, but you can work with your team to identify smaller effort but high impact elements and work on those first.

This problem solving strategy can help a team generate momentum, prioritize and get some easy wins. It’s also a great strategy to employ with teams who are just beginning to learn how to approach the problem solving process. If you want some insight into a way to employ this strategy, we recommend looking at our design sprint template below!

Use guiding frameworks or try new methodologies

Some problems are best solved by introducing a major shift in perspective or by using new methodologies that encourage your team to think differently.

Props and tools such as Methodkit , which uses a card-based toolkit for facilitation, or Lego Serious Play can be great ways to engage your team and find an inclusive, democratic problem solving strategy. Remember that play and creativity are great tools for achieving change and whatever the challenge, engaging your participants can be very effective where other strategies may have failed.

LEGO Serious Play

  • Improving core problem solving skills
  • Thinking outside of the box
  • Encouraging creative solutions

LEGO Serious Play is a problem solving methodology designed to get participants thinking differently by using 3D models and kinesthetic learning styles. By physically building LEGO models based on questions and exercises, participants are encouraged to think outside of the box and create their own responses. 

Collaborate LEGO Serious Play exercises are also used to encourage communication and build problem solving skills in a group. By using this problem solving process, you can often help different kinds of learners and personality types contribute and unblock organizational problems with creative thinking. 

Problem solving strategies like LEGO Serious Play are super effective at helping a team solve more skills-based problems such as communication between teams or a lack of creative thinking. Some problems are not suited to LEGO Serious Play and require a different problem solving strategy.

Card Decks and Method Kits

  • New facilitators or non-facilitators 
  • Approaching difficult subjects with a simple, creative framework
  • Engaging those with varied learning styles

Card decks and method kids are great tools for those new to facilitation or for whom facilitation is not the primary role. Card decks such as the emotional culture deck can be used for complete workshops and in many cases, can be used right out of the box. Methodkit has a variety of kits designed for scenarios ranging from personal development through to personas and global challenges so you can find the right deck for your particular needs.

Having an easy to use framework that encourages creativity or a new approach can take some of the friction or planning difficulties out of the workshop process and energize a team in any setting. Simplicity is the key with these methods. By ensuring everyone on your team can get involved and engage with the process as quickly as possible can really contribute to the success of your problem solving strategy.

Source external advice

Looking to peers, experts and external facilitators can be a great way of approaching the problem solving process. Your team may not have the necessary expertise, insights of experience to tackle some issues, or you might simply benefit from a fresh perspective. Some problems may require bringing together an entire team, and coaching managers or team members individually might be the right approach. Remember that not all problems are best resolved in the same manner.

If you’re a solo entrepreneur, peer groups, coaches and mentors can also be invaluable at not only solving specific business problems, but in providing a support network for resolving future challenges. One great approach is to join a Mastermind Group and link up with like-minded individuals and all grow together. Remember that however you approach the sourcing of external advice, do so thoughtfully, respectfully and honestly. Reciprocate where you can and prepare to be surprised by just how kind and helpful your peers can be!

Mastermind Group

  • Solo entrepreneurs or small teams with low capacity
  • Peer learning and gaining outside expertise
  • Getting multiple external points of view quickly

Problem solving in large organizations with lots of skilled team members is one thing, but how about if you work for yourself or in a very small team without the capacity to get the most from a design sprint or LEGO Serious Play session? 

A mastermind group – sometimes known as a peer advisory board – is where a group of people come together to support one another in their own goals, challenges, and businesses. Each participant comes to the group with their own purpose and the other members of the group will help them create solutions, brainstorm ideas, and support one another. 

Mastermind groups are very effective in creating an energized, supportive atmosphere that can deliver meaningful results. Learning from peers from outside of your organization or industry can really help unlock new ways of thinking and drive growth. Access to the experience and skills of your peers can be invaluable in helping fill the gaps in your own ability, particularly in young companies.

A mastermind group is a great solution for solo entrepreneurs, small teams, or for organizations that feel that external expertise or fresh perspectives will be beneficial for them. It is worth noting that Mastermind groups are often only as good as the participants and what they can bring to the group. Participants need to be committed, engaged and understand how to work in this context. 

Coaching and mentoring

  • Focused learning and development
  • Filling skills gaps
  • Working on a range of challenges over time

Receiving advice from a business coach or building a mentor/mentee relationship can be an effective way of resolving certain challenges. The one-to-one format of most coaching and mentor relationships can really help solve the challenges those individuals are having and benefit the organization as a result.

A great mentor can be invaluable when it comes to spotting potential problems before they arise and coming to understand a mentee very well has a host of other business benefits. You might run an internal mentorship program to help develop your team’s problem solving skills and strategies or as part of a large learning and development program. External coaches can also be an important part of your problem solving strategy, filling skills gaps for your management team or helping with specific business issues. 

Now we’ve explored the problem solving process and the steps you will want to go through in order to have an effective session, let’s look at the skills you and your team need to be more effective problem solvers.

Problem solving skills are highly sought after, whatever industry or team you work in. Organizations are keen to employ people who are able to approach problems thoughtfully and find strong, realistic solutions. Whether you are a facilitator , a team leader or a developer, being an effective problem solver is a skill you’ll want to develop.

Problem solving skills form a whole suite of techniques and approaches that an individual uses to not only identify problems but to discuss them productively before then developing appropriate solutions.

Here are some of the most important problem solving skills everyone from executives to junior staff members should learn. We’ve also included an activity or exercise from the SessionLab library that can help you and your team develop that skill. 

If you’re running a workshop or training session to try and improve problem solving skills in your team, try using these methods to supercharge your process!

Problem solving skills checklist

Active listening

Active listening is one of the most important skills anyone who works with people can possess. In short, active listening is a technique used to not only better understand what is being said by an individual, but also to be more aware of the underlying message the speaker is trying to convey. When it comes to problem solving, active listening is integral for understanding the position of every participant and to clarify the challenges, ideas and solutions they bring to the table.

Some active listening skills include:

  • Paying complete attention to the speaker.
  • Removing distractions.
  • Avoid interruption.
  • Taking the time to fully understand before preparing a rebuttal.
  • Responding respectfully and appropriately.
  • Demonstrate attentiveness and positivity with an open posture, making eye contact with the speaker, smiling and nodding if appropriate. Show that you are listening and encourage them to continue.
  • Be aware of and respectful of feelings. Judge the situation and respond appropriately. You can disagree without being disrespectful.   
  • Observe body language. 
  • Paraphrase what was said in your own words, either mentally or verbally.
  • Remain neutral. 
  • Reflect and take a moment before responding.
  • Ask deeper questions based on what is said and clarify points where necessary.   
Active Listening   #hyperisland   #skills   #active listening   #remote-friendly   This activity supports participants to reflect on a question and generate their own solutions using simple principles of active listening and peer coaching. It’s an excellent introduction to active listening but can also be used with groups that are already familiar with it. Participants work in groups of three and take turns being: “the subject”, the listener, and the observer.

Analytical skills

All problem solving models require strong analytical skills, particularly during the beginning of the process and when it comes to analyzing how solutions have performed.

Analytical skills are primarily focused on performing an effective analysis by collecting, studying and parsing data related to a problem or opportunity. 

It often involves spotting patterns, being able to see things from different perspectives and using observable facts and data to make suggestions or produce insight. 

Analytical skills are also important at every stage of the problem solving process and by having these skills, you can ensure that any ideas or solutions you create or backed up analytically and have been sufficiently thought out.

Nine Whys   #innovation   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   With breathtaking simplicity, you can rapidly clarify for individuals and a group what is essentially important in their work. You can quickly reveal when a compelling purpose is missing in a gathering and avoid moving forward without clarity. When a group discovers an unambiguous shared purpose, more freedom and more responsibility are unleashed. You have laid the foundation for spreading and scaling innovations with fidelity.

Collaboration

Trying to solve problems on your own is difficult. Being able to collaborate effectively, with a free exchange of ideas, to delegate and be a productive member of a team is hugely important to all problem solving strategies.

Remember that whatever your role, collaboration is integral, and in a problem solving process, you are all working together to find the best solution for everyone. 

Marshmallow challenge with debriefing   #teamwork   #team   #leadership   #collaboration   In eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. The Marshmallow Challenge was developed by Tom Wujec, who has done the activity with hundreds of groups around the world. Visit the Marshmallow Challenge website for more information. This version has an extra debriefing question added with sample questions focusing on roles within the team.

Communication  

Being an effective communicator means being empathetic, clear and succinct, asking the right questions, and demonstrating active listening skills throughout any discussion or meeting. 

In a problem solving setting, you need to communicate well in order to progress through each stage of the process effectively. As a team leader, it may also fall to you to facilitate communication between parties who may not see eye to eye. Effective communication also means helping others to express themselves and be heard in a group.

Bus Trip   #feedback   #communication   #appreciation   #closing   #thiagi   #team   This is one of my favourite feedback games. I use Bus Trip at the end of a training session or a meeting, and I use it all the time. The game creates a massive amount of energy with lots of smiles, laughs, and sometimes even a teardrop or two.

Creative problem solving skills can be some of the best tools in your arsenal. Thinking creatively, being able to generate lots of ideas and come up with out of the box solutions is useful at every step of the process. 

The kinds of problems you will likely discuss in a problem solving workshop are often difficult to solve, and by approaching things in a fresh, creative manner, you can often create more innovative solutions.

Having practical creative skills is also a boon when it comes to problem solving. If you can help create quality design sketches and prototypes in record time, it can help bring a team to alignment more quickly or provide a base for further iteration.

The paper clip method   #sharing   #creativity   #warm up   #idea generation   #brainstorming   The power of brainstorming. A training for project leaders, creativity training, and to catalyse getting new solutions.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is one of the fundamental problem solving skills you’ll want to develop when working on developing solutions. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze, rationalize and evaluate while being aware of personal bias, outlying factors and remaining open-minded.

Defining and analyzing problems without deploying critical thinking skills can mean you and your team go down the wrong path. Developing solutions to complex issues requires critical thinking too – ensuring your team considers all possibilities and rationally evaluating them. 

Agreement-Certainty Matrix   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   #problem solving   You can help individuals or groups avoid the frequent mistake of trying to solve a problem with methods that are not adapted to the nature of their challenge. The combination of two questions makes it possible to easily sort challenges into four categories: simple, complicated, complex , and chaotic .  A problem is simple when it can be solved reliably with practices that are easy to duplicate.  It is complicated when experts are required to devise a sophisticated solution that will yield the desired results predictably.  A problem is complex when there are several valid ways to proceed but outcomes are not predictable in detail.  Chaotic is when the context is too turbulent to identify a path forward.  A loose analogy may be used to describe these differences: simple is like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child, and chaotic is like the game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  The Liberating Structures Matching Matrix in Chapter 5 can be used as the first step to clarify the nature of a challenge and avoid the mismatches between problems and solutions that are frequently at the root of chronic, recurring problems.

Data analysis 

Though it shares lots of space with general analytical skills, data analysis skills are something you want to cultivate in their own right in order to be an effective problem solver.

Being good at data analysis doesn’t just mean being able to find insights from data, but also selecting the appropriate data for a given issue, interpreting it effectively and knowing how to model and present that data. Depending on the problem at hand, it might also include a working knowledge of specific data analysis tools and procedures. 

Having a solid grasp of data analysis techniques is useful if you’re leading a problem solving workshop but if you’re not an expert, don’t worry. Bring people into the group who has this skill set and help your team be more effective as a result.

Decision making

All problems need a solution and all solutions require that someone make the decision to implement them. Without strong decision making skills, teams can become bogged down in discussion and less effective as a result. 

Making decisions is a key part of the problem solving process. It’s important to remember that decision making is not restricted to the leadership team. Every staff member makes decisions every day and developing these skills ensures that your team is able to solve problems at any scale. Remember that making decisions does not mean leaping to the first solution but weighing up the options and coming to an informed, well thought out solution to any given problem that works for the whole team.

Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)   #action   #decision making   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #innovation   #design   #remote-friendly   The problem with anything that requires creative thinking is that it’s easy to get lost—lose focus and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. Here’s the most effective solution I’ve found: Replace all open, unstructured discussion with a clear process. What to use this exercise for: Anything which requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problems or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, here are some examples: The conversion flow of our checkout Our internal design process How we organise events Keeping up with our competition Improving sales flow

Dependability

Most complex organizational problems require multiple people to be involved in delivering the solution. Ensuring that the team and organization can depend on you to take the necessary actions and communicate where necessary is key to ensuring problems are solved effectively.

Being dependable also means working to deadlines and to brief. It is often a matter of creating trust in a team so that everyone can depend on one another to complete the agreed actions in the agreed time frame so that the team can move forward together. Being undependable can create problems of friction and can limit the effectiveness of your solutions so be sure to bear this in mind throughout a project. 

Team Purpose & Culture   #team   #hyperisland   #culture   #remote-friendly   This is an essential process designed to help teams define their purpose (why they exist) and their culture (how they work together to achieve that purpose). Defining these two things will help any team to be more focused and aligned. With support of tangible examples from other companies, the team members work as individuals and a group to codify the way they work together. The goal is a visual manifestation of both the purpose and culture that can be put up in the team’s work space.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important skill for any successful team member, whether communicating internally or with clients or users. In the problem solving process, emotional intelligence means being attuned to how people are feeling and thinking, communicating effectively and being self-aware of what you bring to a room. 

There are often differences of opinion when working through problem solving processes, and it can be easy to let things become impassioned or combative. Developing your emotional intelligence means being empathetic to your colleagues and managing your own emotions throughout the problem and solution process. Be kind, be thoughtful and put your points across care and attention. 

Being emotionally intelligent is a skill for life and by deploying it at work, you can not only work efficiently but empathetically. Check out the emotional culture workshop template for more!

Facilitation

As we’ve clarified in our facilitation skills post, facilitation is the art of leading people through processes towards agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership, and creativity by all those involved. While facilitation is a set of interrelated skills in itself, the broad definition of facilitation can be invaluable when it comes to problem solving. Leading a team through a problem solving process is made more effective if you improve and utilize facilitation skills – whether you’re a manager, team leader or external stakeholder.

The Six Thinking Hats   #creative thinking   #meeting facilitation   #problem solving   #issue resolution   #idea generation   #conflict resolution   The Six Thinking Hats are used by individuals and groups to separate out conflicting styles of thinking. They enable and encourage a group of people to think constructively together in exploring and implementing change, rather than using argument to fight over who is right and who is wrong.

Flexibility 

Being flexible is a vital skill when it comes to problem solving. This does not mean immediately bowing to pressure or changing your opinion quickly: instead, being flexible is all about seeing things from new perspectives, receiving new information and factoring it into your thought process.

Flexibility is also important when it comes to rolling out solutions. It might be that other organizational projects have greater priority or require the same resources as your chosen solution. Being flexible means understanding needs and challenges across the team and being open to shifting or arranging your own schedule as necessary. Again, this does not mean immediately making way for other projects. It’s about articulating your own needs, understanding the needs of others and being able to come to a meaningful compromise.

The Creativity Dice   #creativity   #problem solving   #thiagi   #issue analysis   Too much linear thinking is hazardous to creative problem solving. To be creative, you should approach the problem (or the opportunity) from different points of view. You should leave a thought hanging in mid-air and move to another. This skipping around prevents premature closure and lets your brain incubate one line of thought while you consciously pursue another.

Working in any group can lead to unconscious elements of groupthink or situations in which you may not wish to be entirely honest. Disagreeing with the opinions of the executive team or wishing to save the feelings of a coworker can be tricky to navigate, but being honest is absolutely vital when to comes to developing effective solutions and ensuring your voice is heard. 

Remember that being honest does not mean being brutally candid. You can deliver your honest feedback and opinions thoughtfully and without creating friction by using other skills such as emotional intelligence. 

Explore your Values   #hyperisland   #skills   #values   #remote-friendly   Your Values is an exercise for participants to explore what their most important values are. It’s done in an intuitive and rapid way to encourage participants to follow their intuitive feeling rather than over-thinking and finding the “correct” values. It is a good exercise to use to initiate reflection and dialogue around personal values.

Initiative 

The problem solving process is multi-faceted and requires different approaches at certain points of the process. Taking initiative to bring problems to the attention of the team, collect data or lead the solution creating process is always valuable. You might even roadtest your own small scale solutions or brainstorm before a session. Taking initiative is particularly effective if you have good deal of knowledge in that area or have ownership of a particular project and want to get things kickstarted.

That said, be sure to remember to honor the process and work in service of the team. If you are asked to own one part of the problem solving process and you don’t complete that task because your initiative leads you to work on something else, that’s not an effective method of solving business challenges.

15% Solutions   #action   #liberating structures   #remote-friendly   You can reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.  15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.  With a very simple question, you can flip the conversation to what can be done and find solutions to big problems that are often distributed widely in places not known in advance. Shifting a few grains of sand may trigger a landslide and change the whole landscape.

Impartiality

A particularly useful problem solving skill for product owners or managers is the ability to remain impartial throughout much of the process. In practice, this means treating all points of view and ideas brought forward in a meeting equally and ensuring that your own areas of interest or ownership are not favored over others. 

There may be a stage in the process where a decision maker has to weigh the cost and ROI of possible solutions against the company roadmap though even then, ensuring that the decision made is based on merit and not personal opinion. 

Empathy map   #frame insights   #create   #design   #issue analysis   An empathy map is a tool to help a design team to empathize with the people they are designing for. You can make an empathy map for a group of people or for a persona. To be used after doing personas when more insights are needed.

Being a good leader means getting a team aligned, energized and focused around a common goal. In the problem solving process, strong leadership helps ensure that the process is efficient, that any conflicts are resolved and that a team is managed in the direction of success.

It’s common for managers or executives to assume this role in a problem solving workshop, though it’s important that the leader maintains impartiality and does not bulldoze the group in a particular direction. Remember that good leadership means working in service of the purpose and team and ensuring the workshop is a safe space for employees of any level to contribute. Take a look at our leadership games and activities post for more exercises and methods to help improve leadership in your organization.

Leadership Pizza   #leadership   #team   #remote-friendly   This leadership development activity offers a self-assessment framework for people to first identify what skills, attributes and attitudes they find important for effective leadership, and then assess their own development and initiate goal setting.

In the context of problem solving, mediation is important in keeping a team engaged, happy and free of conflict. When leading or facilitating a problem solving workshop, you are likely to run into differences of opinion. Depending on the nature of the problem, certain issues may be brought up that are emotive in nature. 

Being an effective mediator means helping those people on either side of such a divide are heard, listen to one another and encouraged to find common ground and a resolution. Mediating skills are useful for leaders and managers in many situations and the problem solving process is no different.

Conflict Responses   #hyperisland   #team   #issue resolution   A workshop for a team to reflect on past conflicts, and use them to generate guidelines for effective conflict handling. The workshop uses the Thomas-Killman model of conflict responses to frame a reflective discussion. Use it to open up a discussion around conflict with a team.

Planning 

Solving organizational problems is much more effective when following a process or problem solving model. Planning skills are vital in order to structure, deliver and follow-through on a problem solving workshop and ensure your solutions are intelligently deployed.

Planning skills include the ability to organize tasks and a team, plan and design the process and take into account any potential challenges. Taking the time to plan carefully can save time and frustration later in the process and is valuable for ensuring a team is positioned for success.

3 Action Steps   #hyperisland   #action   #remote-friendly   This is a small-scale strategic planning session that helps groups and individuals to take action toward a desired change. It is often used at the end of a workshop or programme. The group discusses and agrees on a vision, then creates some action steps that will lead them towards that vision. The scope of the challenge is also defined, through discussion of the helpful and harmful factors influencing the group.

Prioritization

As organisations grow, the scale and variation of problems they face multiplies. Your team or is likely to face numerous challenges in different areas and so having the skills to analyze and prioritize becomes very important, particularly for those in leadership roles.

A thorough problem solving process is likely to deliver multiple solutions and you may have several different problems you wish to solve simultaneously. Prioritization is the ability to measure the importance, value, and effectiveness of those possible solutions and choose which to enact and in what order. The process of prioritization is integral in ensuring the biggest challenges are addressed with the most impactful solutions.

Impact and Effort Matrix   #gamestorming   #decision making   #action   #remote-friendly   In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Categorizing ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

Project management

Some problem solving skills are utilized in a workshop or ideation phases, while others come in useful when it comes to decision making. Overseeing an entire problem solving process and ensuring its success requires strong project management skills. 

While project management incorporates many of the other skills listed here, it is important to note the distinction of considering all of the factors of a project and managing them successfully. Being able to negotiate with stakeholders, manage tasks, time and people, consider costs and ROI, and tie everything together is massively helpful when going through the problem solving process. 

Record keeping

Working out meaningful solutions to organizational challenges is only one part of the process.  Thoughtfully documenting and keeping records of each problem solving step for future consultation is important in ensuring efficiency and meaningful change. 

For example, some problems may be lower priority than others but can be revisited in the future. If the team has ideated on solutions and found some are not up to the task, record those so you can rule them out and avoiding repeating work. Keeping records of the process also helps you improve and refine your problem solving model next time around!

Personal Kanban   #gamestorming   #action   #agile   #project planning   Personal Kanban is a tool for organizing your work to be more efficient and productive. It is based on agile methods and principles.

Research skills

Conducting research to support both the identification of problems and the development of appropriate solutions is important for an effective process. Knowing where to go to collect research, how to conduct research efficiently, and identifying pieces of research are relevant are all things a good researcher can do well. 

In larger groups, not everyone has to demonstrate this ability in order for a problem solving workshop to be effective. That said, having people with research skills involved in the process, particularly if they have existing area knowledge, can help ensure the solutions that are developed with data that supports their intention. Remember that being able to deliver the results of research efficiently and in a way the team can easily understand is also important. The best data in the world is only as effective as how it is delivered and interpreted.

Customer experience map   #ideation   #concepts   #research   #design   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   Customer experience mapping is a method of documenting and visualizing the experience a customer has as they use the product or service. It also maps out their responses to their experiences. To be used when there is a solution (even in a conceptual stage) that can be analyzed.

Risk management

Managing risk is an often overlooked part of the problem solving process. Solutions are often developed with the intention of reducing exposure to risk or solving issues that create risk but sometimes, great solutions are more experimental in nature and as such, deploying them needs to be carefully considered. 

Managing risk means acknowledging that there may be risks associated with more out of the box solutions or trying new things, but that this must be measured against the possible benefits and other organizational factors. 

Be informed, get the right data and stakeholders in the room and you can appropriately factor risk into your decision making process. 

Decisions, Decisions…   #communication   #decision making   #thiagi   #action   #issue analysis   When it comes to decision-making, why are some of us more prone to take risks while others are risk-averse? One explanation might be the way the decision and options were presented.  This exercise, based on Kahneman and Tversky’s classic study , illustrates how the framing effect influences our judgement and our ability to make decisions . The participants are divided into two groups. Both groups are presented with the same problem and two alternative programs for solving them. The two programs both have the same consequences but are presented differently. The debriefing discussion examines how the framing of the program impacted the participant’s decision.

Team-building 

No single person is as good at problem solving as a team. Building an effective team and helping them come together around a common purpose is one of the most important problem solving skills, doubly so for leaders. By bringing a team together and helping them work efficiently, you pave the way for team ownership of a problem and the development of effective solutions. 

In a problem solving workshop, it can be tempting to jump right into the deep end, though taking the time to break the ice, energize the team and align them with a game or exercise will pay off over the course of the day.

Remember that you will likely go through the problem solving process multiple times over an organization’s lifespan and building a strong team culture will make future problem solving more effective. It’s also great to work with people you know, trust and have fun with. Working on team building in and out of the problem solving process is a hallmark of successful teams that can work together to solve business problems.

9 Dimensions Team Building Activity   #ice breaker   #teambuilding   #team   #remote-friendly   9 Dimensions is a powerful activity designed to build relationships and trust among team members. There are 2 variations of this icebreaker. The first version is for teams who want to get to know each other better. The second version is for teams who want to explore how they are working together as a team.

Time management 

The problem solving process is designed to lead a team from identifying a problem through to delivering a solution and evaluating its effectiveness. Without effective time management skills or timeboxing of tasks, it can be easy for a team to get bogged down or be inefficient.

By using a problem solving model and carefully designing your workshop, you can allocate time efficiently and trust that the process will deliver the results you need in a good timeframe.

Time management also comes into play when it comes to rolling out solutions, particularly those that are experimental in nature. Having a clear timeframe for implementing and evaluating solutions is vital for ensuring their success and being able to pivot if necessary.

Improving your skills at problem solving is often a career-long pursuit though there are methods you can use to make the learning process more efficient and to supercharge your problem solving skillset.

Remember that the skills you need to be a great problem solver have a large overlap with those skills you need to be effective in any role. Investing time and effort to develop your active listening or critical thinking skills is valuable in any context. Here are 7 ways to improve your problem solving skills.

Share best practices

Remember that your team is an excellent source of skills, wisdom, and techniques and that you should all take advantage of one another where possible. Best practices that one team has for solving problems, conducting research or making decisions should be shared across the organization. If you have in-house staff that have done active listening training or are data analysis pros, have them lead a training session. 

Your team is one of your best resources. Create space and internal processes for the sharing of skills so that you can all grow together. 

Ask for help and attend training

Once you’ve figured out you have a skills gap, the next step is to take action to fill that skills gap. That might be by asking your superior for training or coaching, or liaising with team members with that skill set. You might even attend specialized training for certain skills – active listening or critical thinking, for example, are business-critical skills that are regularly offered as part of a training scheme.

Whatever method you choose, remember that taking action of some description is necessary for growth. Whether that means practicing, getting help, attending training or doing some background reading, taking active steps to improve your skills is the way to go.

Learn a process 

Problem solving can be complicated, particularly when attempting to solve large problems for the first time. Using a problem solving process helps give structure to your problem solving efforts and focus on creating outcomes, rather than worrying about the format. 

Tools such as the seven-step problem solving process above are effective because not only do they feature steps that will help a team solve problems, they also develop skills along the way. Each step asks for people to engage with the process using different skills and in doing so, helps the team learn and grow together. Group processes of varying complexity and purpose can also be found in the SessionLab library of facilitation techniques . Using a tried and tested process and really help ease the learning curve for both those leading such a process, as well as those undergoing the purpose.

Effective teams make decisions about where they should and shouldn’t expend additional effort. By using a problem solving process, you can focus on the things that matter, rather than stumbling towards a solution haphazardly. 

Create a feedback loop

Some skills gaps are more obvious than others. It’s possible that your perception of your active listening skills differs from those of your colleagues. 

It’s valuable to create a system where team members can provide feedback in an ordered and friendly manner so they can all learn from one another. Only by identifying areas of improvement can you then work to improve them. 

Remember that feedback systems require oversight and consideration so that they don’t turn into a place to complain about colleagues. Design the system intelligently so that you encourage the creation of learning opportunities, rather than encouraging people to list their pet peeves.

While practice might not make perfect, it does make the problem solving process easier. If you are having trouble with critical thinking, don’t shy away from doing it. Get involved where you can and stretch those muscles as regularly as possible. 

Problem solving skills come more naturally to some than to others and that’s okay. Take opportunities to get involved and see where you can practice your skills in situations outside of a workshop context. Try collaborating in other circumstances at work or conduct data analysis on your own projects. You can often develop those skills you need for problem solving simply by doing them. Get involved!

Use expert exercises and methods

Learn from the best. Our library of 700+ facilitation techniques is full of activities and methods that help develop the skills you need to be an effective problem solver. Check out our templates to see how to approach problem solving and other organizational challenges in a structured and intelligent manner.

There is no single approach to improving problem solving skills, but by using the techniques employed by others you can learn from their example and develop processes that have seen proven results. 

Try new ways of thinking and change your mindset

Using tried and tested exercises that you know well can help deliver results, but you do run the risk of missing out on the learning opportunities offered by new approaches. As with the problem solving process, changing your mindset can remove blockages and be used to develop your problem solving skills.

Most teams have members with mixed skill sets and specialties. Mix people from different teams and share skills and different points of view. Teach your customer support team how to use design thinking methods or help your developers with conflict resolution techniques. Try switching perspectives with facilitation techniques like Flip It! or by using new problem solving methodologies or models. Give design thinking, liberating structures or lego serious play a try if you want to try a new approach. You will find that framing problems in new ways and using existing skills in new contexts can be hugely useful for personal development and improving your skillset. It’s also a lot of fun to try new things. Give it a go!

Encountering business challenges and needing to find appropriate solutions is not unique to your organization. Lots of very smart people have developed methods, theories and approaches to help develop problem solving skills and create effective solutions. Learn from them!

Books like The Art of Thinking Clearly , Think Smarter, or Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow are great places to start, though it’s also worth looking at blogs related to organizations facing similar problems to yours, or browsing for success stories. Seeing how Dropbox massively increased growth and working backward can help you see the skills or approach you might be lacking to solve that same problem. Learning from others by reading their stories or approaches can be time-consuming but ultimately rewarding.

A tired, distracted mind is not in the best position to learn new skills. It can be tempted to burn the candle at both ends and develop problem solving skills outside of work. Absolutely use your time effectively and take opportunities for self-improvement, though remember that rest is hugely important and that without letting your brain rest, you cannot be at your most effective. 

Creating distance between yourself and the problem you might be facing can also be useful. By letting an idea sit, you can find that a better one presents itself or you can develop it further. Take regular breaks when working and create a space for downtime. Remember that working smarter is preferable to working harder and that self-care is important for any effective learning or improvement process.

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what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

Over to you

Now we’ve explored some of the key problem solving skills and the problem solving steps necessary for an effective process, you’re ready to begin developing more effective solutions and leading problem solving workshops.

Need more inspiration? Check out our post on problem solving activities you can use when guiding a group towards a great solution in your next workshop or meeting. Have questions? Did you have a great problem solving technique you use with your team? Get in touch in the comments below. We’d love to chat!

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What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

Business team using creative problem-solving

  • 01 Feb 2022

One of the biggest hindrances to innovation is complacency—it can be more comfortable to do what you know than venture into the unknown. Business leaders can overcome this barrier by mobilizing creative team members and providing space to innovate.

There are several tools you can use to encourage creativity in the workplace. Creative problem-solving is one of them, which facilitates the development of innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Here’s an overview of creative problem-solving and why it’s important in business.

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What Is Creative Problem-Solving?

Research is necessary when solving a problem. But there are situations where a problem’s specific cause is difficult to pinpoint. This can occur when there’s not enough time to narrow down the problem’s source or there are differing opinions about its root cause.

In such cases, you can use creative problem-solving , which allows you to explore potential solutions regardless of whether a problem has been defined.

Creative problem-solving is less structured than other innovation processes and encourages exploring open-ended solutions. It also focuses on developing new perspectives and fostering creativity in the workplace . Its benefits include:

  • Finding creative solutions to complex problems : User research can insufficiently illustrate a situation’s complexity. While other innovation processes rely on this information, creative problem-solving can yield solutions without it.
  • Adapting to change : Business is constantly changing, and business leaders need to adapt. Creative problem-solving helps overcome unforeseen challenges and find solutions to unconventional problems.
  • Fueling innovation and growth : In addition to solutions, creative problem-solving can spark innovative ideas that drive company growth. These ideas can lead to new product lines, services, or a modified operations structure that improves efficiency.

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Creative problem-solving is traditionally based on the following key principles :

1. Balance Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Creative problem-solving uses two primary tools to find solutions: divergence and convergence. Divergence generates ideas in response to a problem, while convergence narrows them down to a shortlist. It balances these two practices and turns ideas into concrete solutions.

2. Reframe Problems as Questions

By framing problems as questions, you shift from focusing on obstacles to solutions. This provides the freedom to brainstorm potential ideas.

3. Defer Judgment of Ideas

When brainstorming, it can be natural to reject or accept ideas right away. Yet, immediate judgments interfere with the idea generation process. Even ideas that seem implausible can turn into outstanding innovations upon further exploration and development.

4. Focus on "Yes, And" Instead of "No, But"

Using negative words like "no" discourages creative thinking. Instead, use positive language to build and maintain an environment that fosters the development of creative and innovative ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Whereas creative problem-solving facilitates developing innovative ideas through a less structured workflow, design thinking takes a far more organized approach.

Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based process that fosters the ideation and development of solutions. In the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar leverages a four-phase framework to explain design thinking.

The four stages are:

The four stages of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

  • Clarify: The clarification stage allows you to empathize with the user and identify problems. Observations and insights are informed by thorough research. Findings are then reframed as problem statements or questions.
  • Ideate: Ideation is the process of coming up with innovative ideas. The divergence of ideas involved with creative problem-solving is a major focus.
  • Develop: In the development stage, ideas evolve into experiments and tests. Ideas converge and are explored through prototyping and open critique.
  • Implement: Implementation involves continuing to test and experiment to refine the solution and encourage its adoption.

Creative problem-solving primarily operates in the ideate phase of design thinking but can be applied to others. This is because design thinking is an iterative process that moves between the stages as ideas are generated and pursued. This is normal and encouraged, as innovation requires exploring multiple ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving Tools

While there are many useful tools in the creative problem-solving process, here are three you should know:

Creating a Problem Story

One way to innovate is by creating a story about a problem to understand how it affects users and what solutions best fit their needs. Here are the steps you need to take to use this tool properly.

1. Identify a UDP

Create a problem story to identify the undesired phenomena (UDP). For example, consider a company that produces printers that overheat. In this case, the UDP is "our printers overheat."

2. Move Forward in Time

To move forward in time, ask: “Why is this a problem?” For example, minor damage could be one result of the machines overheating. In more extreme cases, printers may catch fire. Don't be afraid to create multiple problem stories if you think of more than one UDP.

3. Move Backward in Time

To move backward in time, ask: “What caused this UDP?” If you can't identify the root problem, think about what typically causes the UDP to occur. For the overheating printers, overuse could be a cause.

Following the three-step framework above helps illustrate a clear problem story:

  • The printer is overused.
  • The printer overheats.
  • The printer breaks down.

You can extend the problem story in either direction if you think of additional cause-and-effect relationships.

4. Break the Chains

By this point, you’ll have multiple UDP storylines. Take two that are similar and focus on breaking the chains connecting them. This can be accomplished through inversion or neutralization.

  • Inversion: Inversion changes the relationship between two UDPs so the cause is the same but the effect is the opposite. For example, if the UDP is "the more X happens, the more likely Y is to happen," inversion changes the equation to "the more X happens, the less likely Y is to happen." Using the printer example, inversion would consider: "What if the more a printer is used, the less likely it’s going to overheat?" Innovation requires an open mind. Just because a solution initially seems unlikely doesn't mean it can't be pursued further or spark additional ideas.
  • Neutralization: Neutralization completely eliminates the cause-and-effect relationship between X and Y. This changes the above equation to "the more or less X happens has no effect on Y." In the case of the printers, neutralization would rephrase the relationship to "the more or less a printer is used has no effect on whether it overheats."

Even if creating a problem story doesn't provide a solution, it can offer useful context to users’ problems and additional ideas to be explored. Given that divergence is one of the fundamental practices of creative problem-solving, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into each tool you use.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a tool that can be highly effective when guided by the iterative qualities of the design thinking process. It involves openly discussing and debating ideas and topics in a group setting. This facilitates idea generation and exploration as different team members consider the same concept from multiple perspectives.

Hosting brainstorming sessions can result in problems, such as groupthink or social loafing. To combat this, leverage a three-step brainstorming method involving divergence and convergence :

  • Have each group member come up with as many ideas as possible and write them down to ensure the brainstorming session is productive.
  • Continue the divergence of ideas by collectively sharing and exploring each idea as a group. The goal is to create a setting where new ideas are inspired by open discussion.
  • Begin the convergence of ideas by narrowing them down to a few explorable options. There’s no "right number of ideas." Don't be afraid to consider exploring all of them, as long as you have the resources to do so.

Alternate Worlds

The alternate worlds tool is an empathetic approach to creative problem-solving. It encourages you to consider how someone in another world would approach your situation.

For example, if you’re concerned that the printers you produce overheat and catch fire, consider how a different industry would approach the problem. How would an automotive expert solve it? How would a firefighter?

Be creative as you consider and research alternate worlds. The purpose is not to nail down a solution right away but to continue the ideation process through diverging and exploring ideas.

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Continue Developing Your Skills

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, or business leader, learning the ropes of design thinking can be an effective way to build your skills and foster creativity and innovation in any setting.

If you're ready to develop your design thinking and creative problem-solving skills, explore Design Thinking and Innovation , one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses. If you aren't sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

About the Author

How to master the seven-step problem-solving process

In this episode of the McKinsey Podcast , Simon London speaks with Charles Conn, CEO of venture-capital firm Oxford Sciences Innovation, and McKinsey senior partner Hugo Sarrazin about the complexities of different problem-solving strategies.

Podcast transcript

Simon London: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the McKinsey Podcast , with me, Simon London. What’s the number-one skill you need to succeed professionally? Salesmanship, perhaps? Or a facility with statistics? Or maybe the ability to communicate crisply and clearly? Many would argue that at the very top of the list comes problem solving: that is, the ability to think through and come up with an optimal course of action to address any complex challenge—in business, in public policy, or indeed in life.

Looked at this way, it’s no surprise that McKinsey takes problem solving very seriously, testing for it during the recruiting process and then honing it, in McKinsey consultants, through immersion in a structured seven-step method. To discuss the art of problem solving, I sat down in California with McKinsey senior partner Hugo Sarrazin and also with Charles Conn. Charles is a former McKinsey partner, entrepreneur, executive, and coauthor of the book Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything [John Wiley & Sons, 2018].

Charles and Hugo, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being here.

Hugo Sarrazin: Our pleasure.

Charles Conn: It’s terrific to be here.

Simon London: Problem solving is a really interesting piece of terminology. It could mean so many different things. I have a son who’s a teenage climber. They talk about solving problems. Climbing is problem solving. Charles, when you talk about problem solving, what are you talking about?

Charles Conn: For me, problem solving is the answer to the question “What should I do?” It’s interesting when there’s uncertainty and complexity, and when it’s meaningful because there are consequences. Your son’s climbing is a perfect example. There are consequences, and it’s complicated, and there’s uncertainty—can he make that grab? I think we can apply that same frame almost at any level. You can think about questions like “What town would I like to live in?” or “Should I put solar panels on my roof?”

You might think that’s a funny thing to apply problem solving to, but in my mind it’s not fundamentally different from business problem solving, which answers the question “What should my strategy be?” Or problem solving at the policy level: “How do we combat climate change?” “Should I support the local school bond?” I think these are all part and parcel of the same type of question, “What should I do?”

I’m a big fan of structured problem solving. By following steps, we can more clearly understand what problem it is we’re solving, what are the components of the problem that we’re solving, which components are the most important ones for us to pay attention to, which analytic techniques we should apply to those, and how we can synthesize what we’ve learned back into a compelling story. That’s all it is, at its heart.

I think sometimes when people think about seven steps, they assume that there’s a rigidity to this. That’s not it at all. It’s actually to give you the scope for creativity, which often doesn’t exist when your problem solving is muddled.

Simon London: You were just talking about the seven-step process. That’s what’s written down in the book, but it’s a very McKinsey process as well. Without getting too deep into the weeds, let’s go through the steps, one by one. You were just talking about problem definition as being a particularly important thing to get right first. That’s the first step. Hugo, tell us about that.

Hugo Sarrazin: It is surprising how often people jump past this step and make a bunch of assumptions. The most powerful thing is to step back and ask the basic questions—“What are we trying to solve? What are the constraints that exist? What are the dependencies?” Let’s make those explicit and really push the thinking and defining. At McKinsey, we spend an enormous amount of time in writing that little statement, and the statement, if you’re a logic purist, is great. You debate. “Is it an ‘or’? Is it an ‘and’? What’s the action verb?” Because all these specific words help you get to the heart of what matters.

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Simon London: So this is a concise problem statement.

Hugo Sarrazin: Yeah. It’s not like “Can we grow in Japan?” That’s interesting, but it is “What, specifically, are we trying to uncover in the growth of a product in Japan? Or a segment in Japan? Or a channel in Japan?” When you spend an enormous amount of time, in the first meeting of the different stakeholders, debating this and having different people put forward what they think the problem definition is, you realize that people have completely different views of why they’re here. That, to me, is the most important step.

Charles Conn: I would agree with that. For me, the problem context is critical. When we understand “What are the forces acting upon your decision maker? How quickly is the answer needed? With what precision is the answer needed? Are there areas that are off limits or areas where we would particularly like to find our solution? Is the decision maker open to exploring other areas?” then you not only become more efficient, and move toward what we call the critical path in problem solving, but you also make it so much more likely that you’re not going to waste your time or your decision maker’s time.

How often do especially bright young people run off with half of the idea about what the problem is and start collecting data and start building models—only to discover that they’ve really gone off half-cocked.

Hugo Sarrazin: Yeah.

Charles Conn: And in the wrong direction.

Simon London: OK. So step one—and there is a real art and a structure to it—is define the problem. Step two, Charles?

Charles Conn: My favorite step is step two, which is to use logic trees to disaggregate the problem. Every problem we’re solving has some complexity and some uncertainty in it. The only way that we can really get our team working on the problem is to take the problem apart into logical pieces.

What we find, of course, is that the way to disaggregate the problem often gives you an insight into the answer to the problem quite quickly. I love to do two or three different cuts at it, each one giving a bit of a different insight into what might be going wrong. By doing sensible disaggregations, using logic trees, we can figure out which parts of the problem we should be looking at, and we can assign those different parts to team members.

Simon London: What’s a good example of a logic tree on a sort of ratable problem?

Charles Conn: Maybe the easiest one is the classic profit tree. Almost in every business that I would take a look at, I would start with a profit or return-on-assets tree. In its simplest form, you have the components of revenue, which are price and quantity, and the components of cost, which are cost and quantity. Each of those can be broken out. Cost can be broken into variable cost and fixed cost. The components of price can be broken into what your pricing scheme is. That simple tree often provides insight into what’s going on in a business or what the difference is between that business and the competitors.

If we add the leg, which is “What’s the asset base or investment element?”—so profit divided by assets—then we can ask the question “Is the business using its investments sensibly?” whether that’s in stores or in manufacturing or in transportation assets. I hope we can see just how simple this is, even though we’re describing it in words.

When I went to work with Gordon Moore at the Moore Foundation, the problem that he asked us to look at was “How can we save Pacific salmon?” Now, that sounds like an impossible question, but it was amenable to precisely the same type of disaggregation and allowed us to organize what became a 15-year effort to improve the likelihood of good outcomes for Pacific salmon.

Simon London: Now, is there a danger that your logic tree can be impossibly large? This, I think, brings us onto the third step in the process, which is that you have to prioritize.

Charles Conn: Absolutely. The third step, which we also emphasize, along with good problem definition, is rigorous prioritization—we ask the questions “How important is this lever or this branch of the tree in the overall outcome that we seek to achieve? How much can I move that lever?” Obviously, we try and focus our efforts on ones that have a big impact on the problem and the ones that we have the ability to change. With salmon, ocean conditions turned out to be a big lever, but not one that we could adjust. We focused our attention on fish habitats and fish-harvesting practices, which were big levers that we could affect.

People spend a lot of time arguing about branches that are either not important or that none of us can change. We see it in the public square. When we deal with questions at the policy level—“Should you support the death penalty?” “How do we affect climate change?” “How can we uncover the causes and address homelessness?”—it’s even more important that we’re focusing on levers that are big and movable.

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Simon London: Let’s move swiftly on to step four. You’ve defined your problem, you disaggregate it, you prioritize where you want to analyze—what you want to really look at hard. Then you got to the work plan. Now, what does that mean in practice?

Hugo Sarrazin: Depending on what you’ve prioritized, there are many things you could do. It could be breaking the work among the team members so that people have a clear piece of the work to do. It could be defining the specific analyses that need to get done and executed, and being clear on time lines. There’s always a level-one answer, there’s a level-two answer, there’s a level-three answer. Without being too flippant, I can solve any problem during a good dinner with wine. It won’t have a whole lot of backing.

Simon London: Not going to have a lot of depth to it.

Hugo Sarrazin: No, but it may be useful as a starting point. If the stakes are not that high, that could be OK. If it’s really high stakes, you may need level three and have the whole model validated in three different ways. You need to find a work plan that reflects the level of precision, the time frame you have, and the stakeholders you need to bring along in the exercise.

Charles Conn: I love the way you’ve described that, because, again, some people think of problem solving as a linear thing, but of course what’s critical is that it’s iterative. As you say, you can solve the problem in one day or even one hour.

Charles Conn: We encourage our teams everywhere to do that. We call it the one-day answer or the one-hour answer. In work planning, we’re always iterating. Every time you see a 50-page work plan that stretches out to three months, you know it’s wrong. It will be outmoded very quickly by that learning process that you described. Iterative problem solving is a critical part of this. Sometimes, people think work planning sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s how we know what’s expected of us and when we need to deliver it and how we’re progressing toward the answer. It’s also the place where we can deal with biases. Bias is a feature of every human decision-making process. If we design our team interactions intelligently, we can avoid the worst sort of biases.

Simon London: Here we’re talking about cognitive biases primarily, right? It’s not that I’m biased against you because of your accent or something. These are the cognitive biases that behavioral sciences have shown we all carry around, things like anchoring, overoptimism—these kinds of things.

Both: Yeah.

Charles Conn: Availability bias is the one that I’m always alert to. You think you’ve seen the problem before, and therefore what’s available is your previous conception of it—and we have to be most careful about that. In any human setting, we also have to be careful about biases that are based on hierarchies, sometimes called sunflower bias. I’m sure, Hugo, with your teams, you make sure that the youngest team members speak first. Not the oldest team members, because it’s easy for people to look at who’s senior and alter their own creative approaches.

Hugo Sarrazin: It’s helpful, at that moment—if someone is asserting a point of view—to ask the question “This was true in what context?” You’re trying to apply something that worked in one context to a different one. That can be deadly if the context has changed, and that’s why organizations struggle to change. You promote all these people because they did something that worked well in the past, and then there’s a disruption in the industry, and they keep doing what got them promoted even though the context has changed.

Simon London: Right. Right.

Hugo Sarrazin: So it’s the same thing in problem solving.

Charles Conn: And it’s why diversity in our teams is so important. It’s one of the best things about the world that we’re in now. We’re likely to have people from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and national backgrounds, each of whom sees problems from a slightly different perspective. It is therefore much more likely that the team will uncover a truly creative and clever approach to problem solving.

Simon London: Let’s move on to step five. You’ve done your work plan. Now you’ve actually got to do the analysis. The thing that strikes me here is that the range of tools that we have at our disposal now, of course, is just huge, particularly with advances in computation, advanced analytics. There’s so many things that you can apply here. Just talk about the analysis stage. How do you pick the right tools?

Charles Conn: For me, the most important thing is that we start with simple heuristics and explanatory statistics before we go off and use the big-gun tools. We need to understand the shape and scope of our problem before we start applying these massive and complex analytical approaches.

Simon London: Would you agree with that?

Hugo Sarrazin: I agree. I think there are so many wonderful heuristics. You need to start there before you go deep into the modeling exercise. There’s an interesting dynamic that’s happening, though. In some cases, for some types of problems, it is even better to set yourself up to maximize your learning. Your problem-solving methodology is test and learn, test and learn, test and learn, and iterate. That is a heuristic in itself, the A/B testing that is used in many parts of the world. So that’s a problem-solving methodology. It’s nothing different. It just uses technology and feedback loops in a fast way. The other one is exploratory data analysis. When you’re dealing with a large-scale problem, and there’s so much data, I can get to the heuristics that Charles was talking about through very clever visualization of data.

You test with your data. You need to set up an environment to do so, but don’t get caught up in neural-network modeling immediately. You’re testing, you’re checking—“Is the data right? Is it sound? Does it make sense?”—before you launch too far.

Simon London: You do hear these ideas—that if you have a big enough data set and enough algorithms, they’re going to find things that you just wouldn’t have spotted, find solutions that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of. Does machine learning sort of revolutionize the problem-solving process? Or are these actually just other tools in the toolbox for structured problem solving?

Charles Conn: It can be revolutionary. There are some areas in which the pattern recognition of large data sets and good algorithms can help us see things that we otherwise couldn’t see. But I do think it’s terribly important we don’t think that this particular technique is a substitute for superb problem solving, starting with good problem definition. Many people use machine learning without understanding algorithms that themselves can have biases built into them. Just as 20 years ago, when we were doing statistical analysis, we knew that we needed good model definition, we still need a good understanding of our algorithms and really good problem definition before we launch off into big data sets and unknown algorithms.

Simon London: Step six. You’ve done your analysis.

Charles Conn: I take six and seven together, and this is the place where young problem solvers often make a mistake. They’ve got their analysis, and they assume that’s the answer, and of course it isn’t the answer. The ability to synthesize the pieces that came out of the analysis and begin to weave those into a story that helps people answer the question “What should I do?” This is back to where we started. If we can’t synthesize, and we can’t tell a story, then our decision maker can’t find the answer to “What should I do?”

Simon London: But, again, these final steps are about motivating people to action, right?

Charles Conn: Yeah.

Simon London: I am slightly torn about the nomenclature of problem solving because it’s on paper, right? Until you motivate people to action, you actually haven’t solved anything.

Charles Conn: I love this question because I think decision-making theory, without a bias to action, is a waste of time. Everything in how I approach this is to help people take action that makes the world better.

Simon London: Hence, these are absolutely critical steps. If you don’t do this well, you’ve just got a bunch of analysis.

Charles Conn: We end up in exactly the same place where we started, which is people speaking across each other, past each other in the public square, rather than actually working together, shoulder to shoulder, to crack these important problems.

Simon London: In the real world, we have a lot of uncertainty—arguably, increasing uncertainty. How do good problem solvers deal with that?

Hugo Sarrazin: At every step of the process. In the problem definition, when you’re defining the context, you need to understand those sources of uncertainty and whether they’re important or not important. It becomes important in the definition of the tree.

You need to think carefully about the branches of the tree that are more certain and less certain as you define them. They don’t have equal weight just because they’ve got equal space on the page. Then, when you’re prioritizing, your prioritization approach may put more emphasis on things that have low probability but huge impact—or, vice versa, may put a lot of priority on things that are very likely and, hopefully, have a reasonable impact. You can introduce that along the way. When you come back to the synthesis, you just need to be nuanced about what you’re understanding, the likelihood.

Often, people lack humility in the way they make their recommendations: “This is the answer.” They’re very precise, and I think we would all be well-served to say, “This is a likely answer under the following sets of conditions” and then make the level of uncertainty clearer, if that is appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’re always in the gray zone; it doesn’t mean you don’t have a point of view. It just means that you can be explicit about the certainty of your answer when you make that recommendation.

Simon London: So it sounds like there is an underlying principle: “Acknowledge and embrace the uncertainty. Don’t pretend that it isn’t there. Be very clear about what the uncertainties are up front, and then build that into every step of the process.”

Hugo Sarrazin: Every step of the process.

Simon London: Yeah. We have just walked through a particular structured methodology for problem solving. But, of course, this is not the only structured methodology for problem solving. One that is also very well-known is design thinking, which comes at things very differently. So, Hugo, I know you have worked with a lot of designers. Just give us a very quick summary. Design thinking—what is it, and how does it relate?

Hugo Sarrazin: It starts with an incredible amount of empathy for the user and uses that to define the problem. It does pause and go out in the wild and spend an enormous amount of time seeing how people interact with objects, seeing the experience they’re getting, seeing the pain points or joy—and uses that to infer and define the problem.

Simon London: Problem definition, but out in the world.

Hugo Sarrazin: With an enormous amount of empathy. There’s a huge emphasis on empathy. Traditional, more classic problem solving is you define the problem based on an understanding of the situation. This one almost presupposes that we don’t know the problem until we go see it. The second thing is you need to come up with multiple scenarios or answers or ideas or concepts, and there’s a lot of divergent thinking initially. That’s slightly different, versus the prioritization, but not for long. Eventually, you need to kind of say, “OK, I’m going to converge again.” Then you go and you bring things back to the customer and get feedback and iterate. Then you rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. There’s a lot of tactile building, along the way, of prototypes and things like that. It’s very iterative.

Simon London: So, Charles, are these complements or are these alternatives?

Charles Conn: I think they’re entirely complementary, and I think Hugo’s description is perfect. When we do problem definition well in classic problem solving, we are demonstrating the kind of empathy, at the very beginning of our problem, that design thinking asks us to approach. When we ideate—and that’s very similar to the disaggregation, prioritization, and work-planning steps—we do precisely the same thing, and often we use contrasting teams, so that we do have divergent thinking. The best teams allow divergent thinking to bump them off whatever their initial biases in problem solving are. For me, design thinking gives us a constant reminder of creativity, empathy, and the tactile nature of problem solving, but it’s absolutely complementary, not alternative.

Simon London: I think, in a world of cross-functional teams, an interesting question is do people with design-thinking backgrounds really work well together with classical problem solvers? How do you make that chemistry happen?

Hugo Sarrazin: Yeah, it is not easy when people have spent an enormous amount of time seeped in design thinking or user-centric design, whichever word you want to use. If the person who’s applying classic problem-solving methodology is very rigid and mechanical in the way they’re doing it, there could be an enormous amount of tension. If there’s not clarity in the role and not clarity in the process, I think having the two together can be, sometimes, problematic.

The second thing that happens often is that the artifacts the two methodologies try to gravitate toward can be different. Classic problem solving often gravitates toward a model; design thinking migrates toward a prototype. Rather than writing a big deck with all my supporting evidence, they’ll bring an example, a thing, and that feels different. Then you spend your time differently to achieve those two end products, so that’s another source of friction.

Now, I still think it can be an incredibly powerful thing to have the two—if there are the right people with the right mind-set, if there is a team that is explicit about the roles, if we’re clear about the kind of outcomes we are attempting to bring forward. There’s an enormous amount of collaborativeness and respect.

Simon London: But they have to respect each other’s methodology and be prepared to flex, maybe, a little bit, in how this process is going to work.

Hugo Sarrazin: Absolutely.

Simon London: The other area where, it strikes me, there could be a little bit of a different sort of friction is this whole concept of the day-one answer, which is what we were just talking about in classical problem solving. Now, you know that this is probably not going to be your final answer, but that’s how you begin to structure the problem. Whereas I would imagine your design thinkers—no, they’re going off to do their ethnographic research and get out into the field, potentially for a long time, before they come back with at least an initial hypothesis.

Want better strategies? Become a bulletproof problem solver

Want better strategies? Become a bulletproof problem solver

Hugo Sarrazin: That is a great callout, and that’s another difference. Designers typically will like to soak into the situation and avoid converging too quickly. There’s optionality and exploring different options. There’s a strong belief that keeps the solution space wide enough that you can come up with more radical ideas. If there’s a large design team or many designers on the team, and you come on Friday and say, “What’s our week-one answer?” they’re going to struggle. They’re not going to be comfortable, naturally, to give that answer. It doesn’t mean they don’t have an answer; it’s just not where they are in their thinking process.

Simon London: I think we are, sadly, out of time for today. But Charles and Hugo, thank you so much.

Charles Conn: It was a pleasure to be here, Simon.

Hugo Sarrazin: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Simon London: And thanks, as always, to you, our listeners, for tuning into this episode of the McKinsey Podcast . If you want to learn more about problem solving, you can find the book, Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything , online or order it through your local bookstore. To learn more about McKinsey, you can of course find us at McKinsey.com.

Charles Conn is CEO of Oxford Sciences Innovation and an alumnus of McKinsey’s Sydney office. Hugo Sarrazin is a senior partner in the Silicon Valley office, where Simon London, a member of McKinsey Publishing, is also based.

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Respect the worth of other people's insights

Problems continuously arise in organizational life, making problem-solving an essential skill for leaders. Leaders who are good at tackling conundrums are likely to be more effective at overcoming obstacles and guiding their teams to achieve their goals. So, what’s the secret to better problem-solving skills?

1. Understand the root cause of the problem

“Too often, people fail because they haven’t correctly defined what the problem is,” says David Ross, an international strategist, founder of consultancy Phoenix Strategic Management and author of Confronting the Storm: Regenerating Leadership and Hope in the Age of Uncertainty .

Ross explains that as teams grapple with “wicked” problems – those where there can be several root causes for why a problem exists – there can often be disagreement on the initial assumptions made. As a result, their chances of successfully solving the problem are low.

“Before commencing the process of solving the problem, it is worthwhile identifying who your key stakeholders are and talking to them about the issue,” Ross recommends. “Who could be affected by the issue? What is the problem – and why? How are people affected?”

He argues that if leaders treat people with dignity, respecting the worth of their insights, they are more likely to successfully solve problems.

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Best 5% interest savings accounts of 2024, 2. unfocus the mind.

“To solve problems, we need to commit to making time to face a problem in its full complexity, which also requires that we take back control of our thinking,” says Chris Griffiths, an expert on creativity and innovative thinking skills, founder and CEO of software provider OpenGenius, and co-author of The Focus Fix: Finding Clarity, Creativity and Resilience in an Overwhelming World .

To do this, it’s necessary to harness the power of the unfocused mind, according to Griffiths. “It might sound oxymoronic, but just like our devices, our brain needs time to recharge,” he says. “ A plethora of research has shown that daydreaming allows us to make creative connections and see abstract solutions that are not obvious when we’re engaged in direct work.”

To make use of the unfocused mind in problem solving, you must begin by getting to know the problem from all angles. “At this stage, don’t worry about actually solving the problem,” says Griffiths. “You’re simply giving your subconscious mind the information it needs to get creative with when you zone out. From here, pick a monotonous or rhythmic activity that will help you to activate the daydreaming state – that might be a walk, some doodling, or even some chores.”

Do this regularly, argues Griffiths, and you’ll soon find that flashes of inspiration and novel solutions naturally present themselves while you’re ostensibly thinking of other things. He says: “By allowing you to access the fullest creative potential of your own brain, daydreaming acts as a skeleton key for a wide range of problems.”

3. Be comfortable making judgment calls

“Admitting to not knowing the future takes courage,” says Professor Stephen Wyatt, founder and lead consultant at consultancy Corporate Rebirth and author of Antidote to the Crisis of Leadership: Opportunity in Complexity . “Leaders are worried our teams won’t respect us and our boards will lose faith in us, but what doesn’t work is drawing up plans and forecasts and holding yourself or others rigidly to them.”

Wyatt advises leaders to heighten their situational awareness – to look broadly, integrate more perspectives and be able to connect the dots. “We need to be comfortable in making judgment calls as the future is unknown,” he says. “There is no data on it. But equally, very few initiatives cannot be adjusted, refined or reviewed while in motion.”

Leaders need to stay vigilant, according to Wyatt, create the capacity of the enterprise to adapt and maintain the support of stakeholders. “The concept of the infallible leader needs to be updated,” he concludes.

4. Be prepared to fail and learn

“Organisations, and arguably society more widely, are obsessed with problems and the notion of problems,” says Steve Hearsum, founder of organizational change consultancy Edge + Stretch and author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the Bubble of the Organisational Quick Fix .

Hearsum argues that this tendency is complicated by the myth of fixability, namely the idea that all problems, however complex, have a solution. “Our need for certainty, to minimize and dampen the anxiety of ‘not knowing,’ leads us to oversimplify and ignore or filter out anything that challenges the idea that there is a solution,” he says.

Leaders need to shift their mindset to cultivate their comfort with not knowing and couple that with being OK with being wrong, sometimes, notes Hearsum. He adds: “That means developing reflexivity to understand your own beliefs and judgments, and what influences these, asking questions and experimenting.”

5. Unleash the power of empathy

Leaders must be able to communicate problems in order to find solutions to them. But they should avoid bombarding their teams with complex, technical details since these can overwhelm their people’s cognitive load, says Dr Jessica Barker MBE , author of Hacked: The Secrets Behind Cyber Attacks .

Instead, she recommends that leaders frame their messages in ways that cut through jargon and ensure that their advice is relevant, accessible and actionable. “An essential leadership skill for this is empathy,” Barker explains. “When you’re trying to build a positive culture, it is crucial to understand why people are not practicing the behaviors you want rather than trying to force that behavioral change with fear, uncertainty and doubt.”

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5 brainstorming techniques for efficient problem-solving

Executive Summary:

There are plenty of advantages that come with efficient problem-solving, such as quicker decision-making, overcoming obstacles, gaining a competitive edge, and generating business growth. So, it’s pretty clear that problem-solving is crucial for businesses, and effective brainstorming techniques are vital when it comes to achieving it.

Brainstorming is a method used by individuals or groups to generate innovative ideas or solutions for a specific issue. It encourages free thinking and unrestricted sharing of thoughts, promoting a creative and collaborative atmosphere. Yet, at the end of the day, brainstorming is only part of problem-solving; they aren’t the same thing and here are three reasons why:

  • Brainstorm focuses on generating ideas, while problem-solving involves analyzing andimplementing solutions.
  • Brainstorming is informal and spontaneous, encouraging creativity and diverse opinions, whereas problem-solving follows a systematic and structured method whereby the outcome is a solution.
  • Brainstorming produces multiple ideas, while problem-solving simply seeks one practical and effective solution.

So, as you’re probably realizing, brainstorming is only the starting point for problem-solving. During brainstorming sessions, a wide range of ideas and perspectives are generated. These ideas are then evaluated and selected during the problem-solving phase of the process. By incorporating diverse ideas, problem-solving becomes more innovative and creative, leading to more effective solutions.

To help you reach your goals for efficient problem-solving, here are five examples of brainstorming techniques that you can implement in your company:

  • Team Relay : small groups share and build on ideas to foster creativity and initiate new projects.
  • Reverse Brainstorming: generating ideas that exacerbate the problem to find unconventional, out-of-the-box solutions.
  • Focus Group: small group discussions to generate suggestions and ideas for problem-solving.
  • Crazy-8 : fast-paced brainstorming technique to generate ideas within 8 minutes. ‍
  • 1-2-4-All: individual and group idea generation to facilitate teamwork and quick idea generation.

If you run a business, you should know one thing.

You’re inevitably going to be faced with challenges. 

While no one likes to talk about when things go wrong, there’s no denying that it happens pretty regularly in the world of business. There are always going to be problems and challenges to overcome. But instead of becoming sitting ducks for these challenges, you’ll gain the upper hand if you know how to solve these problems… and how to solve them fast !

Quick problem-solving has many advantages, including quick decision-making , overcoming obstacles, a competitive edge over others , business success/growth, among many more.

That said, all the benefits look great, but there’s one underlying question: how can you solve your company’s problems fast? The answer lies in the concept of efficient brainstorming techniques .

In this article, you’ll find a step-by-step guide, telling you all you need to know about brainstorming to make problem-solving decisions more efficiently, boosting your company's success and promoting efficient teamwork .

Key concepts

What is problem-solving.

Problem-solving is a process that seeks to find solutions to problems or challenges. It includes a series of steps: 

  • Examining the problem
  • Identifying potential solutions
  • Assessing them
  • And then choosing the optimal solution

But most importantly, you should know that problem-solving follows a structured methodology . It combines critical thinking, creativity, and decision-making abilities , all to reach the goal of a straightforward solution to problems.

Now that that’s sorted, let’s talk about brainstorming .

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a method used by individuals or groups to generate multiple inventive ideas or solutions for a particular issue or subject. The whole concept is based on a cooperative effort and an approach that prompts you and your team members to think freely, articulating any thoughts you have without restriction.

This process aims to build a creative and encouraging atmosphere , where everyone within your company can expand each another's ideas to collaboratively come to creative solutions.

It takes the pressure to come up with one ultimate solution, and shares it out between everyone on the team – as they say, “a problem shared is a problem halved” and the same notion applies here!

You can skip the next section if you’re already confident in differentiating between the two concepts of brainstorming and problem-solving . However, plenty of people tend to mix the two up given their similarities. So, the next section focuses on the differences between them.

What are the differences between problem-solving and brainstorming?

There are three key differences between problem-solving and brainstorming,  but that doesn’t mean that you can’t use them in close connection. After this section, we’ll cover how the two concepts work hand-in-hand, but in order to combine them successfully, you also need to understand each of them individually .

The first difference is the focus or the objective . Aside from the fact that brainstorming is simply an initial stage within the problem-solving process, it also has a different objective. The goal of brainstorming techniques is to simply generate ideas. In this phase, there’s no evaluation of their feasibility or efficiency - the goal is simply to come up with as many ideas as possible for solving the problem in question.

Conversely, problem-solving is a more complex process. It entails the analysis of the problem, the evaluation of potential solutions, and the selection of the most suitable way to implement it. It revolves around identifying the best solution from the numerous ideas generated through the brainstorming process. The goal of problem-solving is not to generate ideas, but rather to find the ones that will solve the problem.

Another difference between the two can be found in the approach by which the process is conducted . Brainstorming adopts a more informal approach as participants are encouraged to think freely, to share ideas spontaneously , and to build on each other's suggestions. Of course, there is a need for structure, but there are no boundaries for efficient teamwork.

Then, we have the difference in the emphasis on encouraging creativity and a range of opinions , which isn’t so much the case in problem-solving. The problem-solving process adheres to a systematic and structured methodology, including problem identification, analysis, solution evaluation, and implementation. It relies on an established structure that can guarantee a solution.

The last of the three differences lies in the result — or the outcome, as we often refer to it. Brainstorming sessions produce so many ideas, as they aim to drum up as many options through different creative thinking approaches that can then be further explored. For problem-solving, you’re only looking for one practical and effective solution to the problem.

The success of a problem-solving process doesn’t just depend on how many ideas you can come up with, but rather depends on whether the identified solution is able to adequately address the issue and achieve the desired results.

If you’ve kept up this far, you’ve probably started to realize that the two can work hand-in-hand.

How can brainstorming and problem-solving be complementary for efficient teamwork?

You already know that a brainstorming session is the starting point for a problem-solving process, but that’s not all that there is to it.

You and your team members can generate various ideas, approaches, and perspectives during the brainstorming phase. This uninhibited flow of ideas helps expand everyone’s thinking and thought processes , and to explore multiple potential solutions.

Once the brainstorming phase is complete, you can transition into problem-solving mode . This is when you and your team can evaluate the ideas generated during brainstorming and select the most promising ones for further analysis and development. This evaluation ensures that the chosen ideas align with the problem at hand and are more likely to succeed.

By incorporating the diverse ideas generated during brainstorming, problem-solving becomes more creative and innovative . You and your team can explore unconventional approaches and perspectives that may only have been briefly considered during the brainstorming phase. The result? More effective and efficient solutions.

How can brainstorming help in problem-solving in teams of any size?

You might be thinking, ‘Haven’t we already gone over this?’, but the answer is, not really!

While we have explored the correlation between brainstorming and problem-solving, this section will look into the benefits of brainstorming and which ways it can be the best starting point to guarantee optimally efficient problem-solving process. Here are a few reasons as to why brainstorming is the ultimate solution for efficient problem-solving in your business.

A range of perspectives leading to a broader range of solutions

Brainstorming involves collecting input and ideas from different team members. So, the larger the team, the more diverse perspectives and experiences are likely to be offered up. This diversity can lead to a broader range of ideas and solutions as individuals approach problems from various angles .

Higher chance of unique ideas

Brainstorming encourages free thinking and is conducive to creativity. Purely down to numbers, larger teams have a higher chance of generating unique and innovative ideas. Team members' collective intelligence and creativity can result in unexpected, breakthrough solutions.

Collective intelligence and synergy

Brainstorming facilitates collaboration and encourages active participation from team members. When people come together to generate ideas, they can build on each other's suggestions, expand upon initial concepts, and create synergistic solutions. The whole team can benefit from the collective intelligence and creativity of everyone involved.

Brainstorming facilitates problem-understanding

In a larger team, different individuals bring diverse expertise and knowledge to the table, and brainstorming allows team members to share their insights and understanding of the problem, enabling a more comprehensive analysis. This broader perspective can lead to a deeper understanding of the problem and help uncover underlying factors that may have been previously overlooked.

Increased solution pool

With a larger team, there is a higher likelihood of generating a larger pool of potential solutions. Brainstorming enables the team to explore a wide range of ideas, even if some may initially seem unconventional or unlikely. A larger solution pool enhances the chances of finding an optimal and effective solution .

Increased motivation to find a solution through team accountability

When team members are actively involved in brainstorming sessions, they feel a sense of accountability and engagement to the problem-solving mission. In larger teams, more individuals have the opportunity to contribute and to be heard, leading to higher engagement levels and boosting motivation to find a solution.

Higher chances of making a decision

Brainstorming also helps in narrowing down the options and selecting the most viable solutions . Larger teams can leverage their collective wisdom and diverse perspectives to evaluate and prioritize the ideas generated during brainstorming. This collaborative decision-making process increases the likelihood of selecting the best solution for the problem.

5 brainstorming methods that can help for efficient problem-solving – and how they do it

Team Relay involves working together in small groups to share ideas. It’s just like a relay race; instead of passing on the baton, you pass and build on ideas. Everyone takes turns to put their two cents in, and the ideas continue to evolve within the group . This helps you to work with your team members and come up with lots of creative ideas.

Team Relay is best for teams of about 12 participants , and this method helps you find new ideas by bouncing off what the team says. You can identify and initiate new projects by working as a cohesive team, capitalizing on every idea collectively and elevating your thinking powe r to new heights. If you want to kick things off with the Team Relay method, the Klaxoon visual platform has a readymade template for this brainstorming technique that you can use.

Reverse Brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming is a technique where, instead of generating ideas to solve a problem, you focus on creating ideas that will make the problem worse or that will cause the problem. In other words, you’ll turn the problem upside down to define the worst-case scenario. So, how does this help solve the problem?

This excellent brainstorming tool can be used with your team at the start of a project or when you're stuck at a crossroads with a problem. It helps you t hink outside the box and unleash your imagination . Then, just like magic, the solutions will start to appear on their own! Give this tool a go, and try this template .

Focus group

A focus group is a small group of people (about 6 to 12 participants) who have been selected to meet up and talk or share ideas about a specific problem (strategic development, marketing positioning, etc.). 

This selected team works together to generate thoughts and suggestions to help solve the problem or develop new ideas. You can either conduct a qualitative survey on a concept, product, or service, or you can ask the participants to fill in this ready-to-use template .

Crazy 8 is a pretty fast-paced, dynamic technique, so we’ll try to keep up the pace and explain it concisely.

This is a unique strategy that allows you to brainstorm with your team with a key element… speed ! While some brainstorming techniques could simply waste time and drum up an excessive volume of sub-par or irrelevant ideas, this method is all about eyes on the prize, full steam ahead. 

With the Crazy 8 methodology, you can generate new ideas as a team in less than 8 minutes ! If you want to know more about this unique technique, head over to the this Klaxoon template .

As the last of the five, we are introducing you to a concept that has proven to be very effective. The 1-2-4-All method is like regular brainstorming but in several steps:

  • First, everyone thinks on their own; 
  • Then, they share their ideas in bigger groups (in pairs, then in groups of 4, and then with everyone). 

The goal is to help your team come up with ideas together. With this method, everyone can first think independently , no matter how many people are in the group. Other people can't influence their ideas or make them doubt themselves, and in this uninhibited way, the ideas pile up quickly. 

It makes it easier for both you, as the leader, and your team members, to contribute their ideas and progressively confirm their objectivity through the groups’ input. It's a relaxed and pressure-free way to get everyone involved.

Try ready-to-use brainstorming tools and resources

On the Klaxoon visual platform, we have tools that you can use with your team to lead more effective brainstorming sessions . We also provide ready-to-use templates for brainstorming that can be used in different ways for quick problem-solving.

Our visual tools are designed to promote efficient teamwork and collaboration, no matter what kind of business you have. So, if you want to boost your business, hone your problem-solving strategy, and refine your brainstorming techniques , check out our resources and see how the Klaxoon platform can help you.

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Learning Mind

What Is Creative Problem-Solving and How to Master It with These 8 Strategies

  • Post author: Kirstie Pursey
  • Post published: May 17, 2018
  • Reading time: 5 mins read
  • Post category: Brain Power / Self-Improvement / Success Skills

Often when we have a problem, we try to solve it in the same way we did before. However, some issues cannot be solved with existing ideas and solutions. In this case, we need to turn to our creative side for problem-solving strategies.

Creative problem-solving is a way of moving beyond predictable and obvious solutions to problems . When we have a creative approach to problem-solving, we expand our thinking out from what we already know about a problem, and from solutions that we have used in the past, to generate innovative and effective solutions.

Here are 8 creative problem-solving strategies you could try to bring creativity and fresh ideas to bear on any problem you might have.

1. counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactual thinking involves considering what would have happened if the events in the past had happened slightly differently. In essence, it is asking ‘what if’ questions about the past.

So for example, you might ask ‘ What would have happened if I had moved to San Francisco instead of New York ?’ This helps you to break free of current constraints and consider the paths not taken.

2. Creativity of Constraints

We often think that constraints inhibit creativity because they reduce the number of possible solutions. However, constraints can actually generate new creative ideas as we have to be more creative to overcome the limitations. For example, creating a meal for less than $5 dollars reduces the potential ingredients you can use but may encourage you to use basic ingredients in more innovative ways.

The painter Pablo Picasso used constraints in his Blue Period between 1901 and 1904 when he painted almost entirely in shades of blue and green. Within these constraints, he found new ways to represent the world in paint.

3. Brainstorming

Most of us need no introduction to brainstorming. The key element of this strategy is to remove inhibitions that normally cause people to edit their creative ideas and dismiss them before they have really had a chance to examine them. When brainstorming, the most essential feature is that no idea is too ridiculous for consideration.

4. Questioning Assumptions

We all have assumptions about just about everything. We make assumptions about what is and isn’t possible and what things can and can’t be. This strategy asks you to think about all the assumptions made about a product or idea and then to question whether these are really true. This can spark truly innovative ideas.

5. Thought Experiment

A thought experiment is when you consider in the imagination a hypothesis that cannot easily be tested. For example, Einstein’s thought experiment ‘what would happen if you chased a beam of light as it moved through space’ led to the development of his special theory of relativity.

It is not necessary for the experiment to be impossible to perform – it is just that the experiment takes place only in the mind.

6. Forced Connections

Using forced connections can create new ideas. You simply bring two objects together to create an entirely new product or concept. Examples include the sofa-bed and the Apple watch which both combined two existing products to create something new. Genres in fiction often use this approach of combining two genres to create a new one such as in historical romance or comic fantasy.

To practice this technique, simply place some random objects or a list of random objects in a bag and pull out two, then try to make connections between them and see how they could be combined to create a new idea.

Using this technique allows your imagination to run riot. Think of the most outlandish and unattainable and impractical solutions. This is the opposite of the constraints strategy, but it can also work surprisingly well.

Once you have come up with a few ‘ wishes ,’ you can try to create a solution by scaling back these ideas into something more attainable.

8. Creative Intuition

Often creative thinking happens when we least expect it and doesn’t feel like ‘thinking’ at all. This is the flash of insight that comes when we stop thinking about a problem and are doing something else that doesn’t require much conscious attention, such as taking a shower or driving.

The most famous example is Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’ moment when in a sudden flash of inspiration he worked out how to work out if the King’s crown was made entirely of gold. When he found his solution he famously cried “Eureka” from Greek heurēka meaning ‘ I have found it ‘.

So next time you are stuck on a problem, take a break and a bath.

Closing thoughts

In our modern ever-changing world, often old-style solutions simply don’t work. Practising using creative problem-solving strategies can keep you ahead in a fast-changing environment.

We’d love to hear if you rely on your creative thinking and what problem-solving strategies you use. Please share them with us in the comments below.

References :

  • wikipedia.org

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This Post Has One Comment

what is a problem solving strategy not considered to be

The simple fact is that many people try doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. Doesn’t work that way. All of these 8 ideas are well thought out and should be considered when confronted with a problem. It seems that when you solve one problem, two more come along. Life is, in some ways, a problem we all have to solve. Some resolutions work better than other. Looking for new solutions to old problems is what makes us human.

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