The Power of Directed Problem Solving

Ed Burghard“Uncertainty can lead to paralysis. And if you become indecisive you’re dead..”

— Jim Citrin
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One of the challenges to solving any problem is “analysis paralysis”, the belief that understanding all the information on a subject will enable you to make a right decision. Unfortunately, analysis paralysis more often than not simply ends up being an excuse for procrastination. And, postponing a decision is de facto deciding not to make a decision and can often lead to negative consequences.

So how do you avoid analysis paralysis?

Here is an 8-step process that will help you more quickly sort through information and get you to a data informed recommendation for action.

  1. Define the objective.
  2. Clearly define the problem to be solved. Has a similar problem ever been faced before?
  3. Make certain you are dealing with the root cause of a problem and not a resultant symptom.
  4. Obtain all relevant information.
  5. Identify possible solutions and evaluate the pros and cons of each option.
  6. Select the solution option you feel is best and create supporting arguments for why it should be selected.
  7. Take or recommend the action.
  8. Follow through and evaluate the results.

Additional Advice

You need to be familiar with the information available to help you solve a problem. Too often people assume that their problem is unique. If you do a simple Google search, you may find other organizations that have tackled similar challenges and you can learn from their experience. One of my favorite tricks is to search “[type in the subject] .ppt]. This brings up publicly available PowerPoint presentations on the subject. You will be amazed at how often you can find extensive information that will help you better understand your problem and how others have attempted to solve it.

Know and use proven effective problem-solving tools. In my experience, some of the most effective tools are taught in Total Quality Management programs. These tools cover a wide range of subjects from data analysis to risk management in decision-making. They are designed to help you wrap your mind around complex issues.

Use outlines whenever possible to help frame your thinking. A great format is a) problem definition, b) background, c) proposed solution, d) why the solution makes sense, and e) the expected impact of implementing the solution. You can use this outline as a guide for a written recommendation or a PowerPoint presentation. It is an easy way for your Manager or Board to follow your thought process.

Seek the perspective of others who may have related experience. Most problems are solved collaboratively. It is important to appreciate that your job isn’t to “invent” the solution; it is to find a solution. Using other people’s knowledge and experience is a way to ensure the proposed solution has a reasonable probability of success. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.


Problem solving can be a frightening nightmare if you try to do it alone. Probably one of the most important lessons I got in my career was to recognize the availability of other people as resources to help me solve problems. Once I embraced that concept, some of my most fun times were discussing problems over coffee with subject matter experts. They would often get a gleam in their eyes as they talked about my problem and for a few minutes took it on as their own puzzle to solve.

Consultants can be a great resource for help. But, it is also important to recognize that consultants strive to make a living from their unique expertise. Consequently, you should be respectful and never ask for free advice that leads to action. For example, don’t ask a consultant to complete an RFP if you have no real intention of following-through with an engagement. But, you can use consultant websites as a resource. Often, consultants will share case studies or white papers on a subject that can help you think through your problem. In addition, you can attend seminars or conferences where consultants are speaking on a subject that is relevant to the problem you are trying to solve. Ultimately, if you decide to hire a consultant, I find their greatest value lies in 1) helping you frame the problem, 2) facilitating use of tools to help you analyze the problem and 3) helping you see the “rocks in the stream” that are only obvious with experience.

What tips do you have on problem solving? Does the above process and advice make sense? What is your rule of thumb for when a consultant makes sense to bring in and help you solve a problem?

Please leave a comment with your thoughts.

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